Reilly hopeful of going one better than '83
Prior to 1997, the last time Cavan secured three successive wins in the Ulster SFC was in 1983. Captain of the side on that occasion was Kingscourt great Jim Reilly, who led his side to a narrow three-point loss to Donegal in the final.
Thirty-seven years on, Jim, now based in Carlow but still a keen follower of Cavan and the Stars, has been impressed with what he has seen of Mickey Graham’s charges in this campaign.
“They have given us good value for money,” Jim told The Anglo-Celt this week.
“A few heart attacks along the way! They seem to be starting the games very slowly. Against Monaghan they were seven behind at half-time, against Antrim they were struggling, but every game so far, there have been big second-half performances.
“But against Donegal, they can’t do that. They’ll have to start on the front foot because Donegal just seem to be relentless going forward.
“I’d give Cavan a good chance, it’s an Ulster final, it’s on the day. Armagh is a tight pitch and it might suit Cavan better if anything.”
Back in ’83, the final was played as usual in Clones. It was one which got away for the Blues, who were under the management of the legendary Gabriel Kelly.
Coming into the season, not much was expected of Cavan but wins over Tyrone, Derry and Fermanagh propelled them to the decider.
“Football that time was totally different, it was man on man. The previous year we were beaten by Antrim in Breffni Park so coming into ’83 there wouldn’t have been a huge amount of expectation on us but you know what it’s like in Cavan, when you win one game, people get excited,” says Jim.
“Derek McDonnell was playing full-forward and he was on fire in that championship for us. I was playing number seven.
“I wouldn’t have a great recollection of the Tyrone game, I remember the Fermanagh game alright. Derek was brilliant that day in particular.
“Donegal probably were favourites going into the final. We would have fancied our chances. We were going well and Donegal got a penalty and Seamus Bonner put it in the net, I think that might have put them two points ahead but we were right in the game right up until the end.
“It was nip and tuck the whole way. They were probably stronger at midfield on the day, Cavan didn’t win much there until Stephen King came on and did well.
“We got it hard to get scores in the second half and near the end, Seamus Bonner, Lord have mercy on him, got another penalty.
“It was close the whole way, we were there or thereabouts for most of the game. Bonner’s second penalty which he kicked over the bar was nearly the last kick and put them three up and they just held out.
“It would have been a regret but you know, we were all young. I was only 23 that time I think and you always think that there are more chances but when you look back… Ulster became such a hard province to get out of.
“Donegal were always physical. That was a physical side, they had players like Martin Griffin at full-back, Des Newton, a Roscommon man, and Anthony Molloy in the middle of the field. Joyce McMullen was an excellent wing-forward, he would have scored three or four points in that final. Martin McHugh was playing on the 40.”
Jim played for another nine years for Cavan during which he was widely recognised as one of the finest footballers in the country. He was part of a very successful Kingscourt club team but the breakthrough at county level didn’t arrive and he finished up with Cavan after 1992, ironically following a defeat, again, to Donegal.
“They beat us in a replay up in Ballybofey and of course they went on to win the All-Ireland,” he smiles.
1983 was Cavan’s third Ulster final appearance in seven years but they have struggled to reach the big day very often since. As the competitive nature of the Ulster Championship soared, Cavan were found lacking.
“You look at it nowadays, Kerry are gone after one game and people are saying it’s shocking but for years they were getting to Croke Park after playing two or three games. Whereas in Ulster, it’s a dogfight every year.
“In ’83 it was probably more open but as the years went on, it became more tactical and Armagh and Tyrone and those counties left Cavan behind.
“I think if you look at Armagh and Tyrone, they developed all these academies at underage and in terms of strength and conditioning, they seemed to be way ahead of us in Cavan, putting in coaching structures and stuff. That’s not a criticism of Cavan, it just seemed to happen that way.
“When they started winning Ulsters, they set the bar higher and wanted to go on and win All-Irelands.
“In the ’90s, you had Donegal, Down and Derry winning and Cavan weren’t able to compete at that time, we just didn’t seem to be staying with the other Ulster counties.
“Even last year, Donegal were so well conditioned, they looked lik different animals altogether and the same was the case when I saw them against Armagh on Saturday. They’re well primed, aren’t they? They’re a serious outfit.”
While he believes Donegal are formidable, if Cavan can be bold and go for it, they can produce an upset, Jim reckons.
“The running game that Cavan are trying to play, I don’t think it suits the Cavan style. I think they are better putting Galligan and Madden inside and go long and go early.
“They have good kickers and the lads inside are going to create a bit of havoc. If they don’t win it, they’ll break it down.
“With the running game, if you let Donegal get set up in their system, Cavan just don’t have the runners to come at pace and break them down. I think if they go long and early, which is the Cavan style, they will have a better chance but if they let Donegal rip through them in the first half, they’ll not be clawing back that lead.
“Donegal are a serious attacking outfit. And Murphy hasn’t started to play yet which is the worrying thing. But it’s an Ulster final and if Cavan go out the way they did in the second half against Down and go for it, get Donegal on the back foot in some way which is a big ask, that’s the way they should approach it.
“That’s the message I’d be giving. Try to put them on the back foot and play the Cavan game. The more modern, running game, I don’t think it suits Cavan. We tend to go laterally, over and back, I don’t think Cavan have the runners, the likes of Ryan McHugh coming at serious speed.
“I think Cavan should use the big men inside when they have them.”
A number of players have stood out for Reilly, not least his clubmate Padraig Faulkner, with whose father Pat and uncle Michael he won numerous county medals.
“Padraig is cut from the same cloth. He’s a man you’d like to have in the trenches with you.
“At full-back he’ll probably have to pick up Murphy. He’s probably a better centre half-back I would imagine because there’s great drive in him and there’s great cut in him.
“He’s like Pat, there was the same drive in him. He has had a long season, he’s on the go Sunday after Sunday. He’s a good bit of stuff. Padraig might be more mobile than Pat was but if it was 50-50, you’d always put your shirt on Pat!
“Cavan have good players all over. Gearoid McKiernan was fielding great ball in the second half.
“Luke Fortune, I hadn’t seen a whole lot of him but he’s a lovely player on the ball. He had a couple of great scores against Monaghan. Ciaran Brady from Arva is very consistent, he never seems to have a bad game. Raymond Galligan is top class, his save against Antrim and Monaghan and his free kept Cavan in the game, he’s a fantastic servant for Cavan.
“There are good footballers all over the field. I’m hopeful they will do themselves justice but getting off to a good start this time will be a big thing.”