Tactics board: Cavan need to up ante again to live with the Dubs

Cavan have more of a chance than some would have you believe but everything would need to go right, writes MARK McGOWAN.

Having dug deep and delivered the performances of their careers in the Ulster final, Mickey Graham’s men must go deeper still if this fairytale season is to have another chapter. Standing between them and an All-Ireland final are the record-breaking Dubs, probably the greatest side that Gaelic Football has ever produced.

As underdogs, Cavan enter the game in familiar territory. Monaghan, Down and Donegal have all been shorter odds than their Breffni counterparts, yet the Anglo-Celt Cup still found its way into Raymond Galligan’s hands.

Of course, the price is longer this time, the scalp greater. But with Ulster Championship medals tucked in their back pockets and their legend secured for generations to come, Cavan are in bonus territory as they plot the greatest coup of all.

Is an upset likely? Well, if you go by the seldom-wrong bookmakers, then no, it’s definitely not. But is it possible? Absolutely.

Delivering a performance like they did on the occasion that they did was underpinned by the incredible belief within the squad and is something that has been widely reported on in the intervening period.

If Cavan are to somehow pull off the biggest shock in football history then first and foremost, they must believe they can do it. All too often, the county lining up opposite Dublin in Croke Park are defeated before a ball is kicked, but this Cavan side are harder to kill than Arnold Schwarzenneggar in an action flick. And they’ll need to be.

Having started slowly in their previous Ulster bouts this year, avoiding another slow opening against Donegal was crucial in setting the tone.

Cavan raced from the blocks and laid down an early marker, and though Declan Bonner’s side had a two-point advantage at half-time, they were well aware that barring a ten-minute purple patch when enjoying numerical advantage, they’d been outplayed for the other 25. A similar fast start against Dublin is essential.

Chris Conroy’s deployment in a sweeping/playmaking role against Donegal helped set the tempo and allowed Cavan to get an early foothold. Conroy is a good reader of the game, excellent in possession and able to deliver accurate and long-range kick passes. I’d expect Graham to opt for the Lavey man in the same role though I’d be wary of Dublin pressing much higher and attempting to exploit him on pace, which is not the strongest suit Conroy possesses.

The other selection dilemma facing Graham is whether to start Conor Smith or Conor Madden in the forward line. Smith’s Ulster final was marred by an unfortunate cut which resulted in him spending a large portion of the game on the sideline but his work rate and effort when present epitomised the hunger that proved the difference in the end.

Madden, though, offers something different. Though Smith is an accomplished score-taker at club level, he hasn’t yet scored heavily in his injury-hampered inter-county career.

On form – and he certainly is – Madden has an “X-factor.” Comfortable off both feet and with a “shoot-on-sight” mentality, I think the Gowna man must start.

Additionally, Madden is a big man and Cavan have had considerable success with the long-ball tactic this championship. For all their power and pace, Dublin’s full-back line lacks the relative height of their other lines.

Mick Fitzsimons is as honest and dogged a corner back as you’ll find, Davy Byrne very similar, Eoin Murchan’s a tight man-marker with pace to burn, and Jonny Cooper strong and good in possession, but none are particularly comfortable or accomplished under a high ball, nor is goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton.

Under Jim Gavin, Dublin compensated for this by utilising Cian O’Sullivan in a sweeping role, dropping back to ensure numerical advantage in the drop zone when it’s kicked in.

Now 32, O’Sullivan is no longer first choice with Dessie Farrell and up to this point they have focused on pressurising the delivery so accuracy suffers rather than flooding the landing areas.

Cavan have plenty of good kick passers in the team and with Thomas Galligan drifting in and out of the square, and Martin Reilly and Oisin Kiernan providing both supply and support from the wings, direct ball into the full-back line is definitely an area where they can breach the enemy’s defences.

Galligan has emerged as Cavan’s inspirational driving force and I’d expect Dessie Farrell to have him earmarked for special attention  - and when a big man needs corralling, Dublin usually turn to James McCarthy.

The Ballymun Kickhams thoroughbred has arguably been Dublin’s most important and consistent player over the past decade and has the agility, brawn and the brains to adapt to any challenge.

Galligan will be partnered at midfield by James Smith and I’d expect him to be tasked with tracking Brian Fenton.

At 6’ 6”, the Raheny man will have a height advantage over Smith (as he would over everybody) but Smith has the athleticism to track Fenton’s runs and the attacking prowess to put him on the back foot, just like he did with Michael Murphy last week. However, given Fenton’s importance to Dublin’s running game, Smith may be forced to sacrifice his own attacking aspirations.

Whatever weaknesses Dublin may have in defence are more than offset by the danger in their attack. The rumoured injury to Sean Bugler is unfortunate, but Dublin’s strength-in-depth is such that they have the option of two current All-Stars as replacement.

Of these, Brian Howard is the most likely choice and will settle into the role he has occupied in the previous two campaigns. Gerard Smith would be my choice to pick up Howard though the Lavey man will be at a disadvantage aerially and will have to be wary of Howard’s side-step, arguably the most effective evasive manoeuvre in the game.

Niall Scully is perhaps the unsung hero of the Dublin attack. The Templeogue Synge Street man is pivotal in the link role, popping up all over the pitch and contributing selflessly. Graham has a couple of options for tackling the Scully dilemma.

Jason McLoughlin man-marked Ryan McHugh to great effect last week – even getting in on the scoring – and could do a similar job on Scully, though I suspect he may end up marking Dean Rock instead. In that case, Luke Fortune could get the role of tracking the elusive and evasive wing-forward.

Ciaran Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan have traded roles in the early rounds, effectively operating as a tag team on a ‘one-in, one-out’ basis. Padraig Faulkner (below) will likely start at full-back and pick up O’Callaghan with Killian Brady marking Kilkenny.

Padraig Faulkner runs takes on Niall Scully. Photographer: Copyright Adrian Donohoe Photogr

Faulkner has been the most consistent performer throughout Cavan’s Ulster run and will be more than happy to follow the Cuala man out the field should he drop deep as a kick-out option for Cluxton as he did so often in the Leinster final.

Kilkenny’s role under Jim Gavin largely was to cover every blade of grass and conduct the orchestra from deep, but Farrell – who coached a free-scoring Kilkenny at U21 level – prefers him in a more advanced position where his quick thinking and athleticism has proven too much for opposing defences. Brady would be able to physically match Kilkenny and should relish the role of spoiler.

A bit-part player under Gavin, Paddy Small has been a regular starter under the new regime, relegating All-Star Paul Mannion to the bench.

In the Leinster final, Small made hay by making intelligent runs into space and picking up straightforward attacking marks, albeit with his shooting radar slightly off. Much like against Donegal where the central channels were well-manned and the attackers pushed wide, Cavan will have to employ the same tactic to avoid Dublin’s shooters – of which they have many – from picking up easy points.

Small is very strong and athletic so Graham will need to counter with physicality as well. Killian Clarke handled Patrick McBrearty very well last week and would be the obvious choice to get to grips with Small.

That leaves Dean Rock, and he presents a completely different threat. Unlikely to wreak havoc by battling for possession or with sheer athleticism, instead Rock operates on the fringes of an attack, ghosting into space and providing the finishing touch.

At the other end, Gearoid McKiernan will rightly be identified as Cavan’s most dangerous attacker and will therefore occupy John Small. Unlike his brother in attack, Small’s talents lie in disruption and he will relish the opportunity to sacrifice his own game.

Traditionally, Small is the kind of sticky and aggressive opponent that Gearoid has struggled with, but Cavan are going to need the tall centre-forward to get the best of this battle if they are to create enough scoring opportunities to rattle the Dubs.

Despite picking up black cards in each of their four games to date, Cavan’s discipline in the tackle has improved throughout the campaign, conceding just two scoreable frees in the Ulster final.

Dean Rock’s accuracy and familiarity with his surroundings mean that any fouls in the danger zone are almost certain to result in a score. Similarly, they cannot afford to operate with a numerical disadvantage. Playing on the edge means that yellow and black cards are always a threat, but if they don’t push the boundaries then Dublin will gradually pick them apart.

Where Graham opts to utilise Ciaran Brady is an interesting dilemma.

Assuming Conroy is used as sweeper, Brady may be given licence to push further forward and try to add to his impressive point tally for the championship.

The Arva man’s tenacious tackling makes him very effective at turning over possession in crowded situations, but this can work against him when caught in one-on-one situations.

Deploying Brady as an auxiliary half-forward would make him a scoring threat, an asset around broken ball in midfield and a means of slowing Dublin building from the back, all the while absolved of the specific man-watching responsibilities that he might have playing in a more conventional defensive role.

As effortlessly as Dublin often rack up points, it is goals that crush the opposition’s spirit more than anything. Since 2012, Dublin have failed to score a goal in just three championship matches.

The 2015 All-Ireland Final played in torrential rain was one, a Leinster Championship win over an ultra-defensive Carlow side was another, and the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Donegal is the third. Keeping Dublin from raising the green flag is key to remaining in the game, as is creating and converting your own goal chances.

Having been cut wide open by Down’s support runners in the Ulster semi-final, Cavan shored up their defence for the Ulster final and it gave them the platform to go ahead and beat Donegal. To see off Dublin, they’ll need to repeat that feat and take every opportunity that presents itself.

Against Donegal, Ray Galligan went long with 14 of 18 kickouts – a high percentage in the modern game – while Cavan generally were happy to allow Shaun Patton the short option while they regained their defensive shape. Dublin are masterful at turning over and punishing misplaced short kicks and inspirational fielding in the middle has provided a vital boost to the Breffni men at critical times in the previous rounds.

Expect Galligan to target his midfielders again unless there is an obvious and safe short option, while Cluxton will look to secure possession, only going long if he spots an obvious mismatch or a gaping hole in the Cavan defence.

Cavan’s bench has been instrumental in their second-half surges to date but the defending All-Ireland champions have a reserve list that’s the envy of every manager in the country.

Despite their success, complacency has never been an issue for Dublin, and within touching distance of an eighth title in ten years, it’s hard to see them taking their foot off the accelerator.

Under cover of darkness, if Cavan are to steal into Croke Park and come away with the spoils, it will be the ultimate smash-and-grab.

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