Cavan's bench again made a big impact

Tactical view

Mark McGowan

The problem with the elation that accompanies a last-gasp heroic win, is basic physics: what goes up, must come down. And having ridden an emotional wave for several days after last week’s Clones thriller, Mickey Graham’s charges had to quickly re-boot for the visit of Antrim to Kingspan Breffni.

Thomas Galligan’s towering performance as a half-time substitute the week previous meant Graham had to be sorely tempted to use him from the start, however injury and illness – Galligan was unfortunate enough to contract COVID in recent weeks – ensured that either decision had certain elements of risk. Graham opted to gamble by leaving the Lacken midfielder on the bench, offering an injection of power and pace in the second half once again.

A crisp afternoon with barely a hint of breeze made for an intriguing tactical battle and both sides set up to play a counter-attacking style of football, with 13 and 14 men behind the ball but pushing forward in numbers when in possession.

Having been tasked with tracking Conor McManus in the previous round, Padraig Faulkner again moved to the last line of defence, this time with the dangerous Patrick McBride his assigned target. Likewise, Lenny Harbison assigned Declan Lynch to shadow Gearoid McKiernan, and the Lámh Dearg defender’s close surveillance succeeded in frustrating McKiernan for long spells of the opening half.

As the match wore on, and space began to open up, McKiernan's class began to show, and his incredible individual score with 11 minutes remaining was the kind of leadership that Cavan fans have been crying out for in recent years.

Also performing similar roles were Killian Clarke and Michael McCann who covered every blade of grass as auxiliary attackers, line-breakers and a scoring threat in attack and retreating to provide cover for their full-back lines in defence.

Patience was one of the keys in Cavan’s victory over Monaghan in the preliminary round, but it was the Saffron men who displayed greater poise in the early stages, with veteran attacker Paddy Cunningham pulling the strings and turning back the clock with some vintage long-range scores, and Cavan guilty of weak and wayward shooting.

Harbison’s plan was to have Cunningham help deliver Antrim into a position where the game was there to be won with 15 minutes to go before sending in fresh legs, and taking a one-point lead at half-time, he was undoubtedly the more content of the managers.

But with similar game plans and a tight score line, strength in depth and quality were always likely to be determining factors, and for the second week in succession, Mickey Graham’s personnel changes bore fruit. Thomas Galligan replaced Stephen Smith and, as expected, his powerful running gave Cavan an extra dimension in attack, drawing additional defenders into the tackle and creating space and opportunities for the Cavan attack.

Killian Brady’s afternoon ended just before half-time, even if the Mullahoran man wouldn’t officially be withdrawn until his black card period had expired almost 10 minutes into the second period. Again, with the game very much in the balance, Graham gambled by replacing the corner-back with Thomas Edward Donohoe for just his second appearance in a Cavan shirt, and the Denn livewire immediately caused all sorts of problems for the tiring Antrim defence.

Ultimately, Harbison couldn’t strengthen the Saffron attack from the bench; Tomás McCann is experienced and dangerous but he got injured after coming on while Odhran Eastwood, who Mullahoran followers will recall from the Ulster Club IFC final in 2018 when he played so well for Naomh Éanna, was subdued.

And with 35-year-old Cunningham, playing his first Ulster SFC match since 2014, ailing and the final quarter approaching, the Glensmen were lacking creativity - and the self-assurance that they displayed in the first half was now conspicuous in its absence.

For the reason stated in the opening paragraph, this was a match where the result was much more important than the performance, so Mickey Graham can very much consider it a job well done.

Bigger tests await, but the Cavan management’s tactics have paid dividends to date, and the camp must be confident that they can mastermind another upset (according to the bookies) in the Athletic Grounds next weekend.