Down need everything to go right to take Cavan scalp and claim semi spot

Down boss Conor Laverty will be hoping for a potentially season-defining victory over Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh
Down boss Conor Laverty will be hoping for a potentially season-defining victory over Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh Down boss Conor Laverty will be hoping for a potentially season-defining victory over Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh

Tailteann Cup quarter-final: Cavan v Down (Saturday, Kingspan Breffni, 5.15pm – live on GAAGO)

AFTER weeks of consistently inconsistent showings that have inspired hair pulling frustration and cautious optimism in equal measure, Down must deliver their most complete performance of the year to have any chance of toppling Cavan at Kingspan Breffni.

The days of Conor Laverty mixing and matching his starting 15 in opening group wins over Waterford and Tipperary look more and more like a form of mid season pre-season before more meaningful outings against Meath and Longford.

And, from those two games, the jury couldn’t be anything but out.

The Royals nudged across the line at the death at Parnell Park, though the victory that sent them into Saturday’s Tailteann Cup quarter-final with Wexford owed plenty to Down’s profligacy – the Mournemen racking up an inexplicable 17 wides despite perfect conditions.

That apparent lack of confidence in the final third has been an issue for Down all year. Nineteen goals across 13 League and Championship games have papered over the cracks, but the balance between keeping the scoreboard ticking over and going for the jugular has been hard to strike.

It was the same against Longford last weekend when the Mournemen were guilty of overplaying in the opening 35, regularly running into traffic and turning down opportunities for points when presented.

As the Midlanders grew in confidence, they could have been out the gate by half-time after squandering three gilt-edged goalscoring opportunities in a kamikaze final five minutes.

Most concerning of all was how easily those opportunities came about, booming kick-outs from Patrick Collum leaving Down’s defence at sixes and sevens, lucky that Longford couldn’t capitalise on the acres of space granted.

Laverty dispensed with sweeper Gerard Collins before half-time, and the introduction of Ross Carr and Danny Magill helped sway the second half in Down’s favour – Magill’s brilliant 45th minute goal sucking the energy from Longford legs as the Mournemen seized control.

Credit is due for recognising the issues and addressing them, but Down know they cannot afford to allow Cavan to get any kind of foothold.

Unsurprisingly, given last Saturday’s cameo, Magill starts at Kingspan Breffni, and his ability to break the lines could be key. Patrick Branagan has been brought in, and will add a combative edge around the middle where - even in the absence of James Smith - Cavan hold the upper hand in terms of size and stature. Ryan McEvoy, named on the bench, remains an option for this sector too.

Ryan Johnston’s return to the starting 15 is a boost given that, alongside midfield maestro Odhran Murdock, the Kilcoo man has been the county’s best player this year. Although listed at 15, Johnston is more likely to operate from deep, leaving Pat Havern up top on his own with Eugene Branagan buzzing around.

Laverty is likely to adopt the kind of safety approach favoured in the first half of the League meeting between the counties back in March. Packing the defence and waiting to break at pace, Down went in level after a low-scoring grind of a first half - but once Cavan got their noses in front, the Mouremen didn’t have the attacking tools to take the fight to their opponents without leaving the door wide open at the back.

The Breffnimen, though, have struggled to rediscover a bit of their early season spark. The nature of their Ulster Championship exit to Armagh, given the growing talk of a potential upset in the days before, still an open wound.

Cavan have cantered into the quarter-final, beating Laois by nine and London by six before having 16 to spare as top spot in Group One was secured.

This is their first serious test since the Tailteann Cup began and, while Down toiled against Meath and Longford, they will take comfort from coming out the right side of such tests.

Talk of a potential injury to Paddy Lynch – who finished up with 2-5 in the League clash - has swirled around Cavan since his late withdrawal against the Faithful, but he is named to start. Dara McVeety, who got his first minutes since the Armagh game when sprung from the bench last weekend, is listed among the subs – though it would be no surprise to see the Crosserlough man start at Kingspan Breffni, possibly at the expense of Niall Carolan.

The return of Jason McLoughlin and Gerry Smith to the matchday panel further demonstrates the depth of talent Cavan have at their disposal on a day when everything suddenly starts to get serious.

The Breffnimen have earned a bit of breathing room against Down, Fermanagh (in the Division Three final), Laois and London in breakneck third quarters, and possess the pace and power across the board to make the Mournemen pay for any lapses in concentration.

Yet Down will also see areas of opportunity. Cavan have conceded 12 goals in 12 games, while five times this year opponents have hit the net inside the opening 10 minutes - Laverty’s men carry a goal threat, and must seize upon any chance that comes their way.

Against a side that is physically further along the road, so much needs to go right for Down – if it does they are more than capable of coming away with a potentially season-defining win.

Cavan: R Galligan; C Reilly, P Faulkner, N Carolan; Ciaran Brady, O Kiernan, Conor Brady; G McKiernan, K Clarke; C Madden, J McCabe, T Madden; B Boylan, P Lynch, O Brady

Down: N Kane; P McCarthy, P Laverty, A Doherty; M Rooney, C Doherty, P Branagan; D Guinness, O Murdock; L Kerr, D McAleenan, D Magill; E Branagan, P Havern, R Johnston