Cavan have struggled for consistency but nothing less than a win will do - and that’s a tricky bind to be in, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.
Here we go again, the local squabble which keeps on giving.
Monaghan folk, their expectations raised, know they have their best team since the 1980s and will travel to Cavan in their thousands on Sunday expecting a routine win.
In this blue corner, they believe that victory in the fixture is long overdue. Someone is going to leave disappointed. Who is it going to be?
An argument could be made that in the past few seasons, Monaghan were a team of workers whose output was adorned by one genius, artisans with a sole artist supplying the finishing touches to their output.
Conor McManus has been the best inside forward in the country and the presence of that sort of once-in-a-generation talent potentially covers up for a multitude of limitations.
So, away from the claustrophobic world of the Ulster Championship, in the airy bright room in Dublin 3, they were found wanting.
What's more pertinent, perhaps, is that Monaghan have generally always had the best players in the county on board almost in recent seasons. They have retreaded old players and kept them on the road – the likes of Dick Clerkin, who retired last year, played on until his mid-30s; Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone are in the same bracket and are still on the panel.
Dealing with a limited pick, that buy-in from every player is essential if a team is to find any level of consistency – and only with consistency can come any sort of sustained improvement.
Across the county boundary, the opposite has been the case. Players come, players go. At the end of too many seasons, a hammer is taken to the vase and then it's pieced back together again, sometimes stronger, usually more flimsy.
The stats? Of the 21 players used in the 2014 Ulster Championship opener against Armagh, only 10 featured 12 months later in the same fixture against Monaghan.
And from that game, only 11 of the 21 featured a year later against Armagh again. That's a startling level of turnover and it's amazing that Cavan were able to remain generally upwardly mobile during that period.
And here we are, then, a year later once more and three of the starters from that Armagh win – David Givney, Feargal Flanagan and Michael Argue – and one of the subs who came on – Eugene Keating – are not currently involved in the panel.
Givney is the biggest loss. He had a terrific league last year, played well in the final in Croke Park, again in the championship opener and then wrecked Mickey Harte's best-laid plans in the drawn game against Tyrone.
In the replay the scores were tied at 0-5 apiece when he went off injured and, in hindsight, Cavan's summer went with him. A trouncing ensued that afternoon, an unconvincing win six days later against Division 4 Carlow followed and then came the careless Derry loss.
It was clear from early this season that Cavan missed the boat in 2016 – when the next one arrives is anyone's guess but the sobering reality is that the team has won just two matches – against Carlow and Mayo – from nine since the Mountnugent man last featured.
It's not rocket science – if you don't have all your best players, you won't be all you can be; you're consigned to a lifetime in transition, in attrition, too. One step forward, one step back. And repeat...
This turnover in personnel is the enemy of consistency. Cavan had it last year but have now lost it, as evidenced by their mixing of the sublime and the ridiculous in the league, being hammered by Donegal, toppling Mayo, drawing with Kerry and then losing to Roscommon in the space of three games.
With Keating also opting out, Cavan's long term problems closer to goal have reared their head again. The Blues were the lowest scoring team in the country in the National League – in 2016, they were the highest scoring. That's astonishing. Consistency, how are ya?
Cavan's issues in front of goal, magnified by the losses over the winter, have become more problematic with Sean Johnston's loss of form and subsequent injury problems.
Management innovated in the league, turning Dara McVeety into an inside forward with spectacular results but he picked up a knock on club duty and, even if he is fit, won't have much training behind him.
With another half a dozen or so carrying injuries recently (“they're dropping like flies,” joked one player), including Killian Clarke, Cavan may not be at full strength (even though they're said to be clearing up); in contrast, Monaghan have leader Darren Hughes to return and are in a good place.
As much as Cavan needed options close to goal, Monaghan – whose recent pedigree suggests their sights are set on higher things – required help for McManus just as much. Now, the crafstman has his apprentices.
Those reinforcements have arrived in the shape of Scotshouse man Jack McCarron – a first cousin of the aforementioned Clerkin – and Conor McCarthy, both of whom are natural scorers. They may or may not light up the championship but, as DJ Carey used to say when defending his record in All-Ireland finals, they'll take watching and others will benefit.
Whatever way we look at it, Monaghan are stronger than they were in 2015 when, if McManus had swapped jerseys, Cavan would certainly have beaten them.
Can we confidently say the same for the Breffni men? We can't. There are too many question marks over them to be bullish. The sloppy defeat to Roscommon in the final round of the league has changed the whole complexion of the championship build-up – instead of wearing a smile after a tremendous run-in, fans' brows are furrowed. In short, once again, it's hope rather than expectation which sums up the prevailing mood.
And yet, a Cavan win wouldn't be a shock, not for those who know their history. While Tyrone's unprecedented recent dominance over Derry may suggest that the form lines of old are irrelevant, in this great new future you can't forget your past, as someone sang.
No matter the relative disparity between them, Cavan and Monaghan, the oldest derby in the game, almost always produces a close contest. For proof, check out the the draw on a stony grey day in ’Blayney last February and the last four championship results between them, dating back to 1995 – two one-point wins for Monaghan, two two-point wins for Cavan, a total of 1-49 for us and 1-47 for them.
That's a plus, as is the fact that Mattie McGleenan knows Monaghan football inside out and Cavan, for the first time in 13 years, saw off a top eight team when they beat Mayo. They proved that day, and when holding Kerry, that they can compete with the best sides but which Cavan will show up?
On the debit side, home advantage is worth nothing to Cavan – they have won just five of 16 home games in league and championship since July 2014.
All the indicators point to a close game – and Cavan avoided defeat in three close ones in the league, which is an improvement – and it will have to be for Cavan to do it; it's hard to see where they will get the scores to win a free-wheeling thriller.
Johnston has never scored a three-pointer in championship and Cavan's best chance of getting one looks to be McVeety or Mackey maybe, or a wild card like Dillon, whose battle with Drew Wylie – if Dillon makes it – will be a throwback. Then again, there have been only two goals in this fixture in 22 years...
There are enough fragments in the form book to suggest Cavan have it in them to keep it tight, for Galligan to kick his frees, for someone to get the goal that will be crucial. If that happens, a win is very possible and a win is the only acceptable outcome.
All involved were rocked by the unthinkable, tragic passing of the popular Dominic Earley last Saturday and the panel as one visited his home and attended the wake. That will take an emotional toll which could go any way.
Cavan had their moral victories in 2013 and 2015 – but Monaghan's Ulster medals from those years gleam much brighter.
The head says the visitors are the safer bet. But there’s a feeling this Breffni side have something up their sleeve.