NFL FOCUS: The only way is up for McLoughlin and Cavan
ALLIANZ FOOTBALL LEAGUE FOCUS
THE survival of emigration- and unemployment-ravaged club Shannon Gaels over the years has been nothing short of Lazarene. So it’s not surprising that their star man believes there could be a second coming this year in Ulster for the Breffni county.
“If you don’t believe, you won’t achieve,” Cavan corner-back Jason McLoughlin avers.
"Every day you go out, you have to back yourself and we have to believe that we can get back to the sort of form that got us on top of the pile in Ulster a couple of years ago.
“It’s very, very important we get out of Division Four. We have a tough (Championship) assignment away to Antrim and it’ll be a tricky game but we feel we have a strong squad and we want to get the feeling back that we had leaving the Athletic Grounds in Armagh in 2020 (when Donegal were downed in the Ulster SFC final).”
Jason McLoughlin epitomises the indelible spirit that has kept his Fermanagh-border based club afloat against the odds over the past 10 years at senior level and, for successive county managers, he’s been one of the first names on the Cavan teamsheet.
Blacklion’s best has proven himself to be a fighter, a leader and a rare talent since first coming to the fore in 2011 and 2012 when picking up Ulster U21 medals; cementing his rise and rise with a senior county debut against Donegal in the 2012 Ulster SFC when the likes of current county team-mates Ray Galligan, Killian Clarke, Chris Conroy, Conor Moynagh and Gearóid McKiernan lined up alongside him.
McLoughlin fits the profile of the kind of player Mickey Graham will be looking to in his attempt to haul Cavan out of the mire but McLoughlin is very much wont to casting the bouquets further afield. He name checks a near-neighbour in that regard: “Gearóid is a model of consistency and a great role model for any player and a lot of young, aspiring footballers could do worse than study the way he applies himself to the game.
“He’s the first man out on the training field and he always gives it everything and he’s really stood out for us in the last few years. He’s been on fire this year so far. Picking up the man-of-the-match awards in both McKenna Cup matches (against Armagh and Tyrone) says a lot about his talent and his application.”
McLoughlin scored a point and was one of Cavan’s star turns in their facile Dr McKenna Cup defeat of Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni earlier this month.
The Blues played with a swagger that night and a confidence that was luminous and left the field with their chests puffed out, peacock-proud.
But McLoughlin is long enough in the tooth to know that you can be a peacock one day and a feather duster the next.
He is quick to erase any talk of an inspiring vista.
“We were happy enough with the performance and the win but the win will be no good if we don’t build on it,” the Dublin-based recruitment consultant admits.
“But we knew that they were only back from a holiday and there’s no way we’ll get carried away with the Tyrone result even though they’re the reigning All-Ireland champions, they were phenomenal last year and had four Allstars in their starting line-up.
“We were happy with our work rate. It was very good and we kept it up for the full 70 minutes which wasn’t the case against Armagh.
“We’ve been slow starters a lot of times but we got out of the blocks quickly against Tyrone and we need to keep that up for the games coming up in the League.”
Cavan will compete in Division Four of the NFL this year with a tonne load of expectations resting on their shoulders.
McLoughlin says the squad’s sherpa-like work rate and it’s “togetherness and never-say-die attitude” will be key to realising ambitions.
And then there’s the flood of new energy in the shape of new recruits to the county think-tank such as Tyrone legend Ryan McMemamin and former Breffni star Seanie Johnston that promises to infuse the camp with renewed vigour and ideas.
“There’s a great bond within the squad since Mickey took over which I suppose comes partly from the fact that the turnover of players and backroom team has been low but the freshening up of the management should help us, I think.
“Ryan’s pedigree and experience of winning All-Irelands is something else.
"He is an excellent communicator and gives great tit bits of advice. He’s a great character too in the dressing-room, taking the mickey out of the lads which gets the craic going.
“Seanie has already added a lot too to the squad. His whole analysis of games is great; singling out things which we can improve on.
"For years, he was one of the most lethal finishers in the country. Our forwards are just bound to learn something from him.”
Cavan are inarguably the hottest ticket in Division Four and McLoughlin unashamedly declares that “we are targeting a win in every game.”
As such, an away win over McLoughlin’s biggest personal rival Leitrim is very much on the agenda.
“Dowra is my home town but I went to national school over the border to Drumkeerin National School in county Leitrim and I was lucky enough to go on and win an All-Ireland ‘B’ Vocational Schools’ medal with Leitrim (alongside current Leitrim senior player Shane Quinn).
“I suppose for GAA people around where I live and around the Shannon Gaels’ catchment area, Leitrim is our biggest rivals so it would be great to get one over them at the end of the month.
“The Leitrim game will be tough but all the games will be hard to win. Sligo will have their own promotion hopes and the home game against Wexford looks like it could be a very important one in the group.
“It’s important that we hit the ground running and get a good start in the League. Last year we lost in the first round to Fermanagh and we seemed to lose a bit of confidence because of that result and the frustration just starting to grow and grow so we want to avoid any of that this year.”
As a teenager, the now 29-year-old looked to have a promising soccer career with his engine, grit and powers of recovery getting him noticed at grass roots level to the extent that he was a leading light on the Cavan-Leitrim Youth team.
However, a certain Mickey Graham came calling at that time. Graham was Cavan’s minor manager and McLoughlin answered his call and the rest is history.
As so often happens in rural Ireland, soccer’s loss was the GAA’s gain.
“I suppose Mickey and me go back a long way but I’m sure that wouldn’t count for an awful lot if I didn’t mark my man properly or push forward to try and get on the end of a move and score or create a score," he said.
“Like all the rest of the lads, I know we didn’t perform last year. The consistency just wasn’t there. I don't think that will be the case this year.”
As another season dawns, Mickey Graham will be desperate for his squad to rediscover the energy, consistency, quality and mindset that fuelled Cavan’s creditable 2019 NFL Division One campaign and their subsequent 2020 Ulster SFC title success.
We’re talking though about an embryonic 2022 now and the only way is up for Cavan. The Breffni county’s defeat (0-18 to 3-11) to a mediocre Wicklow side in last June’s Division Three relegation play-off made it a hat-trick of League relegations. Excuses could be unearthed for other 2021 performances but the dismal display against the Garden County beat Banagher.
That Cavan went on then to tamely surrender their provincial crown with a clear-cut 0-13 to 1-18 defeat to Tyrone added insult to injury.
The road to redemption for Mickey Graham and company ought to start in earnest on Sunday, January 30 when they face hosts Leitrim in the first round of the Division Four NFL series of games.
Cavan can’t afford to take any of their League opponents this year for granted. Leitrim is a derby duel and anything can happen but defeat, first time out, will put serious pressure on Cavan going into their second round match at home to Wexford. There are no gimmees for Cavan in Division Four. Victories at Sligo and in their final round game at home to Tipp are by no means assured. However, it will be another seriously negative League campaign if Cavan don’t make it to the Division Four final at the start of April.
The sporting idiom which dictates that ‘you’re only as good as your last game’ is encoded in every winners’ DNA. In their last game (the 1-17 to 0-5 demolition of McKenna Cup rivals Tyrone), the Cavan men looked really good.
Could another Anglo Celt Cup triumph be on the cards? Don’t rule it out. A League title win and a first round SFC victory away to Antrim could very well ignite the fire of 2020!