GAA Football

Wicklow topple Ulster champions Cavan and send them to Division Four

Cavan's Thomas Galligan (centre) has that bad sinking feeling during last Saturday's Wicklow clash
From Brendan Crossan in Navan

Allianz National Football League Division Three relegation play-off: Cavan 0-18 Wicklow 3-11

YOU can’t go lower than rock bottom. But it wasn’t just rock bottom, it was the unmerciful thud with which the Cavan footballers made in Navan on Saturday afternoon.

In 2018, they clinched their place in Division One but three consecutive NFL relegations later they’re now pondering the pure ugliness of basement football in 2022.

It’s hard to believe seven months ago Cavan charmed the nation by winning the unlikeliest of Ulster championships.

If between the months of November and June could be described as a board game, Cavan had just taken part in one of the most tumultuous kinds of snakes and ladders.

Wicklow toppled Cavan in Saturday afternoon’s error-ridden Division Three relegation play-off – and they were full value for their victory.

From the opening exchanges, it was clear Cavan were struggling to get to the pace of the game – and when they tried to change gears mid-stream, they simply couldn’t find them.

Wicklow were the epitome of pure desire. They made a lot of mistakes but they ran themselves into the ground and when they needed a bit of composure, the ageless Sean Furlong – who else! – took centre stage and mined a superb 2-3 from the Cavan defence.

Thirteen years knocking around football’s lower echelons, and still lighting it up with some sublime moments.

Furlong’s attacking side-kick Pat O’Connor side-footed to the net on 29 minutes [1-3 to 0-4] after some loose Cavan defending before Furlong hammered past Raymond Galligan in the 40th minute – after Padraig Faulkner badly misjudged a bouncing ball - and 10 minutes later the Wicklow full-forward slotted home a penalty to put the Leinster minnows 3-7 to 0-10 ahead.

As the game progressed, the only danger to Wicklow winning was Wicklow themselves. At times in the second half they did their best to keep the Ulstermen in the game when Chris O’Brien and Conor Byrne hacked goal chances wide in the 46th and 70th minutes.

The Breffni men out-scored Wicklow 0-5 to 0-2 with six minutes of normal time plus five minutes of added time remaining, but it wasn’t enough, nor did they merit anything out of this tie.

At pitch-side, it felt like Wicklow had won the All-Ireland - it meant that much to their players and management.

“The League is everything,” said a breathless Davy Burke afterwards, now in his second season with Wicklow.

“We didn’t want to go back to Division Four. We can’t win the Leinster Championship, let’s be honest about it. It would have been a disaster to go back down to Division Four.

“How do you get out of there again? Look at the teams this year that can’t get out. It’s mental down there. It’s one year I never want to go back to. I’ll do everything in my power not to go back.”

Paying homage to one of the best talents to ever come out of Kiltegan, the Wicklow manager said: “Seanie Furlong is 13 years playing senior football. He ain’t going back down there. This man’s going to finish at this level or maybe a little bit higher.”

From the opening whistle, Burke bounced along the sideline – living every second of Saturday’s make-or-break encounter, while the Wicklow subs made incredible noise in the yawning stand in Páirc Tailteann.

“That was pure tactical because I can't shout or they'll give frees against us,” said Burke.

Before Saturday’s showdown, the Wicklow camp doubted Cavan’s durability for the fight. And they were proved right.

“I've been in successful dressing-rooms and it's very, very hard to go again if you're not used to it. That's why what the Dubs are doing is phenomenal,” said Burke.

“All respect to Cavan but we absolutely said: 'Bring it to 50 minutes, drawn game, a point up, a point down'…

“We wanted to question Cavan's hunger because they've an Anglo Celt medal in their pockets. We wanted lads whispering it: 'Do you really want to be here, lads?' We wanted to bring it into a battle and that's what we did."

Trailing 1-5 to 0-7 at the break, the suspicion was that Cavan would find their rhythm after the restart, chip away at Wicklow’s lead and get over the line.

Thomas Galligan hit a peach of a point in the 39th minute, Patrick Lynch found his range too, but when others stepped on the gas, there was no change of pace.

In the 54th minute, Thomas Galligan thumped the crossbar, Wicklow’s lead remained six points and the Breffni men never looked like clawing it back after that.

Cavan boss Mickey Graham made no excuses afterwards, commenting: “It was always going to be very hard to get back up to where we needed to be. I suppose the long break as well, we just had too much time away from the environment probably, that made it difficult.

“But we're not going to make excuses, we'll just have to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and start focusing on the next challenge."

With Tyrone in Omagh on the Championship horizon, it’s a big ask of Cavan to retrieve their season.

Cavan: R Galligan (0-2, 0-1 free, 0-1 ‘45); C Reilly, P Faulkner, K Clarke; L Fortune, C Timoney (0-1), O Kiernan; T Galligan (0-2), C Brady (0-1); M Reilly, G McKiernan (0-4, 0-2 frees), C Smith (0-1), C McGovern, P Lynch (0-5, 0-3 frees), C Madden (0-1 mark) Subs: C O’Reilly for C McGovern (27), P Meade for C Smith (47), C Conroy (0-1) for L Fortune (51), O Pierson for C O’Reilly (57), S McEvoy for P Lynch (71)

Wicklow: M Jackson (0-1 free); N Devereux, J Snell, O Manning, JP Hurley, N Donnelly, D Devereux; P O’Toole, K Quinn (0-1), A Maher (0-1), M Kenny (0-1), C Byrne (0-1); E Darcy, S Furlong (2-3, 1-0 pen, 0-2 free), P O’Connor (1-2) Subs: E Murtagh for J Snell (18), A Murphy for P O’Connor (53), D Fitzgerald for A Maher (57), C O’Brien (0-1) for K Quinn (60), P Cunningham for E Darcy (67), D Healy for C Byrne (67)

Yellow cards: N Donnelly (14), A Maher (48)

Referee: B Judge (Sligo)

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