Gearoid McKiernan holds off a tackle.
It’s hard to know where to begin when analysing last Saturday night’s victory over neighbours Meath in Páirc Tailteann. As utterly dominant as Cavan’s first-half performance was, it should be placed in the context of the woeful resistance offered up by Meath. I had spoken to some Meath friends in the build-up to the match and there was none of the usual bravado from them that I have come to expect — a first sign that something was amiss, perhaps.
While their county had been poor against Monaghan on the opening day of the league, the victory against Wicklow was, according to one supporter, just as depressing. “So poor were Meath in round 2 that only for the indisputable fact that God is a Meathman, we’d have no points at all,” he joked with me. I wonder how he feels about God now...
Of course, this is not to detract from the performance of Cavan. On the night they comprehensively out-fought and out-thought their counterparts. They monopolised possession in the first half to such a degree that the Cavan full-back line of James McEnroe, Oisin Minagh and Kilian Brady were in serious danger of experiencing a slow and painful death... by boredom.
Meath managed only one point in the first period. Did they even manage five attacks of note? They were repeatedly turned over in or around the Cavan 45-metre line from where Cavan orchestrated a series of counter attacks.
Part of Meath’s problem in the first half was dealing with the additional players Cavan got back in defence. If Meath were attacking down one wing, they were doing so in a race against Cavan’s half-forward line on the side of the pitch. On numerous occasions while Mark McKeever was tackling and tracking on one side of Páirc Tailteann, Cian Mackey could be seen running back to take up position 25 yards in front of his full-back line, ready to cut out the cross field pass should it get delivered. And if it was sent in high, the Cavan defenders knew that as long as it wasn’t caught clean, a blue jersey would pick up the breaking ball.
After a few possessions were turned over in this fashion, the Meath players changed their tactics a little. They started running the ball a little bit more but they often ended up trying to break through a wall of Cavan bodies around the 45-metre line. From this point of view, the evolution of the Cavan team from the Antrim match could be seen. Players seemed to know their defensive roles much better.
The aimless chasing of the ball by too many players that had been a symptom in the Belfast defeat was no more. Mossy Corr, for example, knew exactly where he was meant to be when Meath were attacking. On numerous occasions the Denn player raced back to assume the role of a second centre-back. Cavan bodies weren’t getting dragged out of positions as they had been on the opening day of the league.
I wrote a few weeks ago of the importance of Mackey to this Cavan team and the way they are trying to set up. For anyone in attendance on Saturday, this point can only have been highlighted by the performance the Castlerahan player put in. He played an important role in numerous Cavan attacks, and in a majority of Cavan’s scores. He’s one of a few players who can change the point of attack. He has the ability to deliver the ball when the forward wants it. Try to close him down and he can slip past you with his speed and agility; stand a little off him and he can bide his time before delivering the inside pass.
A subtle change in the modern game as a result of mass defences is the redeployment of your archetypal corner-forward from the corner out into the half-forward line. For years, the fastest player ended up playing corner-forward on every team. Starting out at U12, this lad would get stuck in the corner and would stay there all the way up to senior inter-county level, the unwritten theory being that with his little burst of speed, he was liable to do most damage in close to the goals.
With the mass defense now prevalent, quality ball can’t be so easily sent into full-forward line for the corner-forward to run out onto. That little burst of speed so cherished by managers is actually, in today’s game, more beneficial in the half-forward line.
With this in mind, it was another head-scratching moment to look down at the programme on Saturday night and see Graham Reilly stuck in at full-forward for the Royals. What Mackey offers Cavan in his wing-forward position, Reilly can similarly offer Meath. While he might not have the playmaking abilities of Cian, Reilly possesses superior power and scoring ability. He regularly manages to notch up four points from play, and wins another three or four kickable frees per game from wing-forward.
In the second half he got moved out and kicked two points from play. The goal also came from a shot of his that fell short. Perhaps the reasoning behind playing him inside might be due to fitness concerns. He is only recently back from an injury and might yet not be able to play 70 minutes in the half-forward role.
On this note, it should be said that the conditioning of the Cavan team in general looked superior to the Meath players. That can sometimes be misleading for the spectator though. It’s always easier to run hard when your team has the ball, and as has already been mentioned, Cavan had lots of the ball.
Having said that, Kevin Reilly, who is only returning from injury himself, looked as well-conditioned as anyone on the pitch when introduced at the start of the second half. And the big Meathman went about his night’s work with a level of conviction that his team-mates had been lacking in the first period. Perhaps in recognition of this, Cavan released Givney from the edge of the square to counter the growing influence Reilly was having on the contest.
With powerful and athletic players, such as the two Reillys, now playing in the right positions, there were periods in the second half where Meath seemed to have figured out how to score points against Cavan’s defence. The only problem was, by then they needed goals. There is always something to work on after a match and these 20 minutes should be examined again to eke out further gains before the Sligo match.
Because, regardless of form, Sligo away from home will be an interesting battle. With David Kelly, their marquee forward, having missed the entire league campaign so far following ankle surgery, the Yeats County will have to look for scores from elsewhere. They have the worst scoring return of any team bar Wicklow in the division. That is one of the benefits for Cavan for focusing on defence. On any given day you can go out and hit a bunch of wides — that’s poor skill execution, and it happens — but if the attitude is right, and the planning and organising has been done, then there is no excuse not to play tough defence every day. Do that and you are guaranteed to still be in the contest coming down to the last few minutes, every day out.
Sligo will be looking at this match and thinking that it’s their last chance to salvage something from the campaign. A win for Cavan, Antrim, and either Fermanagh or Monaghan (who play each other), and a gap will start to open between the top half of the table and everyone else. They won’t want to see that happen. They showed when they beat Antrim in Markievicz Park in round 2 that, at home, they’re a dangerous proposition for any team in this league.
It should be a good game. I’m sure Cavan will have their homework done; at this stage they won’t leave anything in the lap of the gods. Anyway, God himself will be busy this week, trying to solve the problems in Meath football.