GAA Football

Greater threat can carry Down across the line late on in Breffni battle

A Caolan Mooney burst from deep created Down's crucial goal against Fermanagh last week, and the Rostrevor speedster will be a key man for the Mourne County against Cavan tomorrow. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final: Cavan v Down (tomorrow, 1.30pm, Athletic Grounds – live on BBC2)

THEY may have passed like ships in the night when the League was finally said and done, but any thoughts on where that fork in the road leads next spring will be parked when Down and Cavan collide at the Athletic Grounds tomorrow.

The Breffnimen waited 18 long years before reaching the Ulster final in 2019 (remember 2019?), while Down have only made it to the provincial showpiece five times in the 26 years since they last lifted the Anglo-Celt – the most recent ending in defeat to Tyrone three years ago.

For Paddy Tally, taking the Mourne County to that stage would mark a significant step and, following promotion to Division Two, would leave Down supporters satisfied with the progress made after a frustrating first year in charge for the Galbally man.

Had this game been played last Saturday, Cavan would likely have gone in as strong favourites. However, while the Breffnimen laboured past Antrim – the heaviness of leg and mind evident as they came through a fourth competitive game on soft sod in as many weekends – Down looked fresh in despatching the other Ulster side dropping down to football’s third tier, Fermanagh.

The net result has been a gentle swing towards the Mournemen over recent days, yet there are so many factors on the field which will dictate who moves through to next weekend’s decider against the winner of Armagh and defending champions Donegal.

Much will hinge on how Mickey Graham chooses to deploy Thomas Galligan tomorrow. After his powerhouse display off the bench against Monaghan, it was assumed he would start against the Saffrons. He didn’t, but his introduction helped turn the tide in Cavan’s favour after a lacklustre first half.

A slight groin issue may have influenced Graham’s decision last week, but will he stick or twist tomorrow? Having watched Fermanagh dominate the midfield sector at Brewster Park, particularly in the first half when they also swept up any breaks going, it must be a huge temptation to throw him in from the start and put Down on the back foot straight off.

If that is the case, and Galligan is positioned alongside the towering Gearoid McKiernan and Killian Clarke, Tally might have to rethink his own approach, with captain Caolan Mooney likely to join Jonny Flynn and Conor Poland around the middle.

McKiernan was effectively shackled by Antrim’s Declan Lynch last week and, in terms of sheer size, Flynn could be the man for the job tomorrow.

Given the bother Clarke had containing the forward bursts of Antrim veteran Michael McCann last week, Down will fancy pitting Mooney against his one-time Ulster University team-mate as much as possible – though preferably raiding from the centre half-back position he largely occupied against the Ernemen.

Galligan is not the only man to have given his manager food for thought either. Thomas Edward Donohoe impressed off the bench but appears likely to be held in reserve again, with Oisin Pierson expected to go up against Gerard Collins from the start.

Collins struggled against the fleet-footed Tomas Corrigan, although the Fermanagh forward found possession far too easy to come by in the first half. Fellow full-back Patrick Murdock did well on his debut but will face a step up in class against the physical Cormac O’Reilly.

Down need to be far more aggressive in engaging runners like McKiernan, Oisin Kiernan and Ciaran Brady or they could leave themselves a mountain to climb, should Cavan buck their recent trend by targeting a quick start.

Given their extra freshness and the pace Down have in the likes of Mooney, Pierce Laverty, Daniel Guinness and Barry O’Hagan, Tally will therefore try to keep things as tight as possible in the opening exchanges with the aim of coming on strong after the break.

Laverty, and Guinness in particular, provided the only glimpses of real forward momentum in the first half at Brewster Park, with Donal O’Hare and Jerome Johnston far too often feeding off scraps during that time.

Yet Tally backed the pace in his side, and on the bench, to make an impact against tiring legs as the afternoon wears on. They didn’t disappoint, with the confident Barry O’Hagan nailing everything while O’Hare is rarely one to pass up an opportunity.

It is for that reason he has likely stuck with the same 15 that started against Fermanagh, keeping the pace of Corey Quinn, Liam Kerr and Ryan Johnston for when the game begins to open up.

O’Hare had just scored Down’s crucial goal when those three were introduced into the fray and while the game was already beginning to get away from Ryan McMenamin’s side, they killed it off in impressive fashion.

Cavan bring more experience than the under-strength Erne side that lined out last Sunday, and while four games in-a-row may have taken a toll physically, it has also allowed them to find some kind of rhythm.

When they were piling the pressure on Monaghan a fortnight ago, everything Cavan hit turned to gold. Seven days later, far too many of those low percentage shots dropped short or drifted wide. They simply can’t afford to be so profligate in front of the posts tomorrow.

Very little will separate these two by the time the sun sets on somebody’s Ulster ambitions in Armagh – but Down might just carry the greater threat down the final straight to edge them across the line.

Cavan: TBC

Down: R Burns; P Fegan, P Murdock, G Collins; P Laverty, K McKernan, D Guinness; C Mooney, J Flynn; B O’Hagan, P Devlin, C Poland; J Johnston, D O’Hare, C Doherty

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GAA Football