Down and Cavan get 2024 ladies’ football championship under way

The sides clash in the intermediate grade on Sunday

Captain Megan Doherty is one of seven Down players on the All-Ireland Junior Championship team of the Year
Down captain Megan Doherty with the All-Ireland junior championship trophy after last August's win over Limerick in Croke Park

TG4 Ulster Ladies’ IFC round one

Down v Cavan (tomorrow, Páirc Esler, 2pm)

THE 2024 championship season gets under way in Newry on Sunday with a match in the intermediate series between Down and Cavan.

This grade normally has only two teams battling it out, but is five-strong this year.

Down rejoin after a year’s absence by virtue of winning the All-Ireland junior title last year, while Cavan return after a 10-year absence following relegation from senior.

Monaghan joined last year from senior, as did Antrim, who also came up from junior before storming to their first Ulster intermediate title.

Tyrone complete the field and are favourites for many.

Down and Cavan come into this game after contrasting league campaigns.

Down had two early defeats but then won five in a row to finish third in Division Three, just missing out on a top-two finish and promotion by a point.

Cavan, despite winning two games, were relegated from Division Two.

With the All-Ireland series to come this year and also Division Three rivalry next year, this game could be the first of more regular meetings between the counties, who have not played each other competitively since 2015,

Despite coming up from junior and playing in a lower division, the momentum is with Down and they are a couple of years ahead of Cavan in terms their journey.

Peter Lynch and Caoibhe Sloan’s Mourne side have a settled look about them, the backbone formed over the last few season, huge experience gained from last year’s success with any new players able to learn from their experienced team-mates like captain Meghan Doherty, Amy McGivern, Orla and Laoise Duffy, Ciara Byrne, Clara Mulvenna, Aoife Laverty Natasha Ferris, Niamh Scullion and Viv McCormack.

Mickey O’Rourke’s Breffni side have a whole new look about them and this season so far has been a massive learning curve but has been hugely beneficial as well, playing against senior teams in Division Two like Donegal, Tipperary, Kildare and Laois, who they defeated.

Deirbhile McCaffrey, Niamh McCorry and Rebecca McLoughlin have been their main scorers, while Ally Cahill, Zara Fay, goalkeeper Evelyn Baugh, Erin Longair are among O’Rourke’s most experienced players.

O’Rourke says 12 players are in line to make their championship debuts but feels this is a game for the taking.

“It will be a big test. We are going into the game facing a Down team that are that little bit further down the road in terms of being together as a group, so that in itself should aid them along the way,” he said.

“But it is a game we feel we can win, which is a good way to be heading into it. I’d take it as 50/50, but we really looking forward to it.”

Down joint manager Caoibhe Sloan is not underestimating the challenge that Cavan presents regardless of relegation from the senior championship or the league.

“Cavan present a huge challenge this weekend. They have been a senior team for over 10 years and played their league football in Division Two there, no doubt that will stand to them and it’s the type of challenges we want,” said Sloan.

“It’s what drove us on last year to constantly try to be better and play against the best. You always have to push yourself to strive for more and this prep has been no different, to get ourselves into as good of shape as we can and go for it.

“We’re looking forward to the game, we had a good end to the league and the league is a great platform to work on things, try players with the unlimited subs, it’s the same for all teams. But now we’re down to business end of things and everyone loves the championship prep and build-up, it’s what you’re in this for.

“We’ll leave it all out there on Sunday and with it being a home game we hope the supporters that followed us in the league will continue to come out and show their support for this group because the girls have worked hard.”

Defending champions Antrim await the winner of this game in the semi-final on Sunday, May 5 with Monaghan and Tyrone in the other semi-final the same day.