Cavan's Clarke expecting a spark from Down despite recent poor fortunes
Tailteann Cup, Round One: Cavan v Down (today, Kingspan Breffni, 2pm)
KILLIAN Clarke is reminded of the red cards and the argy bargy at the end of the 2018 All-Ireland qualifier clash between Cavan and Down in Enniskillen and smirks.
"There was a bit of handbags afterwards alright," he recalled. "I think one of the O'Hagans was getting in Gearoid McKiernan's face or something like that and it didn't go down too well!"
Four years on, and with Down in an apparent tailspin, you wonder if there'll be any sort of spark at all between them this afternoon at Kingspan Breffni?
The bookies have this one down as a done deal, a turn-up-and-kick-scores-for-fun job for Cavan who, remarkably, are 1/10 favourites.
That they competed two divisions lower than Down in this season's National League, that they only beat them by two points in that fiery 2018 game, and by just one in 2020, has all been deemed irrelevant. If Down win, it'll be a miracle. Or so we're told.
"It could probably go one of two ways," reasoned Cavan defender Clarke of Down who, relegated from Division Two, hemorrhaged key players following their Ulster Championship defeat to Monaghan, although they were boosted this week with the return of pacey forward Liam Kerr.
Clarke remarked: "It could galvanise them or they could down tools."
Tipsters seem to expect the latter but Clarke insists that he and Cavan are primed for the former. In other words, a typical Cavan-Down game.
"It feels like an Ulster Championship game, we won't be taking them for granted," said Clarke. "If you were facing Down in the quarter-final of the Championship, you definitely wouldn't be pulling any punches with them. It'll be an interesting one. Obviously there were a few departures with Down in recent weeks so you're probably getting a mixed bag, there's probably a few of the U20s drafted in. You could be dealing with a completely different animal to what you've seen throughout the year."
The counties will meet again in next year's Division Three, neatly summing up how Down got on in Division Three this season and how Cavan fared in Division Four.
"It was a tough one to go into," said Clarke of the League's lowest tier.
"A lot of the players you mightn't have known as well, they're not teams that are overly well analysed either, that the likes of the Sunday Game would be covering so you had to get used to who you were playing against and what their attributes were."
The big positive for Clarke, aside from ultimately securing promotion, was the opportunity to blood new players in a less pressurised environment.
"Paddy Lynch has been excellent all year," said Clarke of the attacker who made his Championship debut against Antrim. "He's been chipping in with a few points, taking a bit of the scoring burden away from Gearoid. In latter years, Gearoid has been carrying a lot of that scoring threat for us. They're spreading it around a wee bit more with the likes of James Smith inside and Paddy, even Cian Madden coming in at half-forward and the likes of Cian Reilly coming in at corner-back and a few of the U20s have been in training with us as well. We'll see how that works out for us in the next couple of weeks."
The Tailteann Cup has the potential to be transformative then for Cavan though, should they win it and come good on their tournament favourites tag, they'll hardly celebrate like it's 2020?
"Where it ranks in comparison to an Ulster Championship, I don't know, if you asked me would I rather win an Ulster Championship or win a Tailteann Cup, it's a fairly straight answer for me all the same," said Clarke. "But it's definitely something we'd be targeting and looking to go after."
If Cavan's mindset is correct, the tournament would appear to be theirs to lose.
"Hopefully we'll use it as a bit of a stepping stone for next year, get a few more minutes into the younger lads especially," said the former International Rules man. "If you make it to the latter stages, you'll be on the main stage at GAA headquarters. To get a few more minutes on the Croke Park turf for all of us wouldn't do any harm."