Opinion: Tough opener but a great opportunity

Opinion

Cavan’s opening round draw in the Ulster Championship sees the holders travel to Healy Park, Omagh attempting to do something no Cavan senior team has done in the championship in 38 years – beat Tyrone. On paper it couldn’t be tougher but matches aren’t won that way, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.

Breffni Park was baking and the Cavan fans had turned out in their thousands. After a win in Ballinascreen, a stronghold, the home side were pitted against a Tyrone team they hadn’t beaten in their six previous meetings.

In the dying seconds, Cavan held a slender 0-11 to 0-10 lead, with Martin Lynch having nailed every free that came his way, no matter the distance or angle, it seemed.

Now, Tyrone had a free of their own to tie it. Eugene McKenna stood over it but the Augher great saw his 50-metre effort agonisingly catch the upright; Cavan cleared and the final whistle sounded.

“They were great times,” Stephen King recalled a couple of years ago.

“Nobody fancied us to beat Derry because we were going into the fortress but we got a huge result and there was a massive crowd in Breffni Park – and to beat Tyrone by a point was total euphoria. Games like that you remember, Martin’s frees, those things stick out.”

It’s startling to think that Cavan haven’t beaten Tyrone in championship football since that sunny June day in 1983. Even then, there was a mystique around the Red Hands and with each blow they landed over the years, a sense grew in the blue corner that they had Cavan’s number.

“The one team that always seemed to pip us – and we were so close on many occasions to winning championship matches – was Tyrone. They always seemed to get the edge on us,” Joe Dillon, who marked the great Frank McGuigan that day, recalled in 2016.

“Why? A few things. They were cute, it was good management, they were very shrewd at making switches and man marking and did their homework at a time when it wasn’t thought of, you were picked on how good you were with your club and told to play to your strengths.

“There wouldn’t have been the same thought in most other camps. They had that intensity too and they hunted in packs, they didn’t play like other teams in Ulster at the time. They knew how to take the opposition’s best players out of the game, a lot like now. You could say Art McRory was the Mickey Harte of his time.”

Corner-forward for Cavan was Paddy McNamee, who had played with the Tyrone players for years in Railway Cup matches and remembers their steely edge.

“I knew them quite well. They were ruthless, Eugene McKenna and Kevin McCabe were absolute gentlemen but the Tyrone players in general were absolutely ruthless on the field, they didn’t care what they had to do to win it.”

That sums up the sense that Cavan football folk have had about Tyrone in the nearly four decades since that last championship victory – that they are smarter, more ruthless, better than Cavan are.

The stats back it up. Cavan have multiple championship wins at senior level over every other county in the province, in either the Ulster Championship or the All-Ireland qualifiers, since that 1983 season when Tyrone were last conquered.

But in nine tries, the best Cavan have mustered has been two draws, in 2005 and 2016. Both were followed by heavy replay defeats, which is in keeping with a trend; Tyrone’s average margin of victory over Cavan in their seven victories since the end of the 1983 championship is 9.3 points. Only twice have Cavan kept the margin under seven.

Other counties have also held the whip hand – Cavan have just two wins from 11 against Derry in the same time frame and three from 14 against Donegal – but there’s no doubt that Tyrone are the team who have inflicted most in championship and that’s not even to mention other competitions.

A win in Mattie McGleenan’s first match as manager in 2017 in the McKenna Cup in Kingspan Breffni was the first since the final of the same competition in 2000; the following year, as if to hammer home the point, Tyrone came down to the same venue and won by 21 points, a record home defeat for the Blues.

There were a couple of close shaves in that time. The 2001 Ulster final is one that stands out; Cavan had Tyrone on the run coming up to half-time but they regrouped and ended up winning by two. Within two years, Cavan were losing to Antrim in Ulster and Fermanagh in the qualifiers while Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland.

In 2005, Cavan had assembled a strong side and they pushed Tyrone all the way in a draw in Clones in what was a poisonous match. In the replay, Mickey Harte’s men won by 3-19 to 0-7; Cavan were pulverised all over the field. Again, Tyrone added Sam.

In 2016, Terry Hyland had put together an outstanding squad and things were looking very promising, with promotion to Division 1 secured and a win over Armagh in the first round of the championship.

The Black Death was long gone; Cavan were the highest scoring team in the country in the league and their 2-16 against the Orchard was the best championship tally the county’s flagship team had posted since the 1960s.

They competed well against Tyrone but just lacked that little something to push on when the opportunity arose and needed an injury time David Givney goal to snatch a draw. In the replay, Tyrone hit 5-18 and won by 10.

So, there is a pattern there. Just when things have been looking promising, “the one team that always seems to pip us”, in the words of Dillon, have appeared, sword sharpened and eyes flashing.

Gearoid McKiernan kicks a point from distance against Tyrone in Omagh. Photographer: Adrian Donohoe

Could it happen again? Well, there is optimism around Tyrone in their own county at present, much of it based around what looks like having the makings of a stellar forward line.

Niall Sludden, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Darragh Canavan, Cathal McShane, Conor McKenna, Mark Bradley, Darren McCurry, Lee Brennan, Connor McAliskey, Kieran McGeary… that’s quite a shooter’s gallery.

Further back, there are concerns that they may not have the sort of bomb defusers which will be especially needed if they are to play a more expansive style of football, as seems to be the consensus, but overall, they look to have a formidable panel of players, with former AFL star McKenna in particular a notable inclusion, as is fit-again McShane.

So when the draw was made last week for the Ulster Championship, being pitted against Tyrone away was the worst possible outcome for Mickey Graham’s men, right? Well, not exactly, no.

The manner of Cavan’s Ulster Championship wins last winter spoke of a team who have matured and will no longer accept moral victories. Word seeping out of the camp is that the players have prepared diligently on their own during the recent lockdown and that their physical conditioning is better than ever.

The great hope is that Cavan can build on their recent triumph.

If success breeds success, then failure has the opposite effect. Doubts are compounded and out of hopelessness, toxic elements in a culture can set in, around a team and around an entire county. Under pressure, wrong-headed decisions are made, on and off the field.

Tyrone were the brand leaders in the former; Cavan were arguably the same in the latter at times over recent decades. Not always, of course, but there were stages where we, as a county, were lagging behind in how we prepared our teams and the various other strands that feed into that.

The Ulster Championship is a nine-team competition but, realistically, there are at most five or six potential champions each year. For Cavan to have won it just twice in over 50 years is a statistical anomaly for a county with a strong base in terms of a club structure and support.

That suggests other factors were at play, principally psychological. How often did Cavan teams get themselves into a winning position only to squander it? Losing became a habit.

The weight of expectation and delirious hope from supporters must have felt like a weight around the necks of a few generations of players, too. And then, suddenly, there was an Ulster Championship in which Cavan, having been relegated a week earlier, were completely dismissed and went into every match as underdogs. And better again, there were no fans there; that desperate yearning, cranking up as the minutes ticked down to the final whistle, was now absent from the equation.

Of course, Cavan did not just win the Ulster Championship because it was played behind closed doors but we would argue that in getting over that mental hurdle, it helped. The cliché tells us that luck is where preparation meets opportunity; Cavan had prepared superbly and were ready to grab the chance.

Killian Brady summed it up on these pages recently. For the experienced players, it came down to making a decision: enough was enough. Losing was no longer an option.

The hardest part is always that breakthrough. Cavan managed it back in 1997 but the benefits of that win as a reset button were lost all too quickly by the period of flux that followed, players retiring, managerial changes; by the time an Ulster final was reached again four years later, there were 20 new faces in the team photo.

That shouldn’t happen this time. Cavan should enjoy the payback of having achieved their goal; for one thing, every footballer in the county now wants to be on the panel. The management’s bone fides cannot be doubted, inside or outside the camp. And the players will be more confident than ever.

Tyrone have been an excellent side for the last few years and were in an All-Ireland final in 2018, don’t forget. Harte, though, will be a hard act to follow.

History tells us that when a generational manager steps aside – Mick O’Dwyer, Pete McGrath, Sean Boylan, even Alex Ferguson – success rarely follows immediately.

There is no doubt that Graham, in his third year, will know more about his players when the sides line out in Omagh than Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher, likely in their fifth match, will. There would be something wrong if he didn’t.

Tyrone will be favourites but there will be pressure on Cavan too to prove their success last November was not a freak. On the other hand, the opportunity is there now to confirm Cavan’s position at the top of the pecking order in the province.

With no retirements and a handful of exciting new players brought in, Cavan should still be trending upwards. The spine of the team has amassed huge experience, with average appearances well into the 60s. Crucially, they now know how to win and have individuals – the likes of Thomas Galligan comes to mind – who just have that X factor in tight situations.

Where Tyrone will be at is harder to say. Of course, they will be well-conditioned, talented and will bring plenty of swagger but this is a tricky game for them. Win and it’s ‘only’ Cavan. Lose and it will be a long autumn and winter for all involved.

Like all championship matches, the line-outs and tactics are important but in ways, incidental too. Momentum and belief are key if all else is equal or close to it.

In ways, then, this could be a perfect draw for Cavan after all.

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