Allianz National League Division Three: Cavan v Down (tomorrow, Kingspan Breffni, 2pm – live on BBC iPlayer)
SUNDAY brings the first of three Ulster derbies in-a-row for Cavan – and Mickey Graham’s men will be determined to seal promotion by taking out a resurgent Down at Kingspan Breffni.
Given how the campaign has unfolded, this looks the toughest test of mettle to date for both.
Comfortable victories over Westmeath, Tipperary, Longford and Offaly so far have seen Cavan make the early running, and with the highest overall points tally and meanest defence in Division Three, they know victory over the Mournemen would ensure a second consecutive promotion.
The manner in which Cavan inexplicably tumbled down the divisions after their 2020 Ulster title triumph remains a head scratcher, but Graham has made the best of a bad situation by blooding a host of youngsters and adding real depth to an already strong panel.
Just look at the campaign to date. Jason McLoughlin hadn’t played a minute until coming off the bench in the second half of the Offaly game last week and, with Evan Finnegan and Niall Carolan excelling in his absence, the experienced man-marker faces a fight to reclaim his jersey.
Wing-forward Oisin Kiernan hasn’t featured in the past two games, while the talismanic Gearoid McKiernan hasn’t kicked a ball in county colours since the Tailteann Cup final defeat to Westmeath.
With a return to action not too far away, and that could even come at some stage on Sunday, McKiernan will add serious quality and experience to the mix.
Paddy Lynch, one of the Breffni stars last year, was used from the bench until injury saw top scorer Oisin Brady come off against Longford a fortnight ago.
Pitched in from the start in Tullamore, Lynch produced a man-of-the-match performance, finishing with 0-10, three from play, but it was the 23-year-old’s movement and general game intelligence which really shone. With Brady back in contention, some big decisions lie ahead.
Graham has no shortage of experienced heads to call upon too and, with Killian Clarke pushing into midfield alongside David Brady in McKiernan’s absence, the returning Dara McVeety – who had been on his travels since 2019 – has dropped into centre-back with the minimum of fuss.
Having played the bulk of his career as an attacking link man, McVeety’s efficiency in the tackle and leadership on the ball have added an extra dimension to the Breffni cause.
All that puts into perspective the challenge facing Down, but they will take heart from a campaign that has followed a different kind of course.
Where Cavan have largely cruised across the line, the Mournemen have had to dig their way out holes against Antrim and Westmeath, while struggling Tipperary also threatened to claw back a huge deficit on the opening day.
For that reason it is difficult to assess exactly where Conor Laverty’s men stand right now. In the opening 45 minutes against Westmeath they were too passive and too predictable, allowing the visitors easy turnovers as attacks consistently broke down. There were similar issues against Antrim and in defeat to Fermanagh.
A raft of changes early in the second half last weekend had the desired effect. Rory Mason is an assured passer, the threat of Ryan Johnston’s pace from deep seemed to unsettle Westmeath, while older brother Jerome roamed out to good effect.
His last appearance for Down was in the dramatic 2020 Ulster semi-final against Cavan when he scored five from play in a scintillating first half. It will be interesting to see if last weekend’s cameo earns him a start on Sunday.
And the Kilcoo contingent has increased further after 2021/22 Club Player of the Year Eugene Branagan joined the panel this week, taking the tally to nine Magpies in total alongside the three Johnston brothers, Niall Kane, Miceal Rooney, Ryan McEvoy, Anthony Morgan and Ceilum Doherty.
Speculation during the week suggested Aaron Branagan had also joined, but it is understood that isn’t the case.
Younger brother Eugene’s involvement raised eyebrows in some quarters, considering last year he claimed to have no interest in playing for Down.
“I think there’s a core of players who don’t know how to win,” said the 26-year-old in May 2022, “they haven’t the winning mentality.”
Clearly Branagan feels that has changed under club-mate Laverty, and the evidence of those late, late shows in recent weeks suggests he is right.
A Down win on Sunday would blow the promotion race wide open, presuming on-song Fermanagh account for Tipperary in Ederney - but they would need a significant improvement.
Under Laverty, Down have bagged 15 goals across seven games in 2023, with majors igniting those late rallies against Antrim and Westmeath. Maintaining that form in front of goal will be a different proposition against Cavan, who have been solid as a rock at the back.
Where both are still developing, the Breffnimen look a step further along the road. A Division Two team in waiting, they can show why by edging across the line.