GAA Football

Cavan bridged Ulster Final gap but dropped through League trap-door

Cavan reached their first Ulster SFC Final for 18 years this summer - but were well-beaten by Donegal.
Picture Philip Walsh

Story of the Season

EIGHTEEN years, eighteen years… Words which were a lament in Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ could have become a chant of triumph for Cavan.

They’d waited that long to beat arch-rivals Monaghan in senior Championship and also to reach the Ulster SFC Final, both feats achieved this summer.

The warm glows from those memories, and the Ulster SFC tussles against Armagh, will surely blind many to the downsides – relegation straight back down from the top flight again, and crashing out of the Championship with a 16-point hammering from Tyrone.

Still, at the start of the year if you’d offered Cavan people a win over blooming Roscommon and a Championship victory over Monaghan they’d have snapped your hand off – and hugged you.

Add on an Ulster Final appearance and 2019 was even better than expected, perhaps than even hoped.

The sense was of corners turned, monkeys off back, heading in the right direction despite some ups and downs. In the League, besides that trouncing of the nemeses Rossies, there were decent displays against Galway, Kerry, Mayo, and Dublin, suggesting that the Breffni Blues can consider themselves unfortunate to have been demoted.

And yet…

Something similar could have been said about the 2017 Division One campaign, which included a win in Mayo and draws with Monaghan and Kerry.

Compared to last year, the Championship defeats were also by Donegal and Tyrone, with the latter only by a three-point margin, while the Breffnimen scored a much more respectable 1-12 on that occasion.

So for all the hope and hype engendered by this year, Cavan must look back on 2019 as a stepping stone, not a landmark season.

They can do better.

They must do better.

The tale of the team was one of re-integration rather than revolution. The only full debutants against Monaghan were Conor Rehill and Conor Brady, although Thomas Galligan also made his first Championship start.

The new boss definitely brought a fresh, positive feeling though.

Stats don’t tell all the story, and there was definitely more buzz and brio about Cavan this year.

Guts too. Previous Cavan teams would probably have dropped the heads when they went a man down on the hour against Armagh, having earlier lost full-back Padraig Faulkner to a black card, but this side is made of sterner stuff. Their defiance against a Monaghan rally showed that too.

Graham seemed to take Cavan’s poor recent record in Ulster as a personal affront. Indeed right from the throw-in of their Ulster campaign Cavan showed that they were finally going to deliver something on the senior stage to vindicate all the talk about their triumphant four-in-a-row U21 teams from the start of the decade.

A first provincial final for 18 years, ending the longest wait of all the Ulster counties, was hard-earned, taking in three matches including extra time and a replay against an Armagh outfit also desperate to reach that stage.

Donegal were too tough a mountain to climb, but even then, when the Tir Chonaill men seemed to have moved out of sight, Cavan kept going and netted a couple of late goals to put some respectability on the scoreboard – and give their supporters something (more) to cheer about.

The hammering by Tyrone was partly a consequence of that loss to Donegal; like many teams, Cavan found it difficult to lift themselves in the qualifiers after a provincial final defeat.

Yet there’s no doubt that their 2020 vision can be a bright one after this season.

What They Need

Strange as it may seem to say this of Cavan, but they have to be better defensively, especially in Championship matches. `Ah, but take the Tyrone score out of that…’, you may say – OK, let’s do that, and still Cavan conceded an average of more than 18 points per game (2-67 to be precise). Only against Monaghan did they display sufficient defensive soundness for the top level, holding their neighbours to 0-12, although the Farneymen never really clicked into gear this summer.

Otherwise, Cavan conceded 1-14 and 0-17 against Armagh, 1-24 against Donegal, and 1-20 against Tyrone.

The Breffnimen appear to have the basis of a very good defence, with quality backs such as Padraig Faulkner, Jason McLaughlin, Killian Clarke, and Conor Moynagh, but there might be a need to return a little closer to the system deployed under Terry Hyland, getting plenty of bodies behind the ball when not in possession.

Another element is for better performances at the other end of the pitch, making the ball stick and stay up there for longer – and go over the bar, obviously.

Their scoring return did appear to improve, but arguably it ended up around a remarkably similar level to the previous season when the weaker opposition of Wicklow is excluded: 16.6 this year, 16.67 in 2018.

It’s long been the case that a higher total than that is needed to win most major matches, so Cavan must hope that the likes of Conor Madden and Stephen Murray can step up to be regular scorers to augment the contributions of Dara McVeety, Gearoid McKiernan, and Martin Reilly. The younger two of those last three will have to be available for most matches, while attacker Caoimhin O’Reilly must also hope for an injury-free run to finally show-case his talents.

One other thing Cavan need is a rapid return to Division One. Only those counties which regularly compete at that level can confidently anticipate winning Championship silverware.

They’ll probably still need to beat at least one of Donegal and Tyrone in order to win only their second Ulster title inside more than half-a-century but Graham can improve this collective further and bring them closer to Ulster’s top two.

Manager Status

Mickey Graham is safer than houses, having lifted Breffni spirits with a more positive style of play, which contributed largely to their best run in Ulster since 2001.

He’ll be given time to keep improving, although he’ll be expected to have them in the mix for promotion from Division Two next year.

Twisted rather than sticking ahead of throw-in in the Ulster Final and the gamble of sending out a more defensive line-up, with Ciaran Brady and Gerard Smith as the nominal corner-forwards, failed to pay off. Only when he went very bold, adding Stephen Murray, Cian Mackey, Conor Madden, Thomas Galligan, Caoimhin O’Reilly, and Jack Brady to the mix did they truly trouble the Donegal defence

Mr Consistency

The choice comes down to two players who got the same cumulative total in our ratings - Gearoid McKiernan and Dara McVeety – although Killian Clarke and Padraig Faulkner weren’t far off them.

Both Mcs can be exceptional, but perhaps it's a back-handed tribute to McVeety that at times he was almost blotted out of games, with the opposition recognising his quality and importance and taking action to restrict him.

McKiernan offers a threat from midfield up to the full-forward line, and his greater physical presence makes him harder to knock off the ball whilst also contributing to his ball-winning ability.

The big Swanlinbar man stood tall in the Ulster Final, scoring six points, three of them from play; like all his colleagues, ran out of steam against Tyrone.

End of the Line

The crooked finger obviously points towards (or is it away from?) Cian Mackey, who has been on the senior inter-county scene since 2005. The Castlerahan clubman was deemed good enough to start against Tyrone, though, having come off the bench to good effect in the four Ulster games.

The versatile Martin Reilly is also 32, as is Raymond Galligan, but the former was one of Cavan’s best performers this year, while goalkeepers can go on longer than outfielders.

Age isn’t going to be a factor for any of Cavan’s other regular starters this season, with an average age of 25 (excluding the ‘keeper) for the Ulster Final starting side. Nor was there anyone whose form was so sub-standard that they’re unlikely to be called upon again for the 2020 campaign.

The New Breed

Cavan have already brought through the Oisins, Kiernan and Pierson, and from their 2017 Minor (U18) team which reached that year’s Ulster Final and All-Ireland semi-final, losing to Derry and Kerry respectively. Others from that side who may be putting themselves forward next season are, happily for the Breffnimen, mostly attackers too.

James Smith is a midfielder with an eye for a score, who was called up to the senior squad this summer, while his Crosserlough club-mate Patrick Lynch is a reliable scorer, although he is eligible for the U20 grade again next year. Attackers also seeking to step up include Philip Rogers of Knockbride, Drung’s Tiernan Reilly, and Cian Madden of Gowna.

At the back, Graham will know all about his Cavan Gaels club-mate Evan Fortune, although the U20 full-back may have to bide his time on the senior scene given the defensive options already available to him.

Number

22

The number of years since Cavan have added to their Ulster SFC tally; that controversial victory in 1997 was their first since 1969, so the Breffnimen are long overdue success on the provincial scene.

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