Cavan return to Ulster final conjures up legends of yesteryear but Donegal should reign supreme in Clones classic
Ulster Senior Football Championship final: Donegal v Cavan (tomorrow, Clones, 2pm, live on BBC/RTE)
THE passion for football in Cavan can take blow-ins by surprise because the county’s glorious past is history now.
The last of the five All-Irelands arrived in 1952, the most recent of their record 39 Ulster titles was captured in 1997 and the one before that was won in 1969.
But for natives the mystique of the famous wins in Croke Park and New York’s Polo Grounds endures and the legacy left behind by Breffni greats like Mick Higgins and John Joe O’Reilly lives on.
Despite the lack of recent success, football is still more important than food in some parts of the Breffni county and Cavan's return to the Ulster final has conjured up all the legends of yesteryear.
“They’re obsessed with it,” one relatively new resident of the county explained with a shrug of his shoulders, “Absolutely obsessed with it.”
There’s nothing wrong with that obviously and tomorrow morning the Breffni army will travel up from Killashandra and Gowna, Shercock and Ballyjamesduff in the firm belief that they can end their 22-year drought and shake up Ulster’s football world.
They’ll be welcomed back to Clones for a provincial showpiece that could provide a fitting finale to the most entertaining and competitive Ulster Championship we’ve had in years.
The men, women, boys and girls from the hills will be out in force too of course and Fermanagh Street and Church Hill will be thronged with a sea of blue and white and yellow and green before the game and the atmosphere in St Tiernach's Park should be electric as this drama unfolds.
Cavan have taken the harder road to this final. First they had to get past neighbours and bitter rivals Monaghan and they did so by grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck from the first whistle and racing into an early lead.
The Farneymen could not reel them in and in the semi-final Cavan recovered from looking down the barrel of defeat against Armagh. Three points behind and with Ciaran Brady sent off, canny manager Mickey Graham remained calm and plucked little-known forward Stephen Murray and nerveless veteran Cian Mackey from his bench. Between them they got their team back into the game and registered the scores that saw the Breffnimen claim a draw.
Armagh had chances again in the replay but, ultimately, Cavan wanted it more and their stunning conversion rate killed off the Orchardmen as they ran out six-point winners.
Now they are back in the Ulster final determined to start a new chapter in their county’s history. Former Cavan player Graham admits that his side’s progress has been a surprise even to him.
“It's a hard one to put a finger on,” said the Breffni county manager.
“Sometimes people will tell you it's the new manager syndrome, others say it's just new ideas that the players have bought into, but I definitely wouldn't have seen us getting so far this soon.
“You thought it might take you 12 or 18 months before you could see a pattern or where you wanted to go with the players. To get to where we are so soon is great, but it's a credit to the players.
“They've really bought into what we wanted them to do and they've adapted very quickly.”
Graham will have worked on shoring up the middle of his defence over the last fortnight because Armagh created six very presentable goal opportunities over the two games. They took just one and Donegal won’t be so wasteful tomorrow.
“The way both teams play their football, this has the makings of a good final,” said Tir Chonaill manager Declan Bonner.
“Anyone of five or six counties could have won it, I said that at the start, so we have to get our performance right.”
The counties met in the Ulster preliminary round last year. Before the game Mattie McGleenan (who was replaced by Graham in the summer) spoke inspirationally about Cavan’s chances but they came in a distant second at Ballybofey. Bonner says Graham has “galvanised” the players and, 12 months on, they are a much more formidable group.
“Cavan really do come to life come Championship time and there’s a really proud tradition of football in Cavan,” added Bonner.
“Mickey has galvanised that group and the way they're playing football is a joy to watch. They do go for it when they see opportunities and they have leaders.”
The Breffnimen had five All-Irelands and 38 Ulster titles in the bag before Donegal won their first Anglo-Celt Cup in 1972. Since then they have added eight more including four in the last eight years and they go into tomorrow’s clash as the defending champions and odds-on favourites.
On their way to this final, Donegal had to hold their nerve and keep their shape to get past a Fermanagh side that tried to bore them into submission at the quarter-final stage. Once they figured out Rory Gallagher’s system they picked off the Ernemen and progressed with a comfortable six-point victory.
And they were just too good for Tyrone in the semi-finals. The Red Hands tried to blast them out with high balls to their full-forwards but Donegal negated that tactic and then broke them down with power, pace and skill.
These Donegal players are footballing athletes and, from Shaun Patton’s accurate kick-outs to Jamie Brennan’s devastating finishing, Tyrone simply had no answer to them.
Cavan will be a more dynamic test and there is a spirit and resilience about them that augurs well for this contest. In Dara McVeety and Gearoid McKiernan they have potential match-winners and there is a solid supporting cast who are used to success at U21 and minor level.
Most neutrals will be rooting for Cavan but Donegal are favourites and rightly so. Cavan’s time may be coming but not tomorrow and Donegal get the nod to win this by three points.