GAA Football

Knockout Championship the only way to go in 2021 says Cavan boss Mickey Graham

Mickey Graham's Cavan side went into last year's Ulster Championship as outsiders but ended up landing the county's first provincial title since 1997. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

CAVAN made the most of the knockout Championship last year as they swept to a first Ulster title in 23 years – and Breffni boss Mickey Graham believes it is the only way to go again this summer.

The GAA is currently considering how best to manage the fixtures calendar and competition structures following Tuesday’s Irish government announcement that collective inter-county training can resume from April 19.

That date is later than had been anticipated, and sees the window for National League and Championship action truncated further – with a start date of May 15/16 mooted, although there are suggestions it could instead get under way in the latter half of the month.

And with a return to the back door system and the Super 8s also on the table as the GAA ponders its next move, Graham believes another year of knockout Championship would best serve all interests and allow adequate time for the club season to take place.

“It makes more sense to go with a straight knockout again. I know us inter-county managers can sometimes be all about the county teams, but we have to take into consideration the clubs as well,” said Graham, who led Longford’s Mullinaghta to the Leinster club title in 2018 before taking up the reins in his native county.

“They need the time to run their competitions off, they’re covering a bigger spread of players than the inter-county game is so I would imagine it will probably go to knockout without a back door because the window’s just getting smaller and smaller.”

The absence of a qualifier safety net certainly sharpened Cavan’s focus last year as they came back from the dead to see off Monaghan in the provincial preliminary round, as well as in their epic Ulster semi-final comeback against Down.

And Graham believes the knockout format does pile more pressure on those counties who are expected to be competing at the business end of the Championship season.

“When you’re in the heat of battle and it’s not going according to plan, if then you’re saying ‘sure look, we have another crack at this the next day’, it’s a different mentality.

“In a knockout situation, there’s no second chance. If you’re in that position you can see your season coming to an end - let’s give it one hell of a shot because it’s going to be all over if we don’t try and do something about it.

“Knockout also puts a wee bit more pressure on the bigger counties because they’re under pressure to perform. Look at Donegal and Tyrone last year in the first round of the Ulster Championship, if Tyrone had got another crack in the back door there’s every chance they could’ve gone on to an All-Ireland semi-final.

“It probably brings the so-called weaker counties a wee bit closer too because, when the pressure comes on, the bigger teams are thinking ‘you know what, we could be gone here’. It leaves no room for error.”

Unlike the inter-county resumption last year, though, the circumstances heading into the 2021 campaign will have an impact on managers’ ability to “unearth new talent”.

After the highs of 2020 there is a huge buzz around Cavan football, yet Graham says the short training window means there simply isn’t the time to properly assess a huge raft of newcomers before the competitive action gets under way.

“How can I go and say I’m adding five or six new players to my squad when I haven’t seen them play a competitive game with their club since last September?

“I’d say that over the last couple of months I’ve had to tell easily 15-20 players that unfortunately we’re not going to have the time-frame to give you the opportunity or game-time, because when we get back we have to give as much game-time to our core players as possible.

“They’ll need every minute of every challenge match to get up to speed so it’s very hard for lads then to break into that squad. Our hands are tied because every training session even is going to be like gold dust.”

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