Tactics Board: This was a masterfully executed coup

Tactical view

Mark McGowan

Not since reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone faced Antrim in the 2009 Ulster final have a side been as heavily favoured as Donegal to get their hands on the Anglo-Celt Cup. Runaway victors against a dangerous Armagh side last week, talk of a Donegal versus Dublin All-Ireland semi-final was rife in the media all week.

The consensus among those who gave Cavan a chance – a very rare breed among the national media – was that another slow start would be fatal against Declan Bonner’s men who were going for three-in-a-row. Facing a Down side whose pace and movement were well flagged, Cavan’s sluggish opening half allowed the Mourne men to cut them apart time and time again in the previous round.

In Ryan McHugh, Peadar Mogan, Jamie Brennan, Michael Langan, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Eoin McHugh and Niall O’Donnell, Donegal could call on blistering pace themselves, so the Breffni men focused on closing down the central channels and forcing Donegal to recycle possession or take the ball into heavy contact.

Mickey Graham made three changes from the team that started against Down, with Chris Conroy and the fit-again James and Conor Smith coming in for Paul Graham, Oisin Pierson and Stephen Smith. Conroy is calm in possession, disciplined and a good reader of the game, and he was tasked with the role of playmaker when in possession and sweeper when not.

James Smith, who hadn’t featured since half-time against Monaghan, got to grips with Michael Murphy, Jason McLoughlin took up duty on Ryan McHugh and Killian Clarke dropped back to watch Paddy McBrearty.

Donegal made two changes, with McBrearty making his first start since the inter-county season resumed and Brendan McCole coming in for the injured Ciaran Thompson. Declan Bonner assigned McCole with a man-marking job on Thomas Galligan with Caolan McGonigle tracked Gearoid McKiernan.

Similar to a fortnight ago, Graham made the difficult decision to keep the previous week’s game-changing Man of the Match in reserve. Again, the temptation to play his strongest hand from the start must’ve been huge but patience has been one of the keys to success for the Cavan team and management in recent weeks and finishing well has been their defining characteristic.

With both goalkeepers well matched in terms of kick-out, the sides deployed similar tactics in the opening exchanges, pressing high and flooding the middle sector with big men.

Having been punished for not engaging Down early enough last week, Cavan competed aggressively from the off, showing Donegal considerably less respect than in last year’s final, without being recklessly gung-ho.

Graham utilised Thomas Galligan at full-forward for most of the opening stages – with the Lacken warrior rotating out for kick-outs – and the threat of the long ball clearly had Donegal worried. As good as McCole’s performance was, Galligan’s influence grew as the game wore on and his battling, diehard crusade set the tone for Cavan’s second-half.

After starting so well and controlling the early stages, Killian Brady’s extremely harsh black card allowed Donegal into the ascendency as they used the spare man to great effect and were able to open holes in the Cavan defence for the first time. With the numerical advantage, Donegal put severe pressure on the Raymond Galligan restarts, pinning their opponents in their own half and taking command at midfield.

Leading five points to two as Brady was sin-binned, the Breffni men trailed eight-six when they were restored to the full complement.

Contrast this with the 10-minute period in the second-half when Conor Madden received a black card in equally harsh circumstances. During this period, Cavan outscored Donegal by a point – a six-point turnaround.

The ability to learn from mistakes on-the-go, in high-pressure situations is a much underappreciated aptitude but by dropping deep and then hard-pressing the ball carrier, Cavan were able to frustrate Donegal and this period had a huge bearing on the destination of the Anglo-Celt cup.

Graham has made half-time substitutions in each Championship match of the campaign, and it’s likely that Conor Madden was going to be sprung at the break, but temporary blood substitutions saw the Gowna man strip off three times before the midpoint, permanently replacing Conor Smith shortly before the half-time whistle.

Without being overly effective, Michael Murphy had enjoyed a reasonable amount of possession in the first half, and though he did kick his first score from play in this year’s Championship, James Smith matched him on the scoreboard. For the second-half, Killian Brady was switched onto the Glenswilly superstar. Not only did the Mullahoran man marshal Murphy incredibly well, he freed up Smith to get into more advanced areas where his powerful running caused Donegal considerable duress.

Both sides had made good use of route-one tactics in the previous rounds, and though both defences coped admirably well with the long ball for most of the game, more often than not the deliveries left a lot to be desired.

Donegal’s direct play against Armagh largely consisted of drawing the defence wide and allowing their big men to drift into the vacant space left behind, but despite The reigning champions hugging the touchline on both flanks, Graham’s men refused to be drawn out of shape and Donegal were unable to generate a single attacking mark or score through long balls.

Having gone zero-for-five early on against Down, a goal and two points eventually came from route one play and essentially turned the tide in Cavan’s favour.

With a similar lack of early success with the tactic on Sunday, again, when they were able to identify favourable one-on-ones or two-on-twos inside, the underdogs were happy to deliver the ball long again in the second-period.

Putting the ball into dangerous areas makes defenders nervous, nerves result in mistakes, and good forwards thrive on mistakes. On three occasions in the second-period, the direct route had the Donegal defence reeling.

Thomas Galligan out-wrestled three opposing players to blast over from close range early on, Martin Reilly forced a point-blank save from Shaun Patton after a mistake by and Patton’s weak punched clearance allowed Madden to deliver the spirit-crushing and ultimately game-winning blow.

In a game where numbers and statistics are becoming increasingly important, it was an unmeasurable entity that proved most telling in the end. Call it hunger, call it desire, call it what you want, Cavan wanted the victory more. Maybe it was being written off, maybe it was the memory of last year’s failure, maybe it was 23 years in the wilderness, but to a man, the former aristocrats of Ulster football took to the trenches and fought to the bitter end.

Or the sweet end in this case.

On Bloody Sunday’s centenary weekend, Armagh’s Athletic Grounds were soaked in blood, sweat and tears. The omens pointed to a Cavan victory, even if the odds suggested different, and it was fitting that the most bloodied warrior of all ended up with the man of the match trophy.

Mickey Graham is rapidly becoming the ultimate championship manager, the man with the Midas touch, unafraid to make big calls, to take risks and goes about it with a sense of assuredness that’s infecting the rest of the squad.

But this was no lucky victory, no great escape, this was Cavan taking on the best team in Ulster and flat out beating them.

And now the Dubs await. Is there another bite in the underdog?

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