Fast start will be crucial this time

Cavan broke out of jail for a second time against Down. They must make some tweaks or there won’t be a third, writes MARK McGOWAN.

The movie The Great Escape, released in 1963, is one of the best known war epics of all time and has been paid homage by The Simpsons, Monty Python, Reservoir Dogs and countless other productions. What it never had, however, is a sequel. Why? Because The Great Escape is based on a true story and repeat Houdini acts just don’t happen in real life.

At least they didn’t.

But having trailed Monaghan by seven points with 20 minutes to go in the preliminary round, Mickey Graham’s Cavan pulled off an even bigger jailbreak in overturning a ten-point deficit to Down in the Ulster semi-final on Sunday.

Down’s pace in attack was the big talking point from their comfortable victory over Fermanagh last week and they arrived at the Athletic Grounds as odds-on favourites to overcome a Cavan side that were playing for the fifth week in succession.

Winter football often asks different questions of players and management alike, and with conditions greasy and the pitch heavy, Graham opted for size in an attempt to take control of the middle sector and stop Down’s attacking threat at source.

Thomas Galligan – whose impact as a substitute in both previous championship matches made him impossible to leave out – came in for Cormac O’Reilly and Paul Graham replaced Cormac Timoney as Cavan looked to dominate primary possession between the 45s.

With Down goalkeeper Rory Burns lacking the length to send kick-outs over the opposition’s blanket a la Donegal’s Shaun Patton, or the tall and powerful targets enjoyed by the likes of Stephen Cluxton, Graham’s tactic seemed sound, especially when Raymond Galligan at the other end has the versatility to take out the driver or the wedge.

But with the ball like a wet bar of soap in the early stages, Cavan’s big men failed to win it clean - no pun intended - and Down’s smaller players mopped up all the breaks.

And, with Cavan slow to react, Down’s excellent ball handling and off the shoulder running cut large holes in the Cavan defence and scores came easily and plentifully in the opening half.

With the size advantage, rotating big men in and out of the square was obviously pre-rehearsed, with Martin Reilly and Oisin Pierson arriving to offer support or to feed off the breaking ball. In the first half, Cavan played five long diagonal balls into the square and on each occasion came away empty-handed.

Down, on the other hand, enjoying a less abrasive contest than they were surely expecting, were able to make hay while the sun (metaphorically) shone. With Jonny Flynn tasked with man-marking Gearoid McKiernan, Caolán Mooney was licensed to attack and the pace and movement of Down’s forward line saw them carve the Cavan defence open time and again.

But evolution is the key to survival and Mickey Graham’s big-impact half-time substitutions are becoming a weekly occurrence at this stage.

Conor Madden replaced clubmate Pierson in the full-forward line to give the attack a focal point, while Chris Conroy was brought on for Paul Graham to add composure further out the field. Graham also brought Kingscourt powerhouse Padraig Faulkner out of the full-back line as Cavan pushed up man-for-man on the Down defence and began to exert a level of pressure that just hadn’t been present in the opening period.

Having failed to secure primary possession at midfield and being caught glaringly short around the breaks, Cavan flooded the middle sector with bodies and these tactical changes immediately began to pay dividends. Confidence levels rose, and the Breffni men took complete control of the centre.

As in the Monaghan match, a half-time substitute would be awarded the Man of the Match award. The obvious question is “why didn’t he start?” but Madden – like Thomas Galligan in the preliminary round – was returning from injury and Graham opted for the closing stages as opposed to the opening ones in the knowledge that the full 70 minutes was out of the question.

To call the Madden introduction inspiring may be the understatement of the season, with the Gowna forward kicking two outrageous scores from near the side line and winning a long ball and blasting over from close range as Cavan’s direct route finally paid dividends.

Having had no success with the tactic in the opening half, there must’ve been a temptation to discard the route-one approach completely, but to their credit, the Cavan management and players kept faith, and with Thomas Galligan winning an impressive sliding attacking mark shortly after, panic began to set in among the Down rear-guard and, whether consciously or not, they began to pull men deeper and invited Cavan to push up and pin the Mourne men inside their own half.

Once again, Cavan rode their luck and again have Raymond Galligan to thank for a point-blank save and Padraig Faulkner for a heroic, goal-saving block, but their resilliance and belief is incredible and it’s hard to argue with the tactics they deployed, even if the early execution left a lot to be desired.

There is no doubt that a similarly sluggish start will be ruthlessly and likely fatally punished by Donegal in the provincial decider this weekend, however.

The men from the hills were extremely impressive as they swatted Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh aside with ease in a performance that showcased every weapon in their heavily-stocked arsenal.

Playing with a significant breeze in the opening half, Donegal toyed with the Orchard men like a Chess master taking on a novice, drawing the opposition defence to one wing, then the other, creating holes inside and delivering accurate passes into the big targets of which they have plenty.

With Michael Murphy in a more advanced role than we often see, Declan Bonner used him as a perfect foil with midfield duo Caolán McGonigle and Hugh McFadden both drifting into attacking positions and converting attacking marks, and the smaller Niall O’Donnell adding a third in the first-half alone. Uncharacteristically, Murphy’s own handling wasn’t up to his usual standards, but it was the only sub-par thing about Donegal’s performance.

From the off, Donegal put extreme pressure on the Armagh kick-out, forcing them to go long where the back-to-back Ulster Champions enjoyed a significant size advantage and were able to starve the dangerous Armagh attack of any reasonable kind of service.

By half-time, the game was effectively over and even the most optimistic of Armagh men could see the writing was on the wall.

Last year’s Ulster final was a humbling experience for Cavan in their first Clones decider since 2001. No doubt that experience will stand to players and manager alike, and the battle-hardened Breffni men ought to be better prepared for the challenge this time round. But they are facing formidable opposition who may be better prepared themselves.

Declan Bonner and Mickey Graham have just six days to plan their strategies for the Athletic Grounds showdown, but it’s hard to imagine many stones being left unturned.

But one thing is certain. Cavan hearts surely can’t handle The Great Escape: Part III.

More from this Topic