GAA Football

"It's always next year, next year, next year, but you can't be saying that" - Cavan boss Mickey Graham

Cavan boss Mickey Graham. Picture by Philip Walsh

WHEN Mickey Graham came off the bench in the dying minutes of the 1997 Ulster final, he was one of the young breed that propelled Cavan to the next level.

It was his second year on the senior panel, which had been infused with talent from the previous year's Ulster U21 winning side.

In that '97 win over Derry, Dermot McCabe was man-of-the-match. Larry Reilly tormented the Derry full-back line. Peter Reilly scored three frees. Terry Farrelly had an excellent second half.

All four of them were straight off the U21 success, while Jason O'Reilly was only 20 when he came off the bench to score the crucial goal in St Tiernach's Park.

The youth made an immediate difference to the fortunes of the senior side, and the likes of Anthony Forde would later push on in during a competitive spell that did only bring one more Ulster final appearance in 2001.

The long-term return on that U21 success depends on how you view success. That team gave the county a generation of its best players. They just weren't strong enough around the fringes to make best use of them.

Progress stalled, but considering it was a solitary under-21 team, it wasn't a bad return to have nipped in through the open door while Derry, Donegal and Down all aged, and Tyrone and Armagh fermented.

Hope was restored at the start of this decade. There are few trophy runs by any county that are referenced quite as often as Cavan's four Ulster U21 titles between 2011 and 2014.

But somewhere along the way since, the graph's upward trajectory tailed off. Hard to believe now that those who won the first of them – Gearoid McKiernan, Niall Murray, Jack Brady – will be 29 this summer.

Even the youngest troupe from 2014, like Killian Clarke, Padraig Faulkner, Michael Argue, Dara McVeety, will all be 26 this year.

“There was a bit of momentum at that time but definitely, it's fizzled out over a number of years,” admits Graham.

“Cavan haven't pushed on from that U21 success. You've seen that in many other counties before.

“History shows in any county, underage success doesn't guarantee senior success for various reasons. Fellas just get fed up and stop playing, they just don't have the commitment for it and leave.

“While they get quality players coming through, some of them just aren't able to step up to the next level. While Cavan have got a number of players through, they also lost a number of players as well. It definitely fizzled out.”

Coming up against a Monaghan side at an unusual peak twice in three years – losing first by a point and then a late Conor McManus goal – hasn't aided them, nor has letting slip a chance to overcome Tyrone in 2016 before taking a thumping in the replay.

The statement victory they've been chasing has narrowly eluded them. And yet the inescapable black-and-white of it is that their three championship wins this decade is level with Derry's record as the joint-second-worst in the province, ahead of Antrim.

“Jesus, that's a worrying stat,” admits Graham.

“Where Cavan would've prided themselves on the Ulster Championship, traditionally that was always Cavan's goal. Three games in ten years tells its own story, unfortunately.

“It's been going on for the last 22 years, since Cavan last won the Ulster Championship in '97. Every year, ‘this is Cavan's year', but it hasn't happened.

“Talk is cheap. You have to go out and do it. Cavan have come up short in the last 22 years, every year.

“It's always next year, next year, next year, but you can't be saying that. It has to happen on the day and that hasn't been the case.

“We're not looking saying there's a plan in place for the next three years – we're going out trying to make things happen as quick as possible.

“A lot of these lads have been around the block a number of years and before they know it, their time will be gone.

“They need to grab a hold of the opportunity when it comes along, and they'll have to do it very quickly because before they know it, their inter-county careers will be coming to an end and the golden period that Cavan thought was going to be will have passed by.”

The spring saw them drop out of Division One for the second time in three years, and the biggest issue was the same one that has undermined them for a generation.

Removing the outlier of their win over Roscommon, they averaged just 11 points per game.

That's a tally that has been enough to win just five Ulster SFC games this century.

Conor Madden has become the attack's focal point, and Gearoid McKiernan's absence during the league was significant in that regard, but it's an issue that just continues to hang over them.

“It is, and we would be well aware of that,” said Graham.

“While we were averaging 11 points in Division One, we were averaging 16 or 17 wides per game.

“That's a lack of composure, wrong shot selection, various things. We dropped a lot of balls short and it cost us in a lot of games.

“When you look back at it, we were losing games by two, three, four points and the wides tally was away up. If you could half that, or even get quarter of it off, the results would have been a lot different.

“While we're only averaging 11 scores a game, we were creating lots of chances. We just weren't taking them when they came along.

“We have a lot of new lads in the forward line this year, younger lads getting game-time, so there's probably a wee bit of nerves in it as well.

“We'd have tried different lads out at different times, and it's fellas maybe realising they don't get as much time on the ball as they do in club football and forcing it a wee bit. You'd hope they're learning from that.

“It's something that cost us in the long run in Division One, that's the reality of it. If we don't correct it moving forward, it could cost us again.”

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