GAA Football

Cavan can give them a bloody nose but Dublin should have too much in Croke Park All-Ireland semi-final

Martin Reilly said Cavan "had a feeling it was our year" before the Ulster final. Picture: Seamus Loughran.

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Dublin v Cavan (tomorrow, Croke Park, 5.30pm, live on RTE2 and Sky Sports Mix)

THE bonfires on the roadside lit Cavan's way home from the Athletic Grounds a fortnight ago.

Delighted fans braved the cold and the November darkness to cheer and wave their flags as their heroes returned with the Anglo-Celt Cup back for the 40th time, rekindling memories of the great days of Mick Higgins, Hughie O'Reilly and 'the Gallant' John Joe.

Victory today, against unstoppable Dublin, would be the greatest of them all and you'll expect there's a ‘but' coming later in this preview if you're a Cavan fan which, let's be honest, everyone north of Swords and south of Kiliney will be this evening.

Alongside Tipperary, the Ulster champions have won the hearts and minds of almost the entire country after their series of neversaydie wins and now they face the biggest test of all against the all-conquering, six in-a-row chasing Dubs at Croke Park.

Dublin have been immense this season. New manager Dessie Farrell took over from Jim Gavin but, after watching their first three Championship games, it seemed that Arlene Robinson could have donned the bainisteoir bib and managed them to the Leinster title.

Such was their dominance, Farrell's men never broke sweat and won by 11, 22 and 21 points respectively against Westmeath, Laois and then Meath, scoring 5-66 in the process and conceding just 27 points and no goals.

The question is: Would Cavan have folded like those shell-shocked Leinster counties? Based on this season's evidence, the answer is: Definitely not.

The Breffnimen have consistently made a mockery of their underdog tag and, even when it looked like the bookies and tipsters had got it right, they came back from the dead against Monaghan and Down and were then mighty-impressive and full value for their Ulster final win over Donegal.

In fact the last 100+ minutes of Championship football Cavan have played (the second half against Down and the full game against Donegal) has been of a very high standard.

The gameplans have been there, the pace and power is there, the workrate is there and, most importantly of course, the quality in front of the posts is there. Donegal – despite having an extra man for 10-minute spells in both halves – could not live with Cavan's aggression.

So can Cavan live with Dublin's?

The training so many of these players did on their way through successful underage squads is really showing this season.

Mickey Graham has given this side the belief they obviously lacked during so many fruitless seasons and now, suddenly, he has a team of big, powerful ballers who won't be physically intimidated by the Dubs.

Of course, having won a first Ulster title since 1997, the pressure is off them now but it's unlikely that they'll fall into the ‘bonus territory' trap and give anything less than everything this evening.

Thomas Galligan and Conor Madden (who surely has to start) are a mobile and physical pair up front and the expanse of Croke Park could suit an athletic, kicking side driven on by the quality of Gearoid McKiernan, James Smith and Martin Reilly in the middle third.

Reilly said after the win over Donegal that he and his team-mates “had a feeling this was our year”. Whether that feeling was limited to Ulster or not, we'll know this evening.

“We got great confidence from the comebacks against Monaghan and Down,” the Cavan veteran added.

“They showed great character and we had two good halves which was key against Donegal. We couldn't be going in (at half-time) by eight or 10 points. They're a good side and we just really needed to improve on our first half. Once we kept it tight we felt we were always in it.”

Cavan are strong on the ball and able to hold on to it and today they can play without pressure and with confidence in their ability. All the pressure is on Dublin but they are well used to that.

The Dubs have been pre-Championship favourites for the best part of a decade and that tag never seems to bother them.

Manager Gavin has gone and the genius Diarmuid Connolly has shuffled off the stage, like Jack McCaffrey, the Brogans, Paul Flynn, Rory O'Carroll… The Hill is silent too but it matters not… Dublin have steamrolled all before them.

Maybe that is their Achilles heel? While Cavan have been in the trenches again and again, the Dubs have not been tested so it is hard to know how good they really are. How will they respond if Madden bags an early goal? Will Dessie Farrell show the same composure as his predecessor?

On the flip-side, how will Cavan's resilience stand up if Dublin open them up and score and early major? Their character will be severely tested but Cavan have not come this far to lie down.

They have form, resilience, confidence and class in their side but Dublin have all of those qualities too and they'll pose questions – like how to stop Brian Fenton - the plucky Ulster champions have not had to answer before.

Only a fool would write them off but at the same time, as 1997 Cavan star Fintan Cahill put it, you'd have to be “nearly insane” to predict a win for the Breffnimen today. Expect Cavan to give their exalted opponents a bloody nose and a serious rattle but (yes there's the ‘but') the Dubs will take all they can throw at them, find a way to adapt and progress to another final with half-a-dozen points to spare.

In these troubled times, the nation will hope Cavan do themselves justice and that the bonfires are lit to guide them home again.

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