GAA Football

Tyrone "a great draw" for Cavan believes Seanie Johnston

Tyrone gave Cavan the runaround in their last championship meeting in 2019, beating a bruised Breffni side by 16 points. Picture by Philip Walsh

SEANIE Johnston believes a championship outing in Omagh is “a great draw” for Cavan as it gives them the chance to solidify their success from last year.

While conventional wisdom quickly decided that having to go to Healy Park to face a Tyrone side under new management was the nightmare scenario for Mickey Graham’s side, Johnston doesn't buy that theory.

He has been known to have been positive about Cavan’s chances in the last couple of seasons and the Cavan Gaels man doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a one-hit wonder.

“When the draw came out, everyone said it was a great draw for Tyrone. I think it’s a great draw for Cavan.

“This bunch of players in their own heads will say ‘we’re Ulster champions but we maybe need to beat this team to get the respect we deserve’.

“They’re going to want to do it again, for numerous reasons. You’re trying to win as many as you can, but it nearly felt a bit watered down if that makes sense, the fact we couldn’t all get out and celebrate like we wanted to, and the players weren’t able to mingle with fans the way they would have loved to.

“I don’t think you’ll get a Cavan team that will lack desire and fight, I can tell you that much.

“They go to Omagh fully expecting to win, I think.”

The man who for years was heavily relied upon for scores has not been replaced by any single individual.

Mickey Graham inherited a group without that natural talisman. In Conor Madden he’s found occasional joy, and the rotation of Thomas Galligan to full-forward last year helped offset the absence of Dara McVeety, who had made a good stab at it for a while.

And yet what have they actually suffered for it? In their Division One campaign in 2019, Cavan only breached 13 points once. But in 17 league and championship games since then, they’ve only failed to better it four times and have averaged a much healthier 1-13 that would be better still were it not for their last meeting with Tyrone.

The 2019 Ulster final defeat to Donegal was by five points in name only. They hit back late on to add a protective sheen, scoring 2-16, but there was a real gulf that day.

Deflated, they were battered around St Tiernach’s Park by Tyrone two weeks later, leaving with a 16-point defeat and plenty wondering if it was the last they’d see of them as a force.

That couldn’t have been more wrong, but that game two years ago is likely to form some part of Cavan’s psychological approach to the beginning of their title defence.

“Tyrone have been the nemesis, I suppose, for this Cavan group,” says Johnston.

“They’re in the third year with this management team, and the hype around the first Ulster final was greater than the hype around last year’s because it was Covid-free and the world was a very different place.

“They got beat by five but it felt more than a five-point defeat. Then they got drawn Tyrone and would have wanted to put a real marker down, but they didn’t perform.

“I was doing radio that day. Tyrone broke them down in that they allowed them to go short on every kickout and basically said ‘come on lads, break us down from 100 yards out’.

“Cavan didn’t have some of the players they have now. Cavan are as good as anybody in that middle-third section now, in terms of strength in the air, athleticism.

“Gearoid McKiernan is exceptional, Thomas Galligan had a phenomenal year, James Smith came in under the radar having only played the first half of the Monaghan game, got a bad injury and then came back in the Ulster final. He’s only about 21, an unbelievable athlete.

“They’ve a load of players in that middle section. In theory, if Tyrone push them to go short, they can still go long and have faith they’re gonna win enough of their own kickouts to launch attack from positive areas.”

What the veteran forward, still deliberating over the idea of another year with Cavan Gaels, sees most significantly is the physical development since the appointment of Andre Quinn as the county’s head of athletic performance in 2018.

The Warrenpoint native had been between London Irish and Harlequins in Premiership Rugby for 11 years and came to Cavan just as Mickey Graham was taking over in the managerial hotseat.

Their work since then stood them in the unforgettable gruelling battles they endured to win last year’s Ulster final, not least coming from six down against Monaghan and ten behind against Down.

“People talk about the buzzword of conditioning and being way behind, and I always thought inter-county teams were at a similar level until I actually see where this Cavan team is at the minute,” says Johnston.

“They’re physically so well developed. They have what we haven’t had in years in terms of height, which is a huge advantage, especially in last year’s winter football.

“Now they have a level of conditioning that allows them to go toe-to-toe with the best teams.

“They were able to match Monaghan, a Division One team, they’re able to match Donegal, a very fit, lean, running Down team.

“Dublin were a different animal in Croke Park and they’re the level you’re trying to get to. I know they’ve continued that work after they finished up in mid-December, they were back at it in late December, in the gym and running.

“They’re going to be a really big physical animal again this year, which is really positive from our side of things.

“I really do feel like Cavan are on an upward curve.”

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