With breakthrough secured, this Cavan team can thrive

Opinion

Far from the Ulster SFC success being the culmination of a journey, Cavan are in a great position to consolidate and then improve now, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.

Around this time two years ago, a friend of mine was in Dublin city centre and happened to see one of the Cavan footballers standing close to the gates of Trinity College, with a gear bag, looking like he was waiting to meet someone to get a lift.

It was January 9, 2019 and the player was Jason McLoughlin. Later that evening, Cavan would play Donegal in the McKenna Cup at a freezing Ballybofey.

My friend, who would ordinarily attend most games, tuned in to the updates on Northern Sound radio and was glued to Twitter as the evening unfolded. Cavan were hammered; Michael Langan put on an exhibition of point-scoring in the first half and at one stage, the home team were ahead by 1-19 to 0-10 before Cavan put a better look on things with a flurry of late scores to lose by eight.

Afterwards, he remembers saying to himself, ‘well, Cavan are as far away as ever. And how do the likes of Jason keep at it, year in, year out?’

He recalled that story to me a few weeks ago as we basked in the glow of Cavan deservedly winning an unlikely and unforgettable Ulster Championship title. Cavan’s victory – and hopefully this is not just recency bias at play – was the most dramatic Ulster success in the county’s history.

The victory over Derry in 1997 may have ended the longest famine Cavan endured and the wins over Down in 1969 and 1962 in particular were era-defining, coming as they did against the reigning All-Ireland champions, but otherwise, nothing even comes close.

Cavan – take a deep breath now - came from the preliminary round, had been relegated to Division 3 of the National League a week before the championship threw in, had lost several leading players from the previous campaign, were so far behind in matches and were completely and utterly written off by every pundit and analyst outside of the county prior to the final, which was played in an empty stadium.

And Jason McLoughlin, that man for all seasons who had been spotted in the capital waiting for his lift to Donegal for a mid-week winter hiding less than two years earlier, delivered a performance for the ages, scoring his first championship point, stripping Michael Murphy of possession repeatedly and nullifying no less an attacking threat than Ryan McHugh.

What does little parable tell us? Well, for one, things can turn relatively quickly in football. It took 23 months for Cavan to complete the turnaround against Donegal.

But more than anything, it speaks to the power of perseverance. Here’s a cheesy phrase I read somewhere: “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”

That mantra was applicable in 1997, when Cavan got the rub of the green against Derry with a few refereeing decisions en route to what was, in any case, a deserved win. This time around, none of the breaks fell their way; some of the decisions which went against the underdogs in the final were appalling, which should not be forgotten just because Cavan won.

But there is no doubt that for Cavan, preparation did meet opportunity and they grabbed it. Some long-serving campaigners had opted out but enough had stuck with it and were boosted by the arrival of a wave of young players.

They hung in there with Donegal throughout and when Conor Madden found the net, the transformation was complete.

Ten of the Donegal starting team in the Ulster final had started that humdrum McKenna Cup tie early in 2019; another came on as a sub in the Ulster final. It truly was an extraordinary swing.

At the time of that game, Mickey Graham had been in the job for a few months but was still dividing his time between Cavan and Mullinalaghta, who had just won the Leinster Club SFC against unbackable favourites Kilmacud Crokes.

His first match was a win over Down on the day before New Year’s Eve, by a point, before a 0-17 to 0-3 victory over Queens University in Ballyconnell. But against a near full-strength Donegal in McCumhaill Park, which is something of a fortress for them, the gap was painfully apparent.

Less than two weeks later, Graham sat down in a coffee shop in Cavan Town – how quaint that seems now - with Irish Times journalist Malachy Clerkin and gave an honest appraisal of where Cavan had been, where he felt they were then at and what he believed was to come.

“Yeah, it just seems for the last number of years that there’s been a fierce turnover of players for various reasons,” Graham said.

“Whether it’s the commitment or lads travelling or injuries or lads not believing that they’re good enough to go on and be successful, there’s been lots of reasons. It’s been disappointing that every year you seem to have a bunch of new players. From my point of view, I’m hoping to bring a bit of continuity.”

That didn’t happen but the rest of what he said was almost spookily-prescient considering the 2019 Ulster final and qualifier tankings and the successive league relegations, followed by the glorious redemption.

“I said to them the first day I spoke to them – there’s no quick fix here. Things aren’t going to happen within six months or 12 months. This is a journey that could take two, three, four years. To create the environment I want, to put the stamp on their set-up that I want, none of it is going to happen overnight.

“It’s a matter of the boys buying into it and seeing the bigger picture. For new lads in to develop as players physically and mentally, it could take a few years so everyone has to realise that. It’s going to be a tough year or two to begin. I firmly believe things will get worse before they get better, unfortunately.”

Were Graham to sit down and spill his thoughts into a Dictaphone again now, approaching the two-year anniversary of that interview with the Times, we can guess what his sentiments would be. Graham has spoken before of his intense regret that the 1997 success was not built on.

Carelessness

There was an element of carelessness about the seasons which followed what was Cavan’s last major breakthrough. Okay, a couple of veterans like Stephen King and Damien O’Reilly retired and that couldn’t be helped but Martin McHugh’s resignation was a major blow.

In the team photo for the 2001 Ulster SFC final, which Cavan lost narrowly to Tyrone, there are 27 players. Incredibly, only eight of that 27 featured in the Ulster success four years earlier. What hope have you of building something in those conditions?

That a side top-heavy with brilliant, pacey scoring forwards and with a once-in-a-generation young midfielder in Dermot McCabe, a group who had already broken down the mental barriers by achieving U21 and senior success, did not kick on was a mystery and a crying shame.

That was potentially one of the great Cavan teams but while many of the individuals carved out superb careers, as a team, their promise was squandered.

This time, those disruptive factors from back then should be largely avoided. The manager is going nowhere and there will be no retirements. In fact, Cavan should get stronger; some of those who opted out may want back.

The culture has changed and the environment Graham spoke about has been moulded into the way he wanted it.

So, where do they go from here?

Firstly, the profile of the squad, in terms of age and experience, is excellent. There were nine players on the Ulster final match day panel aged 22 or younger, namely Luke Fortune, Oisin Pierson, Thomas Edward Donohoe, Stephen Smith, Oisin Brady, Cormac O’Reilly, James Smith, Cormac Timoney and Conor Smith.

Another two – Conor Brady and Evaan Fortune – made the match-day 26 against Dublin. To put that in some sort of context, imagine if Cavan had won an Ulster U20 title two years ago how much excitement there would be about the coming wave, with maybe half a dozen Ulster U21 medallists expected to step up and bolster the senior squad. Now, there are almost double that number and they have Ulster senior medals, not U20 ones.

Futher down the squad, Caoimhan McGovern, who only turned 18 in August, got game time against Kildare in the league, scoring 0-2, and defenders Cian Reilly and Niall Carolan (Killygarry and Cuchulainns respectively) were also on the extended panel.

At the other end of the spectrum, only two of the 26 who togged out for the Ulster final were aged over 31 and there is a lot more in them. Martin Reilly, a supreme athlete, looks like he could play till he’s 40 while Ray Galligan, who only switched to goals in his mid-20s, is getting better by the year and is the best number one in the country at present.

Gearoid McKiernan and Niall Murray both turned 30 in 2020; both have a lot of mileage on the clock but, again, are a long way off hanging up the boots.

Cavan haven’t retained the Anglo-Celt Cup since 1955. That will be the next goal and it is achievable. Winning is a habit, just as losing once was. All of the indicators point to the dog days being over at last but Graham and Dermot McCabe will be forewarned that nothing is guaranteed, as they found out themselves as 22-year-olds with Ulster senior medals in their pockets.

The prospect of some of those seasoned, experienced players like former captain Dara McVeety coming back into the fold is exciting but even more so is watching the development of the younger brigade. In horseracing, the cliché is that if you believe you have four Gold Cup winners in your yard, you probably have none – so the hope will be that one of these youngsters steps up and becomes a superstar.

The current circumstances played into Cavan’s hands a little and will do again with the short turnaround. They are the form team in Ulster and while they are now hunted and not hunter, their graph is going in the right direction.

Who knows where it will lead.

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