Gearoid McKiernan in action against Laois's John O'Loughlin when the sides met in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise in February 2015.

Portlaoise should hold no fears for Breffni men

Paul Fitzpatrick

Under new manager Mike Quirke, the former Kerry All-Ireland winner, Laois have confounded low expectations in their own county with an excellent start to the campaign.

Against Roscommon in game one, they struck for 2-1 in the dying minutes to force a draw before thumping a fancied Armagh side last time out. A line of form through the Orchard men would obviously not make for pleasant reading and the bookies make the home side 8/13 favourites to pick up a second victory on Sunday.

But, on closer inspection, it could be argued that Laois are not as good as their results to date would suggest. The arrival of the personable Quirke has brought a bounce but, surprisingly, he has not focused on intense preparations in comparison to other counties; it is understood that the team only returned to heavy training in December.

Like Cavan, the O'Moore men lost a number of key players over the winter. The most high profile were attacking brothers Donie and Paul Kingston but corner-back and captain Stephen Attride, who is in Australia, and half-forward Gareth Dillon were also serious losses.

Again, like Cavan, there was quite a bit of pessimism around the county prior to the National League throw-in, with a feeling that a depleted side may have been under-cooked going into the competitive fray but they have stepped up impressively, notably against Kieran McGeeney's men last time out.

Still, there are areas where Cavan will feel they can be got at. Their full-back line is not the fastest, with Brian Byrne having been relocated from half-forward and veteran Mark Timmons, a great servant, not as quick as he was.

Highly-rated goalkeeper Graham Brody was a late returnee to the squad and has yet to feature, although former Airtricity League soccer player Niall Corbett has done well between the sticks.

Both wing-backs, Sean O'Flynn and Paddy O'Sullivan, have been ear-marked as stars of the future, with athleticism and skills to burn, while combative centre-back Robbie Piggott plays on the edge.

At midfield, John O'Loughlin and Kieran Lillis (who usually lines out at 14 on the team sheet) are strong and hard-working types and how they cope with Cavan will be key to this battle.

Thomas Galligan was a revelation in the second half last week and if he can repeat that level of performance along with the likes of James Smith and Gearoid McKiernan, Cavan will be well on their way but that won't be easy against a durable Laois duo.

The attack has a patched-up look to it but still can cause damage. UCD's Evan O'Carroll is the go-to target man while youngster Mark Barry is an outstanding player who has excelled at underage level.

Cavan's half-back line were very good against Westmeath and they will look to make hay in their area, with Padraig Faulkner probably the man to shadow O'Carroll and Killian Brady set to tag left-footer Barry. 

At half-time against Westmeath, Cavan looked to be heading for Division 3. By full-time, the most optimistic of supporters were whispering about a return to the top flight after an exhilarating second-half turnaround.

Mickey Graham wore a broad smile after the match and well he might. Privately, management were expressing confidence in their charges all along and that faith was repaid in the end against Westmeath. Contrary to rumour, it seems to be a happy camp. But context is crucial. This was 'just' Westmeath. And there was a freakish quality to the game, a sense that Cavan, backed into a corner, just bit on their gumshields and came out swinging.

That's a high risk, high reward tactic, a desperate one perhaps, but on this occasion, it produced a knock-out.

Portlaoise is a new day. On the front foot last time, the likes of Galligan and Stephen Murray were magnificent but it would be extremely difficult to attack at that sort of intensity for a full 70 minutes.

After the slow bicycle race that was the first half, Cavan free-wheeled through the last 15 minutes against Westmeath. This Sunday will be more of a tactical race, with plenty of uphill climbs to be negotiated.

Discipline as always will be key. That was an area in which Cavan fell down last week on a few occasions and a repeat of that would be punished by the accurate Barry and O'Carroll.

But something clicked mid-match last Saturday evening. It reminded us of the Meath game in 2016. Down by seven at half-time in round three in Páirc Tailteann having lost the opening two matches, Cavan just went for it.
Suddenly, the handbrake was off and they strung together five wins, a run which secured promotion and brought them to a league final in Croke Park.

So, momentum is crucial. In a wide-open division – who would have predicted Kildare, Armagh and Roscommon all to lose last weekend? - it is hard to evaluate the form.

As we get a wider sample of data, that task will become easier. As always with Cavan in recent years, with flux in personnel and performance, we can't say with confidence exactly where they are at.
Sunday will tell us a lot more. Anything could happen. Cavan to win? Why not?

Verdict: Cavan by three.