GAA Football

Cavan hold off gutsy Sligo to book Tailteann Cup final place

Cavan's Gearoi­d McKiernan picked off four points against Sligo Picture: Philip Walsh.
From Brendan Crossan at Croke Park

Tailteann Cup semi-final: Cavan 0-20 Sligo 1-14

FROM the outset, the Tailteann Cup was always in need of a hard sell. The GAA’s top brass could have shown a bit more urgency and imagination earlier in the year to present their case to the sceptics.

There were the yawning gaps between provincial exits and Tailteann debuts. When and where would the semi-finals and final be staged?

Would it have a separate Allstar awards? And a team holiday for the winners? And so it went.

But away from the media’s glare, the onus to sell it lay squarely at the feet of county managers, who not only had to pick up the pieces from crashing out of their respective provincial championships, but needed to convince their own players the Tailteann Cup was worth sticking around for.

At least two men managed to pull this off: Mickey Graham and Tony McEntee.

They sold the incentives to their players and while only Cavan or Sligo could progress to the July 9 final yesterday, both managers were fulsome in their praise for the inaugural competition and felt it had enhanced their respective squads.

Despite finishing on the losing end of yesterday’s absorbing first semi-final at Croke Park, McEntee insisted the Tailteann Cup would allow Sligo the chance to exorcise the annual “hidings” to either Mayo, Roscommon or Galway, build something from a different base and come back stronger next year.

Sligo’s objective may well have been achieved following a pair of Tailteann wins over London and Leitrim in recent weeks before giving favourites Cavan a good run for their money in the capital yesterday afternoon.

Three points separated them at the final whistle but had Sligo taken their first-half goal chances they could have been looking forward to next month’s decider against Westmeath.

Of course, that’s not to say the 0-20 to 1-14 final score-line signalled rough justice on Sligo. It didn’t.

Cavan were the better team and they also spurned a few goal chances of their own.

Afterwards, Mickey Graham rightly name-checked Gearoid McKiernan, Jason McLoughlin and Gerard Smith for their mammoth displays in their win.

For a decade or more, McKiernan has been one of the best footballers in Ulster. But earlier in his career, he could be bottled up on big Championship days.

But those days are firmly in his rear view. The Cavan Gaels playmaker is consistently excellent across both halves in games and he routinely produces the goods in the final 10 minutes when his team needs him.

That was McKiernan in a nutshell yesterday. He rarely wasted a ball and although he had a pair of goal chances either side of half-time he remained Cavan’s go-to man.

The Breffni Blues’ number 11 bagged an important score in the opening half and landed three more in the second half, all converted at crucial times.

Gerard Smith’s possession stats must be off the charts too, and he claimed four points from play in this semi-final, three of them coming in the second half that helped keep Sligo at arm’s length.

Niall Murphy, sprung from the Sligo bench at the start of the second half, hit four cracking points and gave McEntee’s side renewed impetus, but it was Cavan ultimately who showed the greater economy in front of the posts.

And yet, when the dust settles on this semi-final, Sligo will rue their nervy start that allowed the 2020 Ulster champions to build a 0-6 to no score lead after 14 minutes.

James Smith, Thomas Galligan, Conor Brady and Patrick Lynch struck confidently at Sligo’s posts.

While Cavan were shooting the lights out in that opening quarter of an hour, Sligo racked up three wides, another effort came off the goalpost and two more shots dropped short in the first 11 minutes.

Suddenly, the Yeats men re-discovered the art of tackling. They began to make contact with Cavan’s runners and got plenty of joy.

A couple of rousing turnovers – one from impressive full-back Evan Lyons and later three black jerseys relieved Thomas Galligan of the ball – allowed their supporters in the Hogan stand to find their voice.

Indeed, the sacking of Galligan led directly to the move that saw Sligo’s raiding wing-back Luke Towey win a 20th minute penalty that was brilliantly converted by Pat O’Connor and reduced Cavan’s lead to 0-6 to 1-1.

The Ulstermen replied immediately to that major when Killian Brady’s daring effort sneaked inside Sligo’s posts.

Still, McEntee’s young side could easily have been in front at the break, instead of trailing 0-11 to 1-3. Pat O’Connor’s close-range effort came back off Cavan’s crossbar in the 29th minute and five minutes later Oisin Kiernan somehow blocked Mikey Gordon’s goal-bound effort on the line.

Alan Reilly was the architect of both Sligo chances with two brilliant kick passes.

Cavan suffered a dose of the yips themselves at the start of the second period. Galligan had his effort saved and James Smith missed the target.

Sligo then hit three in a row – two from Niall Murphy and one from buccaneering midfielder Pat Spillane – that cut Cavan’s lead to just two points [0-11 to 1-6].

But every time Sligo threatened to get closer, Cavan would convert at the other end.

Pat O’Connor saw his scuffed effort from close range cleared off the line by the ubiquitous Oisin Kiernan on 55 minutes before Murphy nabbed his third of the day.

Niall Murphy’s fourth of the day on 63 minutes briefly made it a two-point game before McKiernan and Gerard Smith between them put four between the side heading into stoppage-time.

There were no last-gasp finishes that Sligo have become renowned for in earlier rounds of the competition.

Cavan just had a little too much for them with Mickey Graham's men boxing cleverly in the final few minutes to book their final place against Westmeath on July 9.

Cavan: R Galligan (0-1 free); J McLoughlin, P Faulkner, K Brady (0-1); C Brady, K Clarke (0-1), C Brady (0-1); T Galligan (0-1), J Smith (0-2); O Kiernan (0-1), G McKiernan (0-4, 0-1 free), G Smith (0-4); M Reilly (0-1), P Lynch (0-1), S Smith Subs: C Madden (0-2) for M Reilly (31), O Brady for C Madden (53), C Moynagh for K Brady (67), C Conroy for P Lynch (75)

Sligo: A Devaney; N Mullen, E Lyons, P McNamara; L Towey, D Cummins (0-1), P Kilcoyne; P Laffey, P Spillane (0-2); M Gordon, A Reilly (0-1), K Cawley; S Carrabine (0-3, 0-2 frees), P Hughes (0-1), P O’Connor (1-2, 1-0 pen, 0-1 mark) Subs: N Murphy (0-4) for P Hughes (h/t), M Walsh for K Cawley (53), D Quinn for D Cummins (62), C Griffin for P Laffey (63) G Gorman for P Spillane (70)

Yellow card: P O’Connor (62)

Referee: F Kelly (Longford)

Cavan's James Smith and Sligo's Aiden Devaney and Hathan Mullen in yesterday's Tailteann Cup semi-final Picture: Philip Walsh.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football