Any whiff of cordite is smothered in these frost-blanketed days and the big battles seem so far away. But for Cavan football fans – and certain players – 2023 is already crackling and sparkling with possibilities.
Defeat at the hands of bogey team Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final a few weeks ago saw a familiar tale unfold but, according to one man in the mix, it came with all sorts of silver linings.
“I think in the McKenna Cup we showed a lot of what we had going for ourselves a couple of years ago and you could sense a lot of hunger and ambition about the squad, among the experienced lads and the younger ones,” said full-back Pádraig Faulkner.
“I’m an optimist and I definitely think we’re developing every year under Mickey (Graham). We were brilliant in 2020 and even though things haven’t gone to plan since then we’ve improved in different aspects of our game over the last while.
“We’ve added some good new talent to the panel and we’ve brilliant people in the backroom team so I’m definitely looking forward to this year.”
Faulkner’s optimism has definition and depth. More than most, he knows what it takes to get over the line in Ulster. At 28, he boasts provincial medals at minor, U21 and senior. He would have completed the set with a junior gong but the year (2014) Cavan won the All-Ireland JFC title, he turned down the invitation to join the squad “cause it was late in the day and I didn’t want to rock up and maybe takes someone’s place who’d been there all year.”
Faulkner’s panoply of skills has made him a shoo-in on every county team he has been eligible to play for and, after fellow Allstar Raymond Galligan, he is probably the second name down on Mickey Graham’s team list right now. It seems likely the number three jersey is Faulkner’s to keep for as long as he stays healthy and fit.
“In terms of my hopes, first and foremost, like everyone else, the main priority for me would be to stay fit this year and give myself a chance to play to the best of my ability,” primary school teacher explains.
“I think Mickey’s wish would be the same; an injury-free season for all the lads. I know that’s a tall order but if it doesn’t work out that way, I’d be confident we have the strength-in-depth to still go toe to toe with any of the other counties.”
For Cavan’s recent Dr McKenna Cup opener away to Antrim, the Breffni crew did indeed look well stocked with a good mix of youth and experience. The team was short at least eight regular starters by dint of injuries assembled, for the most part, during the tail end of the 2022 club season but looked the part.
The seasoned campaigner– our man Faulkner plus Killian Clarke, Gerry Smith, Ciaran Brady, Martin Reilly and the returning Dara McVeety - were commanding figures in the pre-season competition. Perhaps, more importantly, the newbies (four made their debut against Antrim) and other ‘fringe’ players from 2022 showed an eagerness and a determination to impress that most have made team-manager Graham particularly pleased.
Faulkner is, predictably, unwilling to finger one among those “other counties” as the team he feels all others need to beat to lift the Anglo Celt Cup this year; principally ‘cause he reckons “there’s no one dominant team in the province right now.” He feels that since being blooded at senior level with Cavan in 2016, a “changing of the landscape in Ulster football” has gradually occurred. The days of the triumvirate of Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan hand-passing the Anglo Celt Cup among themselves are gone, the loose-limbed defender cum midfielder opines.
“Maybe a lot of people will fancy Derry to do back-to-back titles but I genuinely think that all the teams will have ambitions towards winning Ulster this year.
“We did it against the odds three years ago and the way Derry came good last year will increase the hopes of other teams who have been out of the limelight for a long time.
“Ulster is such a competitive province and it’s hard to know from one year to the next who’s gonna come out of top. I don’t think many people – even in Cavan – tipped us in ’20 and, then again, who backed Derry last year?
“I think Donegal are in a bit of a transition period at the minute and so are Monaghan. Tyrone might have come back a bit towards the chasing pack too. Derry have really upped their game in the last couple of years and it’s up to the rest of us to do the same.”
Amidst all the post-mortems among the Breffni blues regarding the county team’s inability to consolidate it’s 2020 Ulster SFC title success, hunger seemed to be the operative word in those conversations. Pointedly, Faulkner disagrees with the notion that the Cavan classes of 2021 and 2022 had their bellies full. That said, he nods the head when queried about whether Mickey’s men have the appetite for a blood and thunder foray this year.
“The lads are rearing to go and with the coming on board of a few of the U20s from last year, the competition for places is as tight as I’ve seen in my time. Fellas like Evan Finnegan, Niall Carolan and Brandon Boylan are great additions to the squad.”
And what about the prodigal son Dara McVeety coming back into the fold after a three year absence?
“Aw, it’s like soccer, buying in a top quality player from another team,” Faulkner says.
"Everyone is entitled to go off travelling and take time out. Dara made that decision and missed out on 2020 but we’re all delighted he’s back. He’s such a high-calibre player.
“Having him back this year is a big lift to the panel. He’s a leader and drives on the other players. The young players, especially, will benefit a lot from having him alongside them on the team.”
Now that the rookies on Cavan’s 2023 squad have tested the temperature of senior inter-county football with outings in recent weeks, supporters are anxiously waiting to see what formula the Cavan management will come up with in the upcoming NFL Division Three series of games.
On the back of last year’s NFL Division Four title success and subsequent run to the Tailteann Cup final and, not forgetting a certain glorious autumnal evening trip to the Athletic Grounds just three seasons ago, the high expectations embedded in the DNA of Cavan gaels are once again luminous on the Cavan scene.
“Cavan supporters are notoriously optimistic,” Faulkner reveals. “Even down through all the barren years when I was growing up, there was always plenty of people at home (Kingscourt) that would tell you that ‘this year is gonna be our year’.
“It’s the same every year that I’ve been involved with the seniors. And with the progress we’ve made in the last few years, Cavan supporters are looking at us winning another league this year and another Ulster title. You can understand where they’re coming from,” said the steely Kingscourt Stars centre-back.
Given that it’s nearly 10 years since Faulkner and co clinched a fourth consecutive Ulster U21 title (2014), there is a clear sense of anticipation and excitement in the Breffni county that a reprise of the heroics of 2020 is on the cards.
Cavan face the winners of the preliminary round clash between Armagh and Antrim in the Ulster Championship and when they comes around, Faulkner doesn’t see any reason why they can’t be a contender for provincial honours – hopefully off the back of a successful League campaign.
“Mickey hasn’t set any particular goals for us but, obviously, you’d be hoping that we can win another promotion,” he said.
“The Championship will always be the main thing for players and the supporters and I think we stand as good as chance as any team in going the distance this year. We have the talent and we won’t lack belief or confidence.”
The odds are against Cavan getting to the Elysian Fields this year having to first tramp their way through the long grass of Division Three. But, if nothing else, Cavan players possess a winning mentality that is in the DNA of all champions and can’t be bottled.
Apart from their winning mentality, Cavan have unearthed a confidence and a self-assuredness of late that was manifest in their 2020 blue riband success; an achievement which was spawned by the winning of four consecutive Ulster U21 titles up to 2014.
Cavan will be without Allstar Thomas Galligan this year as he has decided to take a sabbatical and travel overseas. On the flip side though, the highly experienced and decorated Dara McVeety and Conor Moynagh (who absented themselves from the 2020 panel) are back in the fold and their hunger to make up for the ‘loss’ of an Ulster SFC medal has to be seen to be believed. Their return to the fold is immeasurable and the impending return to full fitness of half-back Ciaran Brady allied to Padraig Faulkner, Jason McLoughlin, Raymond Galligan and the underrated Conor Brady will make for one hell of a defensive unit.
It’s really early days but Cavan, collectively, showed large dollops of the hunger of old in their two games in this year’s Dr McKenna Cup. But, as regards, the nuts and bolts of the team, one can safely say that it won’t be beaten in a lot of aspects of play i.e speed-off-the-mark, athleticism and stamina.
Of course, Cavan’s record since their surprise provincial triumph in 2020 has been erratic with relegation to and, thereafter, promotion from Division Four of the League as well as championship losses to Tyrone and Donegal, sandwiching a win over Antrim.
Cavan need to shore up their midfield in the wake of Galligan’s self-exclusion and a lot of the nailed-down starters are coming towards the end of their careers which should – but won’t – be enough to temper expectations in Breffni land. If the team doesn’t gain promotion from Division Three, morale will take a hit and it’ll be very difficult for them to bounce back and conquer Ulster.