Ranked: The 12 senior football teams in Cavan
After this week’s developments, it appears there will be club football this year after all. To whet the appetite, PAUL FITZPATRICK ranks the 12 teams in the Senior Championship.
It would be impossible to compile this list and not put the Ballyjamesduff men in the top spot. They have won the Senior Championship and leagues for the last two seasons and were in the previous three county finals before that.
The feeling was that having achieved their goal of finally getting their hands on the Oliver Plunkett Cup with a thrilling final win over Crosserlough in 2018, Castlerahan had reached a crossroads. They would have been forgiven for resting on their laurels having achieved what they set out to do and having suffered so many setbacks along the way but they chose not to; in 2019, they looked liberated and played without the crippling weight of forever being tarnished as the best team never to win the championship on their shoulders.
They answered any questions last year when coming from 10 points down to draw with Lavey. They then turned in one of their best ever performances in a quarter-final replay in a monsoon against Killygarry, were mature and composed against the Gaels in the semi-final and again showed their poise in the final.
Like Mayo, with whom many paralells were drawn over the years, Castlerahan’s greatest strength is at the back where the likes of Enda O’Connell, Stephen Cooney, Fergal Reilly, Enda Flanagan, Paul Smith and Oisin Kiernan interchange as part of the best defensive unit in the county, a mix of bomb defusers and ball-players.
Up top, they lack an out and out scoring forward and that’s where the defection of Cian Mackey, so long the go-to man, will hurt them, while the word is that Ronan Flanagan may also hang up the boots which would be a seismic blow. While they have been on this odyssey at senior level, they have not brought through many youngsters, with Karl Cosgrove, who really came of age in 2019, the exception.
So, it may seem ironic given their dominance over the past two years but Castlerahan’s rivals may view them as vulnerable. Their defeat in the Ulster Club championship, when conditions were perfect for victory, may have left some scar tissue too and diminished their aura a little.
Still, they are resilient and committed and remain the most consistent team in the county. Write them off at your peril.
Manager: Glen O’Reilly
Key player: Paul Smith
Place on 2019 list: 1st
2019 results: ACFL Division 1 winners, SFC winners
2. Ramor United
The golden generation of Ramor players were expected to dominate after their breakthrough, ahead of time, back in 2016 but seemed to go off the boil for a couple of years. Last year, they bounced back, reaching the league and championship finals, losing both to their neighbours.
There are many who feel the Virginia men have the strongest all-round panel in the county at present. Ado Cole is certainly the best target man in the traditional sense and beside him, James Brady is one of the best poachers and a natural finisher.
In the absence of James McEnroe (emigrated) and Damien Barkey (injured) from their 2016 side, Jack Brady (below) was tasked with filling the number six shirt last year and that possibly robbed the side of his playmaking ability up front, which may have contributed to their failing to score a goal in four of their seven matches last year and kicking 12 wides in the county final.
With Conor Bradley having transferred to Dunboyne, it seems likely Brady will be returned to the attack this season, which should strengthen that sector. Ramor aren’t far away and a slight improvement in this sector – they averaged 14.8 points per game last championship – could see them over the line.
The underage conveyor belt is working well, with another U20 Division 1 title in bag from the tail end of last year, and mentors Ray Cole and Shane McAnarney will have them motivated and well prepared.
The strength in depth is there, with their second string managing to win a couple of matches in the Intermediate Championship. They will need one or two faces to step up but it is surely possible. Definitely a team for the short list.
Manager: Ray Cole/Shane McAnarney
Key player: Ado Cole
Place on 2019 list: 3rd
2019 results: ACFL Division 1 finalists, SFC finalists
3. Cavan Gaels
After the glorious decade that was the noughties, the Gaels declined in the 10 years just gone by but it’s testament to their quality and the high standards they set that they still topped the roll of honour with three titles in that period.
The side which won the 2017 county championship and reached the subsequent Ulster club final was not a young one. The average age of the side who played Slaughtneil in the Ulster final was slightly over 27, with a number of important players like Ciaran Flynn, Sean Johnston and Mickey Lyng into their 30s and just one U21 player, Luke Fortune.
Fast forward two years and only two new young players had broken into the starting side for the county semi-final defeat to Castlerahan last year, namely the exciting duo of Evaan Fortune and Keenan Donohoe, while Luke Molloy had played in the earlier rounds.
In essence, there is a gap which the Gaels need to close on the teams above them but they do not appear to have a youthful cavalry coming to take the pressure off the seven or eight 30-somethings in the starting team.
What they do have, though, is a different source of re-invigoration: a new arrival in the form of Gearoid McKiernan and an ‘old one’ in Robert Maloney-Derham. Midfield was an area where the Gaels have sometimes struggled, especially when Paul Graham has been injured, ever since the Enda King-Cathal Collins axis retired and this new-look partnership is as good as or better than any in the county.
That will give them a huge boost and if they can find another young player or two to step up, they will still take a lot of beating. Their vast experience and know-how means they should be in the shake-up once again.The word on the street is that they have been putting in a huge effort individually and the extended lay-off may give Niall Murray the time to recuperate and be back from injury, too.
This looks like their best opportunity since 2017 and history says they will not let it pass lightly.
Manager: Kieran Donnelly
Key player: Sean Johnston
Place on 2019 list: 5th
2019 results: 4th in ACFL Division 1, SFC semi-finalists
Back at the tail end of 2018, all looked extremely promising for Crosserlough. With an extremely young team, they had stormed through the field and reached a first county final since 1997. With 15 minutes to go, they were six points up and had one hand on the cup but fate intervened and Castlerahan summoned a memorable comeback to claim the title.
Still, it was felt that Crosserlough had superseded Ramor United as the coming team in senior ranks. They went on to win the U20 Division 1 championship six weeks later and looked to be the anointed ones. That trend continued right through to the county SFC quarter-final last year when they blitzed an admittedly understrength Lavey but the wheels came off in the semi-final against Ramor.
Fancied to return to the final, Crosserlough just didn’t show up on the evening.
On paper, they have few weaknesses. Their side is full of powerful runners and players who can score, with brothers Stephen (below) and Pierce Smith typical of the type of footballer the club has been producing – they have great engines, can pass and can finish.
James Smith is Cavan’s starting midfielder at senior level at 22 and full-forward Patrick Lynch’s potential is limitless. That’s not to mention the classy Conor Rehill, such a find for Mickey Graham in his rookie season at inter-county level last year, and sticky defenders Patrick O’Reilly and John Cooke.
The ace in the pack of course is Dara McVeety, arguably the best footballer in the county at present. He is currently away travelling and is thought not to be planning a return for the club championships but who knows?
A major plus for the Kilnaleck side is their youthful profile and the fact that they do have a stream quality young players ready up to step up from minor ranks including the likes of Cian and Emmett Boylan. If talent alone were the only metric, it would be a matter of when and not ‘if’ this young squad makes its breakthrough but of course, sport doesn’t work like that.
There is no doubting their ability but the first one will be the hardest to win.
Manager: Jimmy Higgins
Key player: Dara McVeety
Place on 2019 list: 2nd
2019 results: 5th in ACFL Division 1, SFC semi-finalists
The men from the lough shore came within a kick of a ball of making a first county final in 11 years in 2018 and looked set to kick on last year, with some tipping them to go all the way. It didn’t happen. Injuries and loss of form reared their head at the wrong time and Gowna crashed out in the quarter-finals.
They opened with a three-point loss to Kingscourt and then showed what they are capable of when handing out a 22-point beating to Cootehill. When they beat local rivals Lacken by seven points in round three, things really seemed to be coming together but a four-point reversal against Killygarry showed signs of weakness and their form deserted them in the knock-out stages when Ramor dismantled them, 1-15 to 0-7.
Defensive frailties, in the end, where what cost Gowna most – in their latter two championship losses they shipped 2-15 and 1-15 and had leaked another 1-14 in the win over Lacken. It is ironic then that while they have a host of talented young players coming on stream – and plenty more to come – many are attacking players.
Conor Brady and Oisin Pierson have already made the breakthrough to the Cavan senior side and started in last year’s Ulster final which augurs very well. Mark McKeever is 36 now but remains a key player while corner-back David Philips is an aggressive man marker who generally is given the job of picking up the opposition’s best forward.
Gowna did well to preserve their senior status during the lean years when they picked up a few heavy defeats in championship football but they have come through that and the cavalry is now arriving. After a tremendous run in 2018, they went off the boil in 2019 to an extent, culminating in a tame championship exit.
However, they still won nine of their 16 matches in league and championship and it wouldn’t take much of a jump to see them back among the challengers. Not many clubs can boasting of talents like Pierson, Conor Madden and Cian Madden in their strikeforce. They should return to the winner’s enclosure at some stage – could it be 2020?
Manager: Gerry Cadden
Key player: Conor Madden
Place on 2019 list: 4th
2019 results: 2nd in ACFL Division 1, SFC quarter-finalists
The Senior Championship in 2020 in many ways is the same as it always was. Some sides are trying to wring more success out of an ageing bunch, others are treading water awaiting young reinforcements, others are probably out of their depth and are doing all they can just to stay afloat.
And then, as usual, there are one or two teams who have proven quality coming on board and can be confident that if they do things the right way, it should only be a matter of time before they contend strongly. Killygarry are one of those.
With three sizeable national schools in their catchment area, the Crubany outfit are blessed with big numbers at underage level but that’s worthless unless the players are developed correctly and the club have done exceptionally well in this regard.
There have been a couple of waves of talented young players to emerge in recent seasons. The first produced MacRory Cup winners like Mattie McKenna, Darragh Kennedy, Brian Sheanon and Conor Smith along with Daragh Gannon while the likes of Oisin Brady has already established himself and the next group – the Mooney brothers, Lovett cousins and Co - are soon to break into senior ranks.
More than anything, factors outside of their own control – a freakish run of injuries, mainly – have stopped Killygarry making a breakthrough at senior level thus far.
Their form was up and down in the group stages last year. They lost by four points to Castlerahan first time out before turning on the style when upsetting Ramor in round two. A two-goal loss to Kingscourt ensued before a good win against Gowna.
In the quarters, they faced the champions-elect once more and were five points up at half-time before needing a late point from Conor Smith to force a replay. The less said about the second game the better; in torrential rain, Killygarry just did not perform.
Still, they have shown repeatedly – witness the first round win over Cavan Gaels two years ago – that they can comfortably live with the best sides on their day. Martin Reilly has been the star man for well over a decade now but Conor Smith has emerged from his shadow and, for our money, is one of the most exciting young forwards to emerge in Cavan in a long time.
When he is fit, Killygarry are a force to be reckoned with. If they get some luck, they should be in the shake-up, if not this year then certainly in 2021.
Manager: Danny Brady
Key player: Conor Smith (below)
Place on 2019 list: 8th
2019 results: 9th in ACFL Division 1, SFC quarter-finalists
The big question for Lavey is whether, after four years during which they established themselves in the top five in the county when it came to the real business of championship football, they can find another gear and kick on or if they will drop back into the chasing pack.
The New Inns men had no great modern day tradition of extended runs in the Senior Championship – a semi-final appearance in 1993 was the outlier – but they have been in the quarter-final each of the past four years and made two semi-finals in that time, losing one of those (2018) narrowly in a replay to eventual champions Castlerahan and another (2016) by a couple of points against eventual winners Ramor.
Their other knock-out losses in that period were against Ramor and Crosserlough; safe to say, then, that it has taken one of the best teams in the county to beat Lavey in recent years. In the last three championships, they have lost just twice in 12 group matches, a record which stacks up with any. However, with manager Kevin McDonnell having departed, there is a sense that they are at a crossroads – will the 2016-19 period be viewed as a golden age or merely the start of one?
Their strengths are well known. The excellent Shane Tierney is the main scoring threat, backed up by the ball-winning ability of Karl Duke. Around the middle, Charis Conroy is the quarter-back, Gerry Smith and Paul Gilchreest bring the athleticism. Young defender Danny Cusack (below) is another who has stepped up.
Last year, Lavey lost a lot of personnel and with a long injury list, were running on fumes by the time the quarter-final came around and found Crosserlough’s running game too hot to handle. They showed once again, though, when building up a 10-point lead against Castlerahan in the group – a game which ended in a draw – that they are as good as what’s out there when they click.
However, their age profile is fairly good and should they get everyone back on board this year, there is every chance they will be in the knock-out stages again.
Manager: Barry McLoughlin
Key player: Shane Tierney
Place on 2019 list: 6th
2019 results: 4th in ACFL Division 2, SFC quarter-finalists
The Stars went unbeaten in the group stages last year with wins over Gowna, Killygarry and Shercock and a draw with Lacken which left them in second place on the table going into the knock-out stages and pitted them against seventh-place finishers Cavan Gaels but they exited at the quarter-final stage in a poor match.
Last year, we ranked them ninth on this list, which was probably their lowest position in a decade. That they are one place higher this time probably says more about the standard in senior ranks as anything else.
The previous championship, they had put together white flag tallies of 8, 8, 9, 13 and 7 in the championship and the feeling was that they needed a new trigger man close to goal to play off Joe Dillon and ease the scoring burden on Barry Reilly.
In the end, Dillon (below) sustained a cruciate ligament injury and played no football. Darragh Gunne is still in situ up top and young poacher Cian Sheckleton did break into the side and did well in his rookie season but for the second year in a row, the Stars exited at the quarter-final stage scoring just 0-7.
The back-line is fairly solid with Alan Clarke, Shane Grey and Barry Tully, a consummate ball-player, the leaders there. The powerful Paddy Meade has broken through and become a key figure who has been fast-tracked to the county senior panel.
Padraig Faulkner is outstanding around the middle and Philip Tinnelly and Barry Reilly remain the leading lights in attack but this is a team in transition.
They have the tradition and enough quality still to be a handful for anyone but a 12th Senior Championship title seems beyond them in the short term at least.
Manager: Benny Lennon
Key player: Padraig Faulkner
Place on 2019 list: 9th
2019 results: 7th in ACFL Division 1, SFC quarter-finalists
9. Laragh United
For our money, the Stradone men are one of the most exciting teams to emerge from intermediate ranks over the last decade. They timed their run to perfection last year and hit their stride at the business end of the championship; when they needed to be at top form, they were.
In the Intermediate Championship final against Belturbet, they were excellent and they backed that performance up with an outstanding showing in Omagh against the Tyrone champions in the Ulster Club.
Last year, we ranked them 15th in the county, adding the caveat that their ability to deliver on their potential would depend on them getting back to senior ranks sooner rather than later. That they did so in some style speaks to a side who are very much on track in terms of their progression.
Goalkeeper Fergal O’Rourke is one of the best in the county and their back-line is solid, with attacking wing-back Lee Reilly probably the stand-out ball-player while Fergal and Colm McKenna, Ian Leddy and the sticky Stephen Cooney form a potent unit.
Around the middle, Shane O’Rourke is the dominant figure and their attack is full of skill in the likes of Sean Tierney, Pauric O’Reilly and Liam McKenna, with target man Paddy Rudden giving defenders something entirely different to think about.
In the attacking half of the field, much of Laragh’s play revolves around Jack McKenna and Paul Smith. It is understood the Cavan selectors did wish to have them included in their squad this year and it will be interesting to see if the 21-year-olds can translate their superb intermediate form to the higher grade.
McKenna is a big man with pace who can break lines while Smith is a smart footballer with vision and poise who was the top scorer in all three championships last year.
Laragh are breaking through at a good time, with the overall standard in senior ranks nothing special. No ‘new’ intermediate team – that is to say, not a side who had recently been demoted and bounced back - has made a splash in the top grade in a long time and Laragh look the most likeliest to buck that trend.
They are back in Division 2 and placing them ninth is a big call but there’s a sense that they have a lot more scope for improvement than some of the teams around them. Don’t be surprised to see them go deep in the draw, even as far as a semi-final if a bit of luck falls their way.
Manager: Jody Devine
Key player: Jack McKenna
Place on 2019 list: 15th
2019 results: 10th in ACFL Division 1, IFC winners
This time last year, we ranked Lacken at number seven in this list but 2019 was not a good year for the Crowe Park men.
In other seasons, they had played their best football in the league – winning it in 2016 – and often started powerfully in that competition. In 2019, they didn’t get their first victory until round 8 but could only add two more and ended up in a relegation play-off against Laragh, which they won to preserve their status.
They proved, as always, hard to beat in the championship, picking up a win, a draw and a loss in their first three games before Ramor denied them a place in the quarter-finals with a late, late, late winner in a dour 0-12 to 0-11 final group game.
That left the Crowe Park men in ninth place, not in the knock-out stages but free from demotion worries, and thus ended their season. A team who started the year with four county panellists in Thomas, James and Raymond Galligan and Niall McKiernan should be doing better, one would imagine, but on closer inspection, they have not been far away.
In 2016, they lost in the quarter-final by a point in a replay to Castlerahan. In 2018, it was the same, a one-point replay loss against Lavey in the quarters. In between those, a luckless draw with Gowna in round four cost them their place in the last eight.
It’s hard, then, to evaluate exactly where Lacken are at this season other than to say that they will be put up stern resistance no matter who they face as always. They have been spoiled for choice with big men around the middle – although James Galligan is away this year – but to take it a step further, they probably need an extra couple of youngsters to step up, ideally someone with blinding pace as a foil for Ray Galligan up front and a defender.
And those aren’t easily found. In all probability, it is likely Lacken will hold their own at senior level and take some scalps but it’s hard to make a case that the Celtics are closer to landing the Oliver Plunkett Cup than they were four or five years ago.
We ranked them fourth at the outset of 2017 but while they have been very competitive, they have managed just four wins from 14 Senior Championship matches since.
Manager: Micheál O’Rourke
Key player: Raymond Galligan
Place on 2019 list: 7th
2019 results: 11th in ACFL Division 1, SFC group stage
There’s no doubt about it – Mullahoran were suffering from a 2018 hangover last season. After an annus horibilis the year before in which they failed to win a match, the Dreadnoughts put in a monumental effort and bounced back to win the Intermediate Championship at the first time of asking.
Their momentum carried them all the way to the Ulster Club final afterwards. Their victory over an excellent Banagher side in the semi-final will never be forgotten and ironically its spectacular nature probably contributed to something of a flat display in the final against Belfast club Naomh Éanna.
After the delirium of that free-kick shoot-out win in the penultimate round, there was always going to be a dip and the Cavan champs got caught in the end by the Antrim men, whose path to the final, while impressive, had been less dramatic (Mullahoran, remember, had survived extra time in the quarter-final too).
Coming into 2019, Mullahoran had been in action for 24 months more or less without a break and that was a factor too in their sub-par performances. Injuries played their part while some players were abroad during the summer. It was a perfect storm and a team who couldn’t be beaten suddenly seemed to have forgotten how to win.
They lost to Ramor, Shercock, Lavey and Crosserlough in the group stages and alarm bells rang. The club sensed the need to preserve their hard-won senior status at all costs and drafted in the well-travelled former Tipperary manager Liam Kearns to assist their own management team.
The gamble paid off and they held on by their fingernails with a win second time round against Shercock. This year seemed like a fresh start although a couple of experienced men – brothers Paul and Philip Brady – may possibly call time on their careers.
The loss of Philip, one of the best ball-winners in the county and the perfect foil for the fast-improving Cormac O’Reilly, who is fancied by many to emerge as a senior inter-county attacker of note, would be particularly sorely felt.
But there is lots of young talent there in the likes of defenders Callum Mussi, Cian O’Reilly and the athletic duo of Colm and Ryan O’Reilly along with the classy Gavin Brady. Full-back Tadhg McGahern is one of the best around and, of course, leader Killian Brady is the pulse of the side and can dominate even the best opponents physically.
The older cohort such as Enda O’Reilly – who has been one of the best club forwards around since winning a SFC medal eight years ago – and the combative Matthew Hynes have time on their side too. Provided the commitment is right, Mullahoran should comfortably retain their status at least and if improvement is forthcoming, they could be an outside bet for an extended run.
Manager: Paul Prior
Key player: Killian Brady
Place on 2019 list: 11th
2019 results: 12th in ACFL Division 1, SFC group stage
The O’Hagan Park men have been an example to other clubs in recent years as to what can be achieved. The club has always produced good footballers but it’s a numbers game and like all small clubs, they were relying on a little bit of luck with enough players of the requisite standard coming along at the same time.
The opportunity arose with a very good generation and they have maximised their resources, winning the Intermediate Championship in 2017 against a fancied Ballyhaise and subsequently holding their own in senior ranks since.
Last year, they leaked a lot of goals in the championship – eight in the four group matches and five more in the two relegation play-offs – but they came up trumps when it mattered.
Of the 19 matches in league and championship which Shercock played in 2019, their last and most crucial one – the relegation play-off final against neighbours Cootehill – saw them post their highest tally of the season, 2-15.
Shercock’s strengths are well known. Killian Clarke is the star man and is equally effective in any position at club level. Brian Sankey is the driving force around the middle and Niall Clerkin and Damien McIntyre, two super athletes, are the lungs of the side.
Aaron Smith has also come on very well in goals while a number of talented young players have broken into the panel in the last couple of years. I don’t think we are being unkind in saying that they won’t win the Senior Championship but if they could establish themselves for a third year at the top level, it would be a major achievement.
Manager: Darragh Roe
Key player: Killian Clarke
Place on 2019 list: 12th
2019 results: 10th in ACFL Division 2, SFC group stage