The hardest thing to do in Gaelic football is to back up a big performance with... a big performance. That’s what Cavan must do if they are to kick on and look for promotion from Division 3, writes Michael Hannon.
Inter-county action resumes this week with round three of the National Football League taking place across Ireland. Cavan travel to Navan on Saturday night for their second consecutive local derby after the fixtures list threw up the round two meeting against Monaghan. If anything can beat a home derby victory, its an away derby victory, and Cavan will quietly fancy their chances of achieving that this weekend.
I bumped into Kevin Diffley at the recent Sigerson Cup weekend. Kevin, a member of the Longford panel, noted that with two straight losses in Division 2, by very narrow margins, it was backs to the wall time already in their season. With only seven league games to play, round three might as well be called the place where dreams go to die. Win and I’m sure Longford will harbour outside ambitions for promotion. Lose and the trap door to Division 3 beckons.
Thankfully, Cavan’s victory the last day out, and indeed the results right across the division, mean that no matter what happens this weekend, every team will still have a shot of achieving their pre-season goals. A competitive Division 3 means we’re unlikely to see any runaway leaders. In fact its not inconceivable that Cavan could lose on Saturday and still find themselves just two points off the top of the table. Most fans would have aligned themselves favourably with that notion, three rounds into the league, before the campaign began. But given how things have transpired I’m sure people will be wishing for more.
Back to back victories in the league — for the first time since last year’s wins over Sligo and Tipperary were achieved — is what awaits Cavan should they win. In fact, those victories were the only time we experienced back to back wins last year, while in the previous campaign we only went back to back in our final two games against Louth and Tipperary at home. This revelation reminds me of something the late Eamon Coleman was fond of telling us during his reign as manager in 2004-2005. The hardest thing to do in Gaelic football, he said, is to back up a big performance with... a big performance. Eamon contended that any team could raise their game, on any given day for a match. The trick was to get players consistently playing above themselves until this new level of performance became the norm. Easier said than done...
From that perspective it is perhaps a blessing that the team have just had a mini-break. The club games over the last two weeks do not offer a respite but the change of scenery is as good as a break. I’m sure when the panel met for training this week the victory over Monaghan seemed a little more distant and less relevant than the challenge posed by the Meath game. That’s the way it should be. As Coleman maintained, get too comfortable and old habits will resurface.
The management have a few key decisions to make, not least of all the decision to stay with the U21s or return them to the U21 panel. In previous years when Terry Hyland managed the U21s he kept a tight rein on their participation with the seniors. Usually they weren’t to be seen until they had exited the U21 championship. This benefitted the U21s as the panel was completely focused on their own goals, and important players were not distracted by their involvement with the senior team. The end justifies the means, and successive Ulster U21 championships are hard to argue with.
This year there seems to be a relaxation of this rule with Jack Brady and Killian Clarke both having played parts in the current senior campaign. Presumably they are gong to be released back to the U21s soon in anticipation of the Ulster U21 championship, which commences in three weeks’ time. Does he release them before or after Saturday’s crucial match against Meath?
Some of that decision will be based on the health of his panel after the two rounds of club league games that have just taken place. No doubt one or two players will have picked up some injuries, and another one or two will have exacerbated a few niggles they were already carrying. At this time of the year players will be acutely aware that any injuries that are not clearing up could derail their entire season.
The flip side to that coin is that certain players, who started the season injured, should be near to rejoining the panel. Eugene Keating for one, should be close to making his 2013 inter-county bow.
Were Keating fit to make a return over these next few weeks, a big decision would have to be made on David Givney, who has been operating on the edge of the square in the last number of matches. Anyone who attended the Sigerson Cup weekend would have been impressed by the performances the Mountnugent man put in for DIT in both the semi-final and final. “Utterly dominant” was the phrase used by one UCC supporter in the stand behind me, and at times the Cavan player seemed unplayable at midfield, especially in the final, where he capped it all off with 1-2 from play.
Perhaps I was watching the final through Breffni-tinted glasses, but I was surprised by his failure to win the TG4 Man of the Match award. That went to DIT’s Bryan Menton for his performance at fullback. Ironically enough, Menton is also the Meath full-back and so the two college team-mates might get to lock horns only days after winning the Sigerson competition together. Menton was very impressive in the semi-final victory over DCU where he completely nullified the threat posed by Donegal’s Michael Murphy. Built big and powerfully, a player like Givney might suit Menton.
A smaller, faster, more mobile option might take the Meath man out of his comfort zone.
Interestingly, in Meath, the GAA fraternity are itching to see Menton released from full-back, possibly to centre-back, or even out to midfield, where they have misfired so far in both their league games. So don’t be surprised if the Givney-Menton match up materialises further out the field either.
We’re at the stage of the season now where we will quickly find out what level Cavan are operating at. Some teams will have used the three-week break to raise their fitness levels. Others will have tried to work out some of the kinks that presented themselves in the opening two rounds. Usually, by round three, any early-season advantages accrued by various team in terms of fitness will be negligible.
From now until four weeks’ time, when we have the next break in the league, any marginal gains achieved will generally be made by improving game play. From this point of view it will be interesting to observe the development of the team over the next four weeks. And that all starts against Meath, in Navan on Saturday night. Another two points, and another good performance would prime the team nicely for the rest of the campaign.