GAA Football

This was our year. Underdogs Cavan slay Donegal in momentous Ulster final

"We all had the feeling we could do it today," said Cavan's Martin Reilly. Picture: Seamus Loughran.
From Andy Watters at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Ulster Senior Football Championship final: Cavan 1-13 Donegal 0-12


THEY knew this was their year.


“I don’t know,” says Martin Reilly, “We just had a feeling. We all had the feeling we could do it today.”

Just a feeling?

“Yeah, it was strange, I don’t know what it was, we just felt we could do it.”

And they did.

Their four-point win at the freezing Athletic Grounds would have warmed the cockles of the coldest heart and it must have sent thousands of living rooms from Shercock to Ballyhaise into ecstatic uproar.

Yesterday, the Breffni Blues won their 40th Ulster title but can any have been so dramatic? Has any team been written off so often and come back from the dead so regularly in the 132-year history of this Championship?


And talking off history. Uncannily, this year’s All-Ireland semi-final line-up is the same as it was 100 years ago. The provincial champions – Mayo, Dublin, Tipperary and now Cavan - were the same and the semi-final pairings are the same. For the record, Tipperary, equally unexpected winners over Cork in Munster yesterday, beat Dublin in the final.

What odds would you get on a repeat? Long ones of course but that’s for the not-too-distant future.

Before they meet the Dubs, the Breffnimen need to savour their first Ulster title since 1997.

They’d looked down against Monaghan and out against Down but they scrapped and fought and clawed their way to victory to get to yesterday’s decider.

And in a pleasing twist to this absorbing tale, those heroics were not required because Mickey Graham’s men were full value for their win against a lacklustre Donegal that fired only occasionally and could have no complaints with the result.

The Tir Chonaill men were expected to win Ulster and then double-down for a crack at Dublin and perhaps that had an impact on their performance. Bar one first half spell – when they rattled off six points in-a-row after Killian Brady had been harshly black-carded – Declan Bonner’s side never came close to finding the gear that had dismantled Armagh the previous weekend.

During that first half spell their runners had ripped holes in the Cavan rearguard but Breffni manager Graham blocked them up and Donegal gradually found themselves running again and again into a brick wall.

Meanwhile, Cavan thrived on early ball to their frontmen – Thomas Galligan, Reilly and goalscorer Conor Madden – and they alternated that with galloping breaks from the likes of Ciaran Brady, Jason McLoughlin and Gearoid McKiernan.

Manager Graham decided that the Ulster final stage was the right time to blood Crosserlough midfielder James Smith and the talented youngster marked his debut with the first point of the game when he broke through on the right and sent a confident shot over the Donegal bar.

Peadar Mogan, another talented youngster, equalised but, with Galligan and Reilly sprinting out for long kick passes, Cavan continued to make the running.

Oisin Kiernan, an unsung hero in this team, edged them in front again and McKiernan rose to win Shaun Patton’s kick-out and begin to dismantle the myth of Donegal invincibility in the midfield. Gerard Smith latched onto his pass to kick the third point and Ciaran Brady added another, again after Cavan hands had grabbed Donegal’s restart.

Michael Murphy, working hard but lacking a spark this season, scored his first (and ultimately only) point from play in the 2020 Championship when he smashed a right foot shot over the Cavan crossbar.

Conor Madden (who made regular entries as a blood sub) replied but the Breffnimen were dealt a serious blow when Killian Brady was sent to the sin-bin after a clumsy coming-together with Caolan McGonagle.

Donegal made hay in the next 10 minutes. Paddy McBrearty (twice) with Mogan involved in both scores, Niall O’Donnell, Ryan McHugh and McGonigle all raised white flags as the three in-a-row chasing defending champions threatened to seize control of the game.

But this Cavan side lies down for nobody. McLoughlin popped up on left to pull a point back and then Raymond Galligan produced another one of his highlights-reel moments with a brave save from Eoghan Ban Gallagher.

O’Donnell and Langan did manage points but McKiernan’s free (the first placed ball-score of the game) left Cavan still well in it at the break, 0-9 to 0-7.

McBrearty’s early free had Donegal three ahead but Cavan remained a potent threat and Patton saved well from Smith before Galligan, bruised and bloodied around the right eye after he’d been caught by McGonagle’s elbow, seized on Brendan McCole’s fumble and thumped a shot over the bar.

There was no standing-off the pre-game favourites. Donegal were not allowed to settle in possession and their final pass was often poor. At the other end, Cavan looked more and more dangerous and

Ciaran Brady slipped in James Smith who shot just wide under pressure from Murphy.

But the debutant quickly recovered his composure to score his second point of the game and leave just a point in it.

McBrearty, starved of possession alongside the off-colour Jamie Brennan, clipped over a free but Donegal were not breaking Cavan’s defensive line now and, with no change in tactics, the net began to close in on them.

Madden left one in it and when Reilly, the most loyal of Cavan servants, swapped passes with new boy Smith and levelled the Breffnimen looked primed to kick for home.

McKiernan slotted over a free to send the underdogs a point clear and then goalkeeper Galligan stood tall to deny Jamie Brennan.

McGonigle did equalise but then Kiernan let fly from the left touchline. Jubilant roars went up from the Cavan bench as the ball whistled over the bar and the Castlerahan clubman punched the air in delight as he ran back to man the barricades.

There were five minutes left when Reilly burst through on goal. He was denied by Patton’s brave save but the Donegal ’keeper couldn’t keep them all out.

Cavan attacked again and a high ball dropped out of the night sky into the Donegal square. This time Patton came out and punched but straight to Madden (back on after a harsh black card for an innocuous late-ish tackle) who gleefully caught the ball and thumped his shot into the net.

Was there a last kick in Donegal? McKiernan was back on his own line to clear a half-hit shot out of a goalmouth scramble and then Murphy blazed wide when he had a chance to hit the net.

The final seconds must have been agony for Cavan fans. Ciaran Thompson hit the post and then… the final whistle.

H’on the Breffni!

Diehards emerged from behind their sofas or burst into livingrooms after sitting it out in the kitchen or the shed. A dream come true for the boys in blue and their devoted, sadly absent, fans.

‘Chaaaaaaaam-peee-owwwn-eeees’ sang the players as they danced on the field where their forefathers had won Ulster titles in 1933 and 1941.

Dublin await and they’ll be favourites, but sure so were Donegal…


Cavan: R Galligan; J McLoughlin (0-1), P Faulkner, L Fortune; G Smith (0-1), K Clarke, C Brady (0-1); T Galligan (0-1), K Brady; M Reilly (0-1), G McKiernan (0-2 frees), O Kiernan (0-2); J Smith (0-2), C Conroy, C Smith

Subs: C Madden (1-2) for C Smith (blood sub 9&15) and C Smith (23&32), N Murray for Conroy (56), C Smith for Reilly (73)

Black cards: K Brady (11), C Madden (18)

Donegal: S Patton; E Ban Gallagher, N McGee, B McCole; R McHugh (0-1), P Brennan, P Mogan (0-1); H McFadden, C McGonagle (0-2); E McHugh, N O'Donnell (0-2), M Langan (0-1); P McBrearty (0-4, 0-2 frees)), M Murphy (0-1), J Brennan

Subs: A McClean for P Brennan (45), D O Baoill for E McHugh (56), C Thompson for McBrearty (58), J McGee for O'Donnell (69)

Referee: B Cassidy (Derry)



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