Cavan v Tipperary: 'It’s like a runaway train - no matter how hard you hit the brakes, you can’t stop it'

Towards the end of 2020, Cavan and Tipperary ended long waits to claim provincial crowns amid the madness of a Covid-hit Championship. Less than 16 months on, however, the pair are fighting to escape Division Four as they prepare to go head to head on Sunday. Neil Loughran talks to former Breffni star Cian Mackey and Tipperary coach Paddy Christie to find out how it came to this…

Captain Raymond Galligan hoists aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup after Cavan's shock 2020 Ulster final victory over Donegal. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Captain Raymond Galligan hoists aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup after Cavan's shock 2020 Ulster final victory over Donegal. Picture by Seamus Loughran

NOVEMBER 22, 2020 is a date that will always hold a special place for Cavan supporters and the loyal football-following faithful in Tipperary.

From the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the second lockdown that loomed just around the corner, something magical occurred.

Clad in the green and white commemorative Grangemockler jersey to mark the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, it was Tipp who set the ball rolling earlier in the day. Travelling to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the scene of Cork’s sensational semi-final victory over Kerry, the Premier were roundly written off.

Yet, just as the Cavan and Donegal players prepared to run out for their warm-up at an empty Athletic Grounds, Tipperary were celebrating the end of an 85-year wait to get their hands on the Munster Cup.

Cementing an unforgettable day for the underdog, the Breffnimen stunned a Tir Chonaill side gunning for three in-a-row, a late Conor Madden goal helping Mickey Graham’s men upset the odds and ensuring Cavan colours adorned the Anglo-Celt for the first time since 1997.

It was a bittersweet moment for Cian Mackey. A Cavan stalwart, he called time on his inter-county career at the start of 2020, and was in the BBC commentary box instead of out on the field when the long whistle sounded.

“Look, you’d be green with envy,” he says, “but I still got to celebrate it as a Cavan man, and that was great.”

Over 300 miles down the road, Paddy Christie was a little closer to the action as the celebrations kicked into gear. Brought in as coach and selector by David Power at the start of that campaign, the former Dublin captain could never have predicted how the year would pan out.

“We had to buck our heritage because a lot of things are against you,” said Christie, whose mother hails from Lorrha in Tipperary.

“It’s a hurling county, the support wouldn’t be the same… you’ve a lot more things going for you in Tipperary if you’ve a hurl in your hand.”

So, looking back now, was it a case that the pandemic provided a perfect storm? In Tipp’s case, Christie has no doubt.

“Look at the facts – Michael Quinlivan was travelling the world and he decided, with the Covid situation, that he’d come home. Colin O’Riordan was with the AFL in Australia and decided he wanted to come home. Those things wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

“The draw as well… Tipperary would always respect both Cork and Kerry, but I think they did feel over the years, and results show it, that they had a shot at Cork where, on certain days, Kerry were just too much for them.

“Then the final itself - if you’re playing at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in front of 30,000 Cork fans and maybe six or seven thousand from Tipperary, that would be difficult, but that wasn’t the case. The only ones watching were the subs and the management.

“I also have to say, though, a lot of things went the right way from a coaching and management point of view, and David Power needs to get a lot of credit for that. I remember coming close to the game thinking ‘that’s about as good a run up as you could ever do’.

“There was a lot going on but everything was kept very level… David just got a really good handle on it.”

Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney kick-starts the celebrations after Tipp's 2020 Munster title triumph. Picture by Sportsfile
Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney kick-starts the celebrations after Tipp's 2020 Munster title triumph. Picture by Sportsfile

Mackey believes a different dynamic was at play for Cavan as, after dramatic comebacks against Monaghan and Down - either side of victory over Antrim – a sense of fearlessness fuelled their crusade.

“For a lot of those games, we were losing, then the shackles went off and the lads played with a bit of freedom. Looking back, I do believe having no crowds there helped – it was easier to just say ‘feck it, we’ll go for it’.

“Even in the Donegal game when it was getting tight, there was a couple of long, high balls kicked in –Madden got the crucial goal that way. For years Cavan wouldn’t do that. Most teams don’t do it because of the groan from the crowd if nothing comes off it.

“For younger players especially, the fear of making a mistake in front of maybe 10 or 15,000 people is huge.”

Both were well beaten at the All-Ireland semi-final stage in early December – Cavan to eventual champions Dublin, Tipp by Mayo. But with the National League slated to get under way at the end of February, there was plenty to be excited about heading into the new campaign.

Instead, those plans were put on the backburner as the country plunged into lockdown, with a truncated League format only getting under way in mid-May against a backdrop of counties caught flouting the training ban, while the rest eyed each other up with suspicion.

Rather than the traditional seven-game League, Cavan were placed in Division Three North alongside Derry, Longford and Fermanagh, while Tipperary were alongside Limerick, Offaly and Wicklow.

The top two in each group went through to divisional semi-finals, with each team that reached the divisional final promoted, while the bottom two went into relegation play-offs, with the losers relegated.

After slow starts, both ended up falling through the trapdoor into Division Four – leaving them facing the real possibility of dropping into the Tailteann Cup unless they defy the odds again and reach a provincial final.

Was the loss of that momentum a major factor? Christie believes so.

“Going into 2021, David spoke about going to Division Two – Division Four wasn’t a consideration,” says the Ballymun school principal.

“But the momentum we got from winning that Munster Championship in November, we lost so much of that because there was a massive gap until the start of the League. Every Tipperary man on that panel would’ve been standing a few inches taller for months after that Munster final, but it was so long that so much of that buzz, or that lift in mentality, just sort of drifted away...”

“The way the League was,” adds Mackey, “one bad game and you were nearly looking at a relegation play-off.

“We lost narrowly to Fermanagh, beat Longford then lost narrowly to Derry – who were blowing everyone else away – and suddenly you’re in a play-off against Wicklow. In any other year you have more time to correct that.

“I remember watching that Wicklow game and thinking ‘we’re always going to win this’, but it didn’t materialise. It was one of those shock games.

“If it had been a normal campaign I don’t believe Cavan would be in Division Four now, and quite possibly Tipperary the same. Normally they say the League doesn’t lie, but last year was probably a bit of an anomaly.”

Cavan midfielder Thomas Galligan rues as a missed on goal as the Breffnimen slipped to a Division Three relegation play-off defeat against Wicklow in Navan. Picture by Sportsfile
Cavan midfielder Thomas Galligan rues as a missed on goal as the Breffnimen slipped to a Division Three relegation play-off defeat against Wicklow in Navan. Picture by Sportsfile

The paranoia over who had what work done before a ball had been thrown in played a part too as speculation spread across the country.

“To the best of my knowledge, there definitely wasn’t any group training,” says Mackey.

“Breffni Park’s not the easiest place to be able to hide a group of men, when you’re coming into Cavan you look down to your left and there it is – you wouldn’t have got away with it.”

Yet it was only weeks before the League start that both All-Ireland champions Dublin and Monaghan had been caught breaching Covid rules, and Christie admits it was a confusing time for all concerned.

“I remember David was onto me a few times, ‘how could we do this or that within the rules’, but the frustration of trying to start things off then have the carpet pulled up on you again, we didn’t want that. The stuffing was already knocked out of fellas.

“You were hearing stories of other counties being back… it was obvious when we played a couple of challenge games that we were a bit off.

“And then, where a lot of things fell into place for us in 2020, a lot of different things went wrong in 2021. Michael Quinlivan was injured, Colin O’Riordan going back was obviously on the cards, at one point we had our whole half-back line out. Steven O’Brien, on his day one of the top midfielders in the country, was injured the whole year. He togged out in a couple of games, but he was far from right.

“It’s like a runaway train then - no matter how hard you hit the brakes, the train is gone, the momentum is going away from you. You can’t stop it.”

And so, less than 16 months after their provincial triumphs, Cavan and Tipperary collide in football’s bottom rung on Sunday.

After four wins on the bounce, victory at Kingspan Breffni would edge Mickey Graham’s men another step closer to promotion, while Tipp – with two wins, a loss and a draw – still have time to improve upon their third place standing and force themselves into the reckoning.

“One thing that should be mentioned, strength and conditioning-wise, Tipperary would have been a good bit behind a few years ago,” said Christie.

“What will really make a difference going forward is that Setanta College have got involved with the county board and they’re now providing S&C coaches at minor, U20 and senior level. Des Ryan - who was previously with Arsenal - is overseeing that, the seniors have a guy called Tom Brady who will make a big difference, and so too will Annie McCarra with the U20s.

“That is absolutely crucial because against Mayo in the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final, we got blown out of it physically. Overall we had to reframe things after being relegated – look at it as a chance to introduce younger players with a little bit less pressure, less expectation, try and go into the Championship with a few wins under our belts.

“We’re in Division Four for a reason, but we still have a chance to change that.”