Enda McGinley: Ulster football final promises to be a cracker
ANOTHER huge weekend of football lies ahead, with every Ulster team bar Fermanagh in season-defining ties. The main show this weekend is, of course, the Ulster final. Not the one many would have expected at the start of the year, yet one, thanks to the football played by both teams in their respective runs to the final, that is now eagerly anticipated. It could well live up to the billing too.
Cavan have the appearance of a battle-hardened outfit that has now settled with a steely focus to the task at hand.
The confidence and optimism of their youth as they progressed from their all-conquering U21 era has been well and truly beat out of them, with false dawns and disappointing defeats following every premature emergence as a senior force over the past five years.
So much so that the presumption among many was that the time of their golden crop had already come and gone and they were only ever to be yet another cursory example of the unreliability of youth success in predicting senior glory. Relegation, as predicted, from this year's top division merely confirmed that this year would be more of the same. Good, but frankly not good enough.
How things have changed in a few months.
The key for Cavan is realising, amidst all that unique euphoria and slight madness that Cavan people bring to occasions like this, that an appearance in an Ulster final does not actually represent an arrival or deliverance on this previous potential.
It's good progress for sure and the momentum and positivity is great, but it counts for nothing unless they follow it up with big performances, both in the final and the upcoming Super 8s or the Qualifier game that will follow should they lose on Sunday.
Cavan's seemingly perennial dalliance with Division One and relegation back down again tells us they are an above-average team.
They will only cast off the coat of unfulfilled potential if they go on and make an impact this year and sustain it for several years to come.
Sunday is a potential watershed moment for the team. It is not that they have to win, but they have to play like a big-boy team now that they are sitting at the big-boy table.
Lose weakly on Sunday and the Monaghan win will be remembered just for Monaghan's slow start and a lucky penalty. Lose and the Armagh win will be remembered for Armagh not being a top-tier team and for Cavan having one of those days when they couldn't miss.
Lose weakly the rest of this season and this Cavan coming-of-age will be forgotten, just like all the other ones have been over the past five years.
The steely focus mentioned earlier may indicate this penny has already dropped with the team but can it remain in place despite the back-slapping they will have received this past week? It has to, as any loss of edge would likely still leave this season as just another false dawn.
IN their way stands Donegal. Heading for two in-a-row with the best attacking unit in Ulster football and with the ultimate on-pitch general in Michael Murphy, Donegal are a formidable opponent.
Like Cavan's run, however, Donegal's progress to the final can be viewed in different ways with very different conclusions. The dour win over a dogged Fermanagh side without the necessary weaponry to realistically do them damage was uninspiring.
Tyrone, off colour and shorn of Peter Harte, again posed minimal attacking threat and minimal challenge to possession in the middle third.
It was a good performance on the day but certainly not worth the credit a strong win over Tyrone would usually deserve.
Without doubt, in Paddy McBrearty, Jamie Brennan, Michael Murphy and Ciaran Thompson, they have significant attacking talent where even the supporting cast in the likes of Oisin Gallen, Niall O'Donnell and Michael Langan are among the best young talent in Ulster. Furthermore, with a string of giant midfield ballers in the likes of Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee, Thompson, Leo McLoone and Murphy, they have massive aerial and physical presence to dominate this key area even before Sean Patton gets to work with his Swiss clock-like kick-outs. If there are any weaknesses it is in defence. Tyrone's Cathal McShane caused significant hassle for a man with very limited support on the day. He ended up needing double and triple-marked but this could only be done due to the lack of other threats.
When Darren McCurry came on, he again caused all sorts of trouble as well.
A Cavan team that scored so heavily against Armagh will fancy their chances of exposing this weakness in a way that neither Tyrone or Fermanagh were able to.
Donegal's handling of Dara McVeety, Gearoid Kernan and Martin O'Reilly will be key.
Tyrone tried and failed to close down the Donegal kick-out and play the game on the front foot and this is the difficult test that Cavan must be prepared to take on if they hope to come out of this one with the elusive Anglo-Celt.
Mickey Graham has marked himself out as an astute manager who can come up with great gameplans.
He has fostered a varied attacking style and resilience within the team that means they stick to the task at hand and then make and take their chances when they present themselves.
Donegal's strengths, however, including great kick-out ability, middle third physical presence, deep running game from the likes of Ryan McHugh and Eoin Ban Gallagher, long-range
score-taking via Murphy and Thompson and the surgical strike ability of McBrearty and Brennan, are enough to have given Graham a few sleepless nights.
The fact that these are matched by less aesthetically pleasing, no less essential, aspects such as an ability to know how to win games, to switch to more defensive formations, to get under their opponents' skin and to grind things out when that is required means it is hard to see past Donegal.
The Ulster Championship has been a really positive one. The positives off the pitch, starting with the decision to reduce ticket prices, the salvaged TV coverage via the BBC and the increased attendances have been matched by competitive games, positive football and memorable individual displays on the pitch.
If it ends with the final it deserves, we could be in for a classic few would have foreseen at the start of the year.