Raymond Galligan a canny operator but Cavan still have much to prove

Galligan, a confident, resilient and impressive individual, has passed the first test of his managerial career in negotiating the choppy straits of Division Two

Cavan manager Raymond Galligan Picture: Adrian Donohoe.
Raymond Galligan Cavan manager Raymond Galligan Picture: Adrian Donohoe.
Cavan journalist Paul Fitzpatrick delves into Raymond Galligan’s football story and assesses Cavan’s Ulster Championship chances against eternal rivals Monaghan on Sunday...

IT was the leftfield story of the GAA summer’s dog days. If eyebrows were raised when Mickey Graham, with a year still remaining on his agreement, surprisingly stood down as Cavan manager, the decision of his captain Raymond Galligan to throw his hat in the ring to replace the Cavan Gaels man came as a genuine shock.

Galligan had no background as a manager but he believed he had the requisite experience as a leader in the dressing-room to be a success.

And there was a strong case to be made that he had. By the end of 2014, Galligan – who once scored 0-10 in a National League round one match against Roscommon from full-forward – had been discarded, or maybe had walked away, from the inter-county game.

He’d spent time in Australia and was back playing good ball with Lacken Celtic but didn’t appear to have a future as an inter-county forward. But a conversation with Cavan manager and clubmate Terry Hyland saw him try out in goals; by the following summer, he was starting. By 2020, he was an Ulster-winning captain and Allstar, having, by his own admission, trained seven days a week at times to improve as a number one.

So, Galligan had done the impossible before and, inheriting a Cavan squad long on experience but short on confidence and form did not daunt him. Far from it, in fact: he was excited by the challenge and confident about his and the team’s prospects.

The National League started very well, with a win over Kildare in Carlow, a one-point home loss to Donegal and successive wins on the road by the same margin against Cork and Louth.

It exceeded most fans’ expectations – downtrodden yet expectant, Cavan supporters counter-intuitively and almost comically straddle a line between unrealistically demanding and notoriously pessimistic – as Cavan found themselves in the promotion shake-up following a round five draw with Meath.

But the Blues crash-landed in round six in the Athletic Grounds. Armagh sliced and diced them in a chastening defeat. Fourteen points down at half-time, Cavan still lost the second half. It couldn’t have gotten much worse.

The round-seven tie against Fermanagh was almost as bad. It should be noted that the Ernemen were fighting for their lives while for Cavan, there was just pride at stake – but continuation of a trend of sloppy first halves and the unacceptably poor work-rate left alarm bells ringing.

Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan was nominated for an Allstar. Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Raymond Galligan Former Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan has now assumed the managerial reins in the county

Cavan ended up finishing a very creditable third in the division, despite not winning since round four.

It has left the Breffni boys in a familiar place – nobody can really get a handle on them. Example: In 2020, they were Ulster champions in brilliant fashion; six months later, they were beaten out the gate by Tyrone and relegated to Division Four. A very good team or a bad one? Who could say with certainty?

This year, Cavan go into the Ulster Championship with Sam Maguire football secured (barring freak provincial results, as in ‘shock of the century’ territory) for the first time since the two-tier system came into being.

It’s highly unusual to finish as high as third having accrued seven points (it has only happened twice before since 2016 across all four divisions) which adds to the sense of ambiguity about the Breffnimen. League standings suggest they are, on paper, 11th in the country, which means they should be knocking on the door for an All-Ireland SFC quarter-final. Do many foresee that happening? Not many, we would suggest.

There has been a sense around Cavan post 2020 that they were a formidable outfit on their day who were trapped in the lower divisions due to a couple of unlucky relegations (they exited Division Two on six points in 2020, one less than they managed this year when finishing third, and went down to Division Four after a four-game series in 2021) but we have seen a wide enough of sample of games now to suggest that probably isn’t the case.

Armagh and Down comfortably knocked Cavan out of the Ulster Championship and Tailteann Cups last year, both in Kingspan Breffni; while Cavan played some lovely football against Donegal in the 2022 Ulster semi-final, they still exited by six points and lost the Tailteann final to a Westmeath side who have only now escaped Division Three.

There is no doubt, however, that playing in the lower reaches of the League has hindered Cavan when it has come to Championship, as Galligan admitted in his first interview as manager last September.

Asked about the Armagh defeat earlier that year, he said: “To me, a lot of it has to do with the level you’re playing at. When we did slip into Division Three, there was maybe a touch of complacency on players’ behalf, maybe being over-confident, we ended up falling into Division Four and in the last three years, we have been in Division Three, Four, Three.

“Albeit we have got out of those divisions but the reality for me against Armagh last year was one team was coming from playing in Division One where we were coming from Division Three.

“We may both have finished in Division Two but they were a battle-hardened team in the first round of the championship whereas we thought we were moving well. The reality was they had been really, really tested and we hadn’t.

“And that showed in the first 15, 20 minutes, their level of intensity was streets ahead of ours. That wasn’t because we weren’t well prepared, management had got us in a good place we felt, but I definitely believe that playing that higher standard stood to Armagh.”

This year, they have been steeled against better sides. Monaghan’s body of work in the last couple of years is vastly superior – wins and draws with the likes of Tyrone, Derry and Dublin is several levels above Cavan’s best results since 2020 – but Galligan is a canny operator and, like Graham before him, will have aimed to have the team primed for the bigger tests.

Cavan’s underage conveyor belt, once the envy of the province, has been stuttering in recent years, with development squads only recently and belatedly beginning to catch up with other counties. That has left a situation where the senior team remains very reliant on a core group approaching veteran status, with the notable exceptions of Paddy Lynch and Niall Carolan.

When some of those are not on the pitch, as was the case in the latter rounds of the league, the team can be very ordinary.

Breffni fans will be hoping Galligan has a full hand from which to choose this Sunday and, if he does, there is likely to be little between the teams. Galligan, a confident, resilient and impressive individual, has passed the first test of his managerial career in negotiating the choppy straits of Division Two; now, though, the water gets deeper.