Under-par Cavan still find a way to win against gallant Antrim

Cavan's Cormac Timoney tries to evade Dermot McAleese and Michael McCann at Breffni Park on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran
Cavan's Cormac Timoney tries to evade Dermot McAleese and Michael McCann at Breffni Park on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran

Ulster Senior Football Championship first round: Cavan 0-13 Antrim 0-9

FOUR weeks straight on heavy sod and Cavan’s legs are still holding up to whatever’s thrown at them. And Antrim threw plenty at them in Cavan town on Saturday afternoon but not enough to stop them booking their place in this year’s Ulster semi-finals.

It’s a Championship game that will fade quite quickly into the wintry backdrop of 2020, where Antrim came with a tight game-plan that had a puzzling effect on Cavan for long periods before Mickey Graham’s men came up with the answers, outscoring their visitors 0-8 to 0-3 in the second half.

For those who tuned in to watch ‘live’ coverage of this first round clash, the pulses didn’t race at any stage.

Antrim led 0-6 to 0-5 at the break and deserved for their narrow lead - and they could have surged ahead by three on 40 minutes, and really put the frighteners up their hosts, but Patrick Gallagher’s effort on goal was saved by Raymond Galligan in the Cavan goal.

Once Gallagher’s brave run and shot ended with no raised flag, you sensed that Antrim’s crack at an upset was gone in that moment. As it transpired, the Saffrons went scoreless between the 33rd to the 59th minutes.

The third quarter absolutely killed Antrim.

Space began to emerge in Antrim territory and Cavan carved out and converted just enough chances to triumph. Introduced in the 42nd minute for Oisin Pierson, substitute Thomas Edward Donohue gave Cavan the attacking spark the home side sorely needed.

The fleet-footed Sigerson Cup winner from the Denn club converted a ‘mark’ in the 56th minute to put Cavan 0-8 to 0-6 in front and added another placed ball and a point after a razor-sharp counter-attack in stoppage-time.

Late points from Patrick McBride (free) and Conor Murray kept Antrim in touch but Cavan were coming by their scores much easier at that stage and were full value for their four-point win.

All the pre-match talk suggested Cavan faced a huge psychological hurdle in trying to reach the last four. After all, they’d expended so much physical and emotional energy in edging out arch-rivals Monaghan in Clones seven days earlier and, as a consequence, Antrim might have been capable of a killer ambush.

Sitting in the empty stand with reporters afterwards, winning manager Mickey Graham said: “I was involved in Cavan teams that lost to Antrim down through the years in National League and Championship.

“We knew what Antrim were going to bring. They were well organised, well drilled, they’ve a good manager and they made life difficult for us.

“We showed a lack of composure, whether it was tired bodies or tired minds, as this was our fourth week in a row, four tough games. I thought our shot selection in the first half was poor; we dropped a few balls short and that contributed to Antrim’s counter-attacking game. We’d a lot of possession but we just didn’t use it.”

Antrim, in fairness, deserved some of the credit for their misfiring hosts in the opening half.

Tactically speaking, Lenny Harbinson managed to strike the right balance between defence and attack and his match-ups were spot on, particularly Declan Lynch on Gearoid McKiernan and Kevin O’Boyle on Martin Reilly.

McKiernan’s looping runs and prolific scoring off either foot around the edge of the ‘D’ have been a rich trademark of Cavan’s attacking play over the years.

But Lynch’s fanatical application of his defensive task pushed McKiernan to the fringes of the game.

It was only when Antrim began chasing the game that McKiernan got free and bagged two scores from play in the second half.

Both men scored highly in an intriguing duel: Lynch for his disciplined approach and McKiernan for his sheer resilience right to the very last play.

Martin Reilly’s playmaking potential was also well managed by Kevin O’Boyle whose return to the Antrim squad post-lockdown was fully merited.

Likewise, O’Boyle’s Cargin club-mate Michael McCann who was persuaded back to the fold earlier in the year. McCann had an awesome game on Saturday.

Despite finishing on the losing team, the 35-year-old midfielder was head and shoulders the best player on the field.

He broke a couple of Cavan tackles to fire over with his allegedly weaker left foot on 14 minutes, he caught balls on the edge of his own square and knitted most of Antrim’s attacks including giving the perfect pass for Patrick Gallagher’s goal chance.

When McCann had possession, Antrim felt safe.

It’s probably a conversation for another day but Antrim’s best performers against Cavan were those of veteran status: Mick McCann, Paddy Cunningham and Kevin O’Boyle.

In 2020, Cunningham ended a six-year absence from the county scene and added much-needed craft to the Antrim attack.

The Lamh Dhearg attacker mightn’t have the legs for a full 70 minutes of Championship football - but he still has the brain and his scoring radar hasn’t dimmed with time. Crucially, this trio never panicked in possession.

You just wonder where the next generation of leaders are coming from, not just in Antrim but in other lower-tier counties.

Perhaps the prevailing coaching manuals of the day don’t encourage a player like McCann or Cunningham of O’Boyle to emerge in the modern game.

Their birth certs suggest as much but they’re a throwback to a different era, when more players took ownership of games, because in that ill-fated third quarter on Saturday Antrim’s decision-making was desperately poor.

Throw in three black cards for Cavan in the 35th, 59th and 67th minutes and Antrim never made their numerical advantage pay at any time.

The wrong shooters shot and they coughed up possession all too easily which resulted in Cavan making hay on the counter-attack.

Antrim desperately needed promotion out of Division Four more than an Ulster Championship win this year. The Antrim narrative is set to endure unless they start climbing the National League rungs.

Harbinson admitted as much afterwards.

“Against a very good Cavan team we were able to go toe to toe with them but we just lacked that little bit of quality in the final third. There is talent in Antrim, absolutely, but the frustrating thing is we didn’t get promoted. You want to expose them to the next level up and that’s what’s required.”

With three years completed and still anchored to Division Four, Harbinson was undecided about his own future.

“Do I want to stay on? Right here, in this moment, I don’t know. That’s the honest answer,” said the St Gall’s man.

“Management in football, in general, there is a bit of madness in it, and at county level that madness is elevated because there are so many moving parts. Some of it I’m in control of and there are lots of other moving parts that you’re not in control of. Do you want to get on that carousel again and that madness? I’m not sure.”

As for the victors, the biggest compliment you could pay Mickey Graham’s men was they found a way to win while playing well below their best. With Reilly and McKiernan placed under house arrest on Saturday, they needed inspiration from other places.

Centre-back Ciaran Brady (0-2), Oisin Kiernan (0-2) and Thomas Edward Donohue (0-3) provided it.

What niggled Graham afterwards were the meagre amount of scoreable frees his side have won in their two Championship games to date and the sending off of assistant Dermot McCabe in the early throes of Saturday’s encounter.

“To be honest with you,” Graham said, “I thought they targeted Dermot from the off. Before the whistle they told him not to put his foot on the field.

“He [the fourth official] warned him and he did it a second time. But if you look at the games you see runners going on giving information. That’s part and parcel of the maor foirne.

“But Dermot was definitely highlighted, whatever the reason. I thought he was only getting instructions on to our lads. Dermot is just a passionate Cavan man. I don’t think he was interfering with the opposition whatsoever. It was our own boys.”

Cavan: R Galligan; J McLoughlin, K Clarke (0-1), K Brady; G Smith, C Brady (0-2), L Fortune; C Timoney (0-1), P Faulkner; M Reilly, G McKiernan (0-3, 0-1 free), O Kiernan (0-2); O Pierson (0-1), S Smith, C O’Reilly Subs: T Galligan for S Smith (h/t), TE Donohue (0-3, 0-1 mark, 0-1 free) for O Pierson (42), C Conroy for K Brady (45), N Murray for C O’Reilly (48)

Yellow cards: K Clarke (34), C O’Reilly (47)

Black cards: K Brady (35 – replaced by substitute C Conroy), G Smith (59-69), O Kiernan (67 to end)

Antrim: O Kerr; P Gallagher, D Lynch, K O’Boyle; P Healy, J McAuley, N Delargy; C Duffin, M McCann (0-1); K Quinn (0-1), M Sweeney, D McAleese (0-1); P Cunningham (0-2, 0-1 free), C Murray (0-2, 0-1 mark), P McBride (0-1 free) Subs: P McCormack for K Quinn (h/t), O Eastwood for C Duffin (52), T McCann for P Cunningham (52), R McCann for T McCann (0-1 free) (63 inj), M Jordan for D McAleese (56)

Yellow card: M Jordan (71)

Referee: P Faloon (Down)

Padraig Faulkner and Martin Reilly of Cavan in action against Antrim's Patrick McBride and Kevin O'Boyle Picture: Seamus Loughran
Padraig Faulkner and Martin Reilly of Cavan in action against Antrim's Patrick McBride and Kevin O'Boyle Picture: Seamus Loughran