Being here before will stand to Eoghan Rua
AIB Ulster Senior Club Football Championship quarter-final | Castlerahan (Cavan) v Eoghan Rua, Coleraine (Derry) (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Kingscourt)
WHEN Eoghan Rua last entered the provincial arena, Burren handed them a scalping that they haven’t forgotten since.
The 10-point loss in Páirc Esler was easily their heaviest championship defeat since they moved into senior football a decade ago, but that’s what sometimes happens when you weigh a first-time county champion against a powerhouse of Down and Ulster.
They’d spent the entire first week between beating Ballinderry and heading to Newry celebrating, whereas this time the north coast men have knuckled down quicker in a bid to carry a provincial flame that Slaughtneil, Ballinderry, Lavey, Bellaghy, Loup, Dungiven and Ballerin have all held as winners.
That contrasts with no Cavan club ever having won the title, and the bookmakers are offering 33/1 on rank outsiders Castlerahan being the ones to change that statistic.
History is not on their side when it comes to first-time county champions making the grade in Ulster.
No club has ever done it, with 2003 winners The Loup and 1995 champions Mullaghbawn the only ones to win the Seamus McFerran Cup on the first crack at it for their particular generation of players.
It is largely all in the mind. Eoghan Rua made no imprint whatsoever in 2010 because Ulster was a dot on the horizon until suddenly it was a white and green train steaming over the top of them.
It’s hard to imagine that Castlerahan’s minds will have been thinking any differently in the past few years, months and weeks.
They’re a fortnight now since they came from six down against the coming force of Crosserlough to “get ours”, as skipper Ronan Flanagan put it afterwards.
After three consecutive county final defeats, it was overdue. Twelve of them had played in the 2011 decider when Cavan Gaels thumped them, and for many of them this was the sixth county final appearances (including one replay).
There aren’t many first-time champions that would head into Ulster with that amount of big-game experience beneath them. And dotted throughout their ranks are a host of current or former Cavan players.
On top of that, Brian Ennis captained his native Summerhill to the Meath SFC in 2013, while Shane McSweeney’s second stint with the club having transferred back up this year from his native Laune Rangers, where he too is a former captain.
The Cavan champions finally reached their holy grail by virtue of abandoning some ultra-defensive traits and starting to attack the game again.
Take their semi-final as the prime example. Having played most of the year on the front foot, they found themselves two up against Lavey with time running out. They fell back into their old ways, sitting back to protect it and they ended up lucky to get a replay.
Castlerahan didn’t get bitten a second time. They tore into Lavey in the replay, hitting 1-18 of their 1-19 from play. Retuning their instincts paid off when they were in deep trouble in the final.
Within, there are some exciting attacking talents. Cian Mackey plays a similar deep-dropping playmaking role to the one he does for Cavan, but they have a mixture of craft and pace up front.
Ronan Flanagan played the Cavan final as a sweeper as they went two inside, but he’s played much of the year at full-forward as part of a three alongside the equally experienced Sean Brady and the whippet Oisin O’Connell.
They may try and impose themselves on Eoghan Rua by going three up, but as the Coleraine men showed in their two games with Slaughtneil, they don’t really mind so much what way it’s played.
For a few years they were in a similar trap, regarded as too defensive and ineffective on the counter to ever achieve the second championship their golden generation deserved.
But when Slaughtneil were 0-7 to 0-1 up in the replay, the two sides kept slugging. It was man-to-man, attacking football and Sean McGoldrick’s side got the better of it to dethrone the Ulster champions.
In itself that will make teams wary of them, and so Castlerahan may go for the safe option of Flanagan as a sweeper. His namesake Enda was superb in the county final, wearing seven but playing in attack.
Niall Holly’s battle with the similarly boundless David Wright will have a big bearing on it, while Castlerahan getting their defensive match-ups right will also be crucial.
Donal Keogan will need to juggle his pieces, with corner-back Stephen Cooney perhaps best suited to marking Colm McGoldrick. Fergal Reilly may be the man for Ciaran McGoldrick, given that Enda O’Connell might be suited to the Mackey-esque Sean Leo McGoldrick.
At the other end, county final goalscorer Barry Daly could have a big defensive job against Oisin O’Connell, given that Ciaran Mullan and Liam McGoldrick are suited to the physical make-up of veterans Flanagan and Brady.
If the two sides played a nothing game in June when it would just be sheer talent, you wouldn’t want to call a winner.
But Eoghan Rua - who are staying in Armagh tonight in a bid to break up the restrictive journey to Kingscourt - will have had eyes on this from a little bit further out and, as history tells us, that’s often the difference in Ulster. Coleraine by four.