Why the 2020 Ulster SFC was Cavan's greatest of all

Cavanman's Diary

Lately, on social media, I was referred to by one Monaghan man as “the milkman”, the reason being that he reckoned I had wrung every drop out of Cavan’s Ulster Championship win last November!

He was probably right, I will grudgingly concede, and with manager Mickey Graham having insisted in a couple of recent interviews that Cavan must draw a line under 2020 and move on, we will soon stop writing about it.

But not just yet. As a final victory lap for Cavan readers and because, with nothing happening, content for this column is running at all-time low levels, here, in no particular order, are my five reasons why Cavan’s 2020 Ulster Senior Football Championship was the greatest of them all.

1. It was unexpected

There is nothing like a breakthrough success in sport. In Gaelic games, a championship triumph which comes after a sustained period of defeat always provides a tonic for supporters and neutrals alike.

A few days before the match, we checked the betting odds and Donegal were 1/14 to lift the cup. In other words, to make a tenner profit, you would have had to put down €140 on Declan Bonner’s men.

As far as I can gather, that was the shortest price ever offered on any team to win the Ulster Championship, which says it all. Outside of Cavan, it’s fair to say, this win was totally unexpected.

The 1997 success will never be forgotten and ended an even longer famine but Cavan were given more than a puncher’s chance in that one against a great Derry side. In 1962, Down were seeking four Ulster titles and three All-Irelands in succession before Cavan stunned them to end another famine – seven years, a record at the time.

But given Cavan had been relegated the week before the championship and had lost so heavily the previous year to Donegal and Tyrone, this one looked more unlikely than any previous Breffni success.

2. The manner of the wins

On the evening after Dublin beat Donegal in the infamous 0-8 to 0-6 All-Ireland semi-final 10 years ago, there was a discussion on Newstalk.

Mayo’s David Brady, a well-regarded footballer who lost so many big matches on flamboyant, flaky Mayo teams, was giving his two cents. Brady, remember, was on the wrong side of results in eight All Ireland finals as a player and after finally winning one, a club title with Ballina in 2005, he admitted, perhaps unwisely, in the raucous aftermath: “I have been a loser all my life.”

Brady was asked about Donegal’s defensive style of play and his response has always stayed with me.

“I have a 10-year-old nephew and I never want to see him play football like that,” he said.

“Football like that” was, at the time, winning football, which had seen Donegal make a first All-Ireland semi-final in 19 years, beating Antrim, Cavan, Tyrone, Derry and Kildare along the way and running the Dubs close. Were Mayo offered an All-Ireland title, they would take it, surely, no matter how it was won.

It is a strange kind of snobbery in the GAA that we will look down on other counties’ tactical approaches, even if they are out-performing our own. What matters is getting the best out of the players at your disposal; the style, surely, must be dictated by the tools to hand.

It must be said, though, that it is all-the-sweeter if your team wins while playing an expansive, risk-taking style. Cavan did just that, kicking the ball long, backing themselves to shoot from distance and tight angles and going for goal if there was a whiff of it in the air.

Regardless of what the scoreboard said, they stuck with it.

Seven down against Monaghan. Ten in arrears against Down. Four behind at one stage against Donegal, a match in which two players were handed black cards in a pair of decisions among the worst seen in any match all year. Nothing phased the eventual champions; they kept on going for it.

Cavan were dead and buried on so many occasions but refused to countenance defeat. “Enough was enough,” was how Killian Brady described it in an interview this week.

3. The path to the final

It is extremely difficult to win the Ulster Championship from the preliminary round, something which has only been managed a handful of times in the history of the competition. It must surely be harder to do so when all of the matches are played week-on-week; by the time Cavan played Down in the Ulster semi-final, they were playing their fifth game in as many weeks, having had two National League matches in the run-in to championship.

Down had one of their league matches called off and fielded a weakened team in the other. Antrim, too, had a week’s rest before playing Cavan in the quarter-final, while the Breffni men had gone to extra time the week before.

In beating Monaghan and Donegal, Cavan joined the Dubs in an exclusive club of counties who beat two Division 1 teams in the 2020 championship. Down had gained promotion to Division 2 and were being vaunted as a team to watch, too.

In Division 4, Antrim missed out on promotion by a point, having actually beaten table-toppers Limerick convincingly. As Ulster runs go, it doesn’t get any tougher.

4. The year that was in it

The country and county had endured so much in 2020 that it needed a pick-me-up. Cavan’s success – along with Tipperary’s in the Munster final earlier that same day – had GAA fans overjoyed, with many neutrals taking to social media to express how happy they were to see the underdogs bite back in such style.

When the idea of playing matches behind closed doors was originally floated, I wrote a column expressing how repugnant that idea was.

“Asked about it this week,” I wrote last July, “the GAA’s commercial director Peter McKenna did not rule out playing the All-Ireland championship behind closed doors. If it comes to that, the association should pull the plug altogether. Imagine a success-starved county like Cavan were to win an Ulster title with nobody present, no homecoming and not even a celebratory drink with friends (unless, of course, one of the group is also dining because that is apparently perfectly safe).

“What would be the point? Either we have a championship or we don’t.

“A diluted version – with all of the expense and effort and none of the communal joy which makes it worthwhile - would defeat the purpose of the exercise. Professional sports, with their piped in, phony crowd noises, will continue to sell their product but in the GAA, it is real fans, in thrall to tradition and pride in club and county, who make Gaelic games the soundtrack of the summer.

“Play it loud or leave the instruments down for another year.”

Yep, I’ll admit it, my opinion turned quicker than Jason O’Reilly picking a defender’s pocket and heading for goal!

The league match at home against Roscommon in a deserted Kingspan Breffni the week before the Monaghan game felt depressing to me – and not just because of the result. Heading for Clones a week later, there was none of the usual pre-championship excitement.

But the players, on both sides, delivered an epic and when Ray Galligan’s late free-kick decided it, the absence of a crowd or any of the other trappings all faded away. Everyone saw the game from the safety of their living rooms. This was, despite my fears, championship alright.

5. There may not be many more

At one time, a trip to the Ulster final was a sort of birthright for Cavan people. Those who remember those days, who lived them, are growing scant in number though; in reality, it’s 65-odd years since Cavan could expect to be in the Ulster final each summer.

As we write, we have been in the last two, though, and won the most recent one. The old order, for now, has been restored and with swagger and class, too.

But it seems increasingly likely that the Ulster Championship as we know it will be binned sooner rather than later. It would be a crying shame but it seems that this great and historic competition will be axed or consigned to an Off-Broadway run at best.

With no back door for the first time in 20 years, the 2020 championship was a trip back in time. It may well be remembered as the last great Ulster Championship; how sweet for Cavan, then, to be the winners. 

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