GAA Football

Underdog tag suits battling Cavan as Breffnimen prepare for Ulster final against Donegal

"It’s not all about the football, it’s about being able to lift peoples’ spirits as well," says Cavan's Mickey Graham. Picture by Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

“We’re well used to that in Cavan now. We’ve been wrote off all our lives.”

Mickey Graham, on his team’s perennial underdog tag

CAVAN have lit up the Championship this year with a series of back-from-the-dead performances that have confounded pundits and cost bookies.

Time after time the Breffnimen have been written off only to come roaring back in the second half. Monaghan looked to have them beaten, Antrim had their chances and then Down seemed home and hosed by half-time, but Cavan keep coming back and, against the Mournemen, Mickey Graham’s men just didn’t grind it out, they blew Down away with some superb Championship football.

Graham’s team was relegated to Division Three a month ago but it’s obvious that Championship football suits them and knockout Championship football suits them even better.

Graham and his players have been going for six weeks on-the-trot now but nothing massages tired limbs like a Championship win. Far from being downcast he says his players he already begun the rebuilding process when he entered their changingroom at the Athletic Grounds last Sunday.

“There’s two ways you can go (when you’re eight points down at half-time),” he said.

“You can bang tables and throw bottles and see does that get an effect, or you can be calm and collected and decide what you need to do. I think that (being calm) is the best way to approach it – lads take more information on board when that’s the situation.

“The players knew themselves what was happening. They had a good chat before we went in and we basically went over areas that we needed to improve on. It was a good discussion, we got our points across and thankfully the lads went out and put the talk into action in the second half.”

After their heroics over the last month, you’d have to give Cavan an outside chance in the Ulster final but a lacklustre first half will not suffice against three in-a-row chasing Donegal on Sunday.

“Let’s call a spade a spade – we were way off the pace in the first half against Down,” said Graham. “Our intensity, workrate, decision-making wasn’t good enough and we deserved to be in the position we found ourselves in at half-time. Luckily we had an opportunity to rectify it in the second half.

“But we are up against a more clinical opposition now. They won’t make the same mistakes that Down or Monaghan or Antrim made so we definitely have to try and address that and make sure we’re ready from the word ‘go’ because it’s going to take all of 70 minutes to stay in this game.”

Cavan’s run has been all the more remarkable because it came after Graham’s men had lost their two remaining Division Two fixtures and were relegated. But, as the former Cavan and Cavan Gaels player explained, it’s all about Championship for him.

“Championship is what it was all about for when I was a player and I said to the lads that, while the League is important and it’s important to be playing against the top teams, it’s all about Championship,” he said.

“We felt we were a wee bit disjointed going into the League because we had a few injuries and lost of few lads to Covid. Our preparation was disrupted because of it but as the weeks went on we’ve been doing things better, getting more cohesion in the group and it’s just great that here we are six weeks’ later still playing football and it’s just great.”

CAVAN went crazy before last year’s Ulster final and understandably so. Many of the blue-and-white head-banded young fellas who stood bare-chested on the Clones hill hadn’t even been born the last time the football-mad county had reached an Anglo-Celt decider.

18 years on from two-point loss to Cavan (you have to go back to 1997 for Cavan’s last title) and the Breffni county was caught in the grip of Ulster final fever. On the day, Mickey Graham’s men didn’t match the hype and although they battled back in the second half against Donegal, goalkeeper Raymond Galligan described the game as “a five-point hiding”.

“Last year Cavan went berserk,” manager Graham recalled.

“The supporters had had nothing to cheer about for 18 years, so rightly so. I’m delighted for the people at home who have nothing to look forward to at the weekends because of the Covid situation we find ourselves in. This has given them great joy, it’s not all about the football, it’s about being able to lift peoples’ spirits as well and the way the lads have been performing in the last three games has done that.”

The 2019 final was a chastening experience for Graham who had guided his native county back to the top table last year after that long, barren run out of the provincial showpiece. With that appearance behind them, the next step is to end the wait for a 40th Ulster title but Cavan will be rank underdogs on Sunday, their sixth consecutive weekend of competitive action.

“We have to get the information about how we want to go about things at the weekend across to the lads as quickly as possible,” the Cavan manager, a Leinster club championship winner with unfancied Longford outfit Mullinalaghta in 2018, explained.

“That will be the main focus for us because they’re not going to get any fitter at this stage. It’s important that we make sure the lads are going in good and fresh for the final.”

 

Donegal's Patrick McBrearty and Cavan's Padraig Faulkner in last year's Ulster Football Championship final at Clones. Picture Seamus Loughran

 

 

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