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After promotion Cavan should be setting sights on Ulster glory

Cian Mackey is the man that makes Cavan tick
Brendan Crossan, The Boot Room

AFTER Cavan had edged out Down in their National League fixture a couple of weeks ago, I asked Mattie McGleenan two questions.

The first one was about Cavan’s excellent game-management in the second half and the second referred to the thinking behind the loose rotation of their defensive sweeper.

Because McGleenan speaks with such enthusiasm it was only when I listened back to the tape that I realised he hadn’t answered either question.

The Cavan manager told us what a “great game of football” of football we’d all witnessed and reporters were dutifully swept away by the man’s inimitable wave of enthusiasm.

We all forgot about the small detail of sweepers and game-management.

Beyond McGleenan's post-match sound-bites, there is a shrewd operator.

Cavan may have been relegated from the top flight last season – McGleenan’s first year in charge – but they weren’t expected to make a quick return, especially given the transient nature of Cavan squads over the last number of years.

They made an early exit from the Ulster Championship – losing by a goal to Monaghan - before succumbing to Tipperary in the early rounds of the Qualifiers.

 

They were trounced by Tyrone in the McKenna Cup and lucky to lose by just two points against Antrim at Woodlands Park.

Despite the doom and gloom, McGleenan mined a couple of new players that ended up acquitting themselves well in Division Two.

“I’ll take responsibility for us going down [last year],” McGleenan said after the Down win.

“It was my first time in and it was a huge learning curve for me. I’d like to think that I’m a fairly fast learner. The backroom team has been absolutely superb; everyone’s working really hard. It’s all about the team, it’s all about the players, we’re a tight-knit group and we’re working really hard for each other.”

Since covering Gaelic Games for The Irish News I’ve always enjoyed watching Cavan.

After winning the Anglo-Celt Cup in 1997 – their first since 1969 – they have flattered to deceive.

They put it up to Tyrone in the 2001 provincial final but fell short by two points. One of the best things about Championship Sundays back then was the unpredictable nature of Cavan.

We were in the dying throes of Gaelic football’s golden era when players wintered well and forwards won big games on their own.

Jason Reilly and Larry Reilly were two speed merchants and great to watch on firm ground.

Larry had one of the finest left foots in Ulster. Like many of his peers, Larry wintered well.

Hands on hips and bent over, Larry always looked out on his feet in Championship days.

But give him the ball and he'd take off like a greyhound.

Larry hit some memorable points on some of Ulster’s holy grounds of Breffni Park, Casement and Clones.

Dermot McCabe was another fantastic footballer that came out of Cavan.

He turned up every summer and hit humongous points with his left peg, like a swaggering rock star singing a familiar hit song to woo the crowds.

You always got value for money watching Cavan because they could be awful and sublime in the same 60 seconds of a match. When they were good, they were really good. When they were bad…

Cavan had the natural talent to win a few more Ulsters after ’97 – but it didn’t matter how many classy players they had, they couldn’t compete with Joe Kernan’s Armagh who changed the face of football.

No longer would Larry Reilly or Jason Reilly or Dermot McCabe be allowed to win games by themselves.

Armagh’s defensive structure prohibited such charismatic behaviour.

Cavan were being left behind. And the sad thing was they didn’t realise until it was too late.

The Breffni men provided Ulster audiences with some fantastic moments but never got near the Anglo-Celt Cup again.

The late Eamonn Coleman and Marty McElkennon gave them a bit of shake in 2004 and ’05.

Donal Keogan left his native Cavan an embittered man in 2008.

“The problem with some of these fellas is they think they know it all,” blasted Keogan. “I don’t know what happens to to some players in this county after they leave minor level.”

“I was fed up with the players’ attitude. They just didn’t want success badly enough. A lot of the players wanted the trappings of an inter-county footballer but they weren’t prepared to put the effort in.”

Many observers credit Val Andrews for steering a different course by standing up to Cavan’s misfiring stars and axing some of them.

For a couple of years, the Cavan seniors were regarded as damaged goods. It reached the stage where there was more prestige attached to the U21 sides who won four Ulster titles in a row [2011 to 2014].

Under the wily Terry Hyland, the seniors gained relevance again – even though their defensive approach was derided in parts.

By the time of Hyland’s departure, Cavan had solid foundations.

Their transition from defence to attack had improved beyond recognition and in Hyland’s last season in charge [2016], they took eventual Ulster champions Tyrone to a replay.

Cavan has always produced excellent footballers.

It’s a good time to be Cavan manager.

After suffering relegation and a brief Championship campaign last year, McGleenan and Cavan have recovered brilliantly to find themselves back in the top flight.

Raymond Galligan, Ciaran Brady, Gearoid McKiernan, Oisin Kiernan, Martin Reilly and Caoimhin O’Reilly have played some fantastic football in Division Two this year.

But the undoubted star and metronome remains Cian Mackey.

The Castlerahan man is one of the most under-rated footballers in the country.

It was his marvellous, instinctive point that proved the catalyst to beat Tipperary and clinch promotion last weekend.

Mackey should always be ranked among the top 10 players of Ulster football over the last decade.

If Mackey stays fit and Cavan’s performance graph continues on an upward curve, they should be targeting an Ulster title this summer.

It starts with the Cavan players seeing themselves as contenders...

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