Another close county final is expected – almost guaranteed – and the underdogs have more than a puncher’s chance, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.
The build-up to the recent All-Ireland final will have been instructive for the footballers of Castlerahan. Before each of Mayo's ill-fated final appearances of recent seasons, there have been countless articles about their long wait for a breakthrough, about the ludicrous 'curse' and their many close shaves.
This year's run-in was markedly different. While Mayo fans were more confident than possibly they ever were, the level of emotional attachment seemed higher, too. It manifested itself in a desperate longing for success, in interviews where supporters and former players openly wept and talked about those who had gone to their graves without ever seeing a Mayo captain climb the steps of the Hogan Stand and be introduced to Mr Sam Maguire, garlanded in green and red.
To win just once, as the Saw Doctors sang, that would be enough. Those words could have been the mood music for the fortnight before the final. And that was where Mayo lost the game.
Because against a backdrop of such desperate yearning, and regardless of the amount of times we heard that this was a great Mayo team anyway, even if they never achieved their goal, the pressure was ratcheted to unbearable levels.
True to form, Mayo found themselves in a winning position but it was Dublin who had the clear eyes and calm pulses needed to close the deal.
With every defeat, the stakes are raised for Mayo. It's hard enough to follow a process under extremely testing conditions; to do so in the knowledge that to win – not to perform, or hit targets or edge contests but just to win – would represent deliverance for a whole tribe is almost impossible.
That is the context Castlerahan must rail against if they are to defeat Cavan Gaels on Sunday. To perform to their maximum just once - that would be enough this time.
They say you must lose one to win one and there's possibly some merit in that based on the experience gained on the big day. But once you have lost more than one, the task becomes trickier than ever because it becomes a quest.
Don't believe me? Look at the Cavan senior footballers. Does it get harder or easier, with every passing year, for those taking the field? Does every missed opportunity make grabbing the next one more staightforward or does doubt invade the minds of players? Such an unwanted intruder rummaging through your stuff can only make you uneasy.
So, if Castlerahan are to have any chance, they must approach this ball game for what it is – just that – and in a positive frame of mind.
Of course, there has to be some mental scar tissue from previous finals, especially last year's replay, when they were 0-5 to 0-1 up early on. But that's in the past.
Castlerahan's squad has been strengthened significantly this year. Into the panel have come Paul Smith – who was out with a broken leg last year – and his cousin Pauric, home from Australia.
While Shane McSweeney has returned to Kerry, Oisin and Karl Kiernan’s arrival from Ballinacree has off-set that loss. Otherwise, all of the key men remain and are fit and well.
The blue corner
They will need them all. Cavan Gaels have been favourites to win this title and have played like it from when the season threw in back in the Spring.
The Gaels won their first 13 matches of the season, in league and championship, by an average of 8.5 points. With 14 men against Cootehill in what was essentially a dead rubber of a final championship group game, they still didn't lose and despite blowing a big early lead, they found a way to win against Crosserlough in the quarter-final, too.
Manager Jason O'Reilly will have been delighted to have had those tests. It will stave away any doubts that the Gaels are under-cooked, any fears that having won so many matches so easily, they have been denied the crucial learning opportunities that defeats inevitably offer.
That's important because the nagging suspicion is there that maybe – just maybe – there can be an asterisk attached to the form the Terry Coyle Park men have shown. They have slaughtered almost everyone they have met – but are the teams they have met any good, or even as good as they have been in the recent past?
The point was made last week that, Cavan Gaels, Killygarry and Crosserlough aside, a case can be made for every other team in senior ranks having gone backwards this year.
Ramor were certainly not as impressive this time around. 2016 semi-finalists Gowna and league champions Lacken survived relegation play-offs. Mullahoran went down, Lavey did not kick on.
Perennial contenders Kingscourt were disappointing, despite making a semi, with Mullahoran and Gowna the only sides they defeated who didn't also beat them.
Ballinagh, champions four years ago and regularly competing at the business end since, were a kick of the ball from losing their status, too.
Against that backdrop, it could be argued – and we're playing Devil's advocate here – that Cavan Gaels are not the unbreakable force their record this season suggests they are. Of course, all any team can do is beat what's put in front of them but if Castlerahan were to upset the odds on Sunday, the Gaels' superb run to this point would surely be viewed through a different prism.
What isn't in doubt is their firepower. Sean Johnston has been re-invigorated by the hunt for a 10th senior medal. Martin Dunne has been razor sharp and Paul O'Connor carries a huge goal threat always.
They are in great shape physically – O'Reilly, a qualified strength and conditioning expert, has done a tremendous job on this end - and have strong runners in every line which was essentially what did for the jaded Stars last time.
Most crucially, though, the Gaels are highly motivated, with the presence – and presence is the operative word - of their former rabble-rousing centre-back Eamonn Reilly as selector surely a key factor.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Path to the final
Cavan Gaels 1-14 Lacken 2-7
Cavan Gaels 3-15 Arva 0-9
Cavan Gaels 2-14 Ramor 1-7
Cavan Gaels 0-11 Cootehill 2-5
Cavan Gaels 1-14 Crosserlough 3-6
Cavan Gaels 2-10 Kingscourt 0-8
Manager: Jason O’Reilly
Selectors: Karol Crotty, Eamonn Reilly
Captain: Micheál Lyng
Top scorer: Martin Dunne (1-31, 0-19f, 2 45s)
Last title: 2014 SFC
Path to the final
Castlerahan 0-16 Arva 0-13
Castlerahan 2-8 Lavey 2-8
Castlerahan 1-11 Ballinagh 1-6
Castlerahan 0-15 Crosserlough 0-14
Castlerahan 0-18 Cootehill 0-12
Castlerahan 0-10 Ramor 0-9
Manager: Donal Keogan
Selector: Anthony Forde
Captain: Ronan Flanagan
Top scorer: Cian Mackey (0-22, 11f)
Last title: 2001 IFC
Goals win games
Are there areas in which they can be got at? We think there are. Castlerahan will surely target midfield, where they need another big game from David Wright, but although they have a ball-winner on the edge of the square in Sean Brady, the Gaels showed that they could deal with an aerial bombardment when Kingscourt launched countless high balls goalwards last time with little return.
So, it will likely become a game where both sides look to run the ball as often as possible, to painstakingly tease out the combination and pick the lock. That will suit Castlerahan – with players such as the Flanagans and Cian Mackey, whose use of the ball is exemplary - as much as it will suit the favourites.
A low-scoring match is likely and, while it's a cliché, it's probable that whatever side takes their chances will win.
Recent finals, not including replays, could not have been tighter. Last year was a draw, 2015, 2014 and 2013 were one-point games, the one before that was also stalemate. That is unlikely to change on Sunday.
Goals, as we have written before, are the poison in Cavan Gaels' bite. They thrive off them, too – in the first half against Kingscourt, they spurned several point-scoring opportunities in favour of working a goal chance.
Against Lacken, O'Connor bagged a goal in the 10th minute. Versus Arva, the first two scores were goals from Micheál Lyng and Kevin Brady.
Next time against Ramor, the Gaels' first score was also a goal, from Paul Graham eight minutes in.
In the quarter-final, after a slow start, Kevin Meehan hit the net at the end of the first quarter and the Gaels were energised, quickly reeling off four points from play.
And, in the semi-final, O'Connor hit the net after 14 minutes and again 30 seconds after the restart.
The only match Cavan Gaels haven't won all year, the Cootehill group game, was also only one of two in which they didn't land a three-pointer. Indeed, they didn't even threaten that day, faced as they were by an eight-man Celtics defence. There's a lesson there, surely.
In the league, the Gaels routinely hit multiple goals (three against Ramor, five versus Belturbet, four against Cootehill and Arva) while Castlerahan conceded a glut, leaking 10 in their first six matches.
And then the sides met and while Cavan Gaels won, they unusually drew a blank. In the championship, Castlerahan have kept four clean sheets in their six games, and Ballinagh's goal was a penalty with 10 minutes to go when they were seven down. Could this tell us something?
This is the 10th county final this column has previewed. We tipped Cavan Gaels in '08, '09, '10, '11, '13 and '14 and they won four of six.
The common consensus used to be that the time to catch the kingpins was early but the stats since 2008 suggest otherwise, that their final record in the last decade is poorer than their quarter-final (seven wins from nine) and semi-final (seven from seven inclduing this year’s) ones.
That may be fairly tenuous but it gives hope to Castlerahan all the same. If they can cut off the Gaels' oxygen of goals – or at least do so early – and can get one of their own – which they haven't managed in the last three games, admittedly - the upset, whisper it, could just be on.
Verdict: Castlerahan by one