A final to savour in a season like no other but Donegal should see off Cavan and retain Ulster crown
Ulster Senior Championship final: Donegal v Cavan (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 4pm, live on BBC2 and RTE2)
NEUTRALS might be caught between two stools tomorrow. On the one hand, after all the thrills and spills they've given this year, you might like to see plucky underdogs Cavan win a rare Ulster title.
On the other, Donegal, with wins over Tyrone and Armagh behind them, are unquestionably the best team in the province and, most importantly, they will go on to give Dublin a much more serious rattle if they come through.
So it may be difficult to know who to get behind but the good news is that if Cavan start like they finished last Sunday we could get a memorable final to finish an extraordinary Championship.
Let's get one thing straight from the off, Mickey Graham's men are here on merit. Yes, they have shown massive bottle to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat against Monaghan and Down, but they're not all about bottle.
It's alright roaring ‘roll the sleeves up and get tore inta them' in the dressingroom but you've got to have the quality to go along with it on the field and Cavan displayed that most impressively when they clicked against Down in the second half of last Sunday's semi-final and upgraded from beaten dockets (although not many had backed them) into a genuine Championship outfit.
Despite starting eight points adrift of the Mournemen, it looked inevitable that they'd turn the deficit around from the moment Conor Madden split the Down posts in the early stages of the second half. A steady stream of scores were right out of the top drawer and the shooting was matched by the accuracy of goalkeeper Raymond Galligan's kick-outs, the fielding in midfield, the pace from their half-back line and the tackling all over the pitch.
The win will have left Cavan brimming with confidence and momentum and the other vital ingredient they possess now is experience. Last year the Breffnimen turned up at Clones to face Donegal after an 18-year wait for an Ulster final with a just-happy-to-be-here air about them and got mauled in the first half.
Donegal led by eight points at half-time and, although Cavan rallied in the second half, they were flattered to lose by five at the final whistle. They should have all that naivety out of their system now and that should help them settle tomorrow because they must know that they have to match Donegal from the first whistle.
The one thing they can't do is let Donegal build a lead because if you give them an inch, Declan Bonner's side will take a mile, then suck the life out of the game and pick you off on the counter. The other thing they cannot do is stand off Donegal and allow them to have the ball under no pressure. Armagh fell into that trap last Saturday and Donegal knocked confidently at their door in the first quarter before booting it off its hinges in the second quarter. The game was over by half-time.
So while neutrals could get caught between two stools, Cavan can't afford to be. They have to be brave tomorrow and that means starting with Madden, who gave a second half exhibition against Down, at full-forward with Thomas Galligan up there beside him and experienced schemers Martin Reilly and Gearoid McKiernan giving support.
Will that be good enough? Probably not, to be honest. Are there risks attached? Yes, but at least that way they give themselves a puncher's chance and surely it's better to go out on your shield in an Ulster final.
Of course that's easier said than done against a well-drilled side like Donegal that is packed with devastating pace, physicality and slick skills. Michael Murphy hasn't hit his best form in this Championship season yet – two late frees are the sum total of his scores. Armagh succeeded in keeping him quiet but, from the raiding runs of Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Ryan McHugh out of defence, to Michael Langan's game-changing ability in midfield and the quality finishing of Jamie Brennan up front, there are so many other dangermen to watch out for.
This year manager Bonner has unleashed Peadar Mogan on unsuspecting defences and he has had the luxury of keeping the likes of Paddy McBrearty, Oisin Gallen and Jason McGee on the bench.
In defence, Neil McGee barely broke sweat in the semi-final and with Hugh McFadden dropping back from midfield into a covering role, the Donegal defence has an impregnable look at times.
Cavan need to shake the Tir Chonaill men out of their comfort zone, perhaps by pushing a man up on McFadden and then testing them with the long ball tactic – which worked so well again Down – towards Madden and Thomas Galligan.
The world that has been transformed by a global pandemic but this is a familiar sporting story of the battling underdogs against the overwhelming favourites.
There are some encouraging omens for Cavan: their manager Graham masterminded Longford club Mullinalaghta to an unexpected triumph in the Leinster club championship a couple of years ago, they've already had a game at the Athletic Grounds which is bound to help their set-up and the Breffnimen won both of their previous final appearances at the Armagh venue (1933 and 1941).
They've shown the spirit and the quality to come through tight games but this is different gravy against a side that can play it whatever way you want. Sit back and they will run through you, push up and they can kick the ball over your defensive screen.
Expect Cavan to come out fighting and make a game of it but, in the end, Donegal have the pace to cause huge problems for their defence and they'll clinch their first-ever provincial three in-a-row with a few points to spare on the way to that showdown with the Dubs.