Analysis: Balancing focus on league and championship is not easy

Tactics board

Mark McGowan

As good as the latter stages of 2020 were for the Breffni faithful, this is a new season and if further reminders were required, Ryan McMenamin’s Fermanagh served them up at Brewster Park on Saturday evening.

No self-respecting GAA enthusiast would swap a championship run and all the excitement it entails for a successful league campaign, but even the most die-hard of fans will recognise that a repeat of last year’s heroics is a tough ask and that regaining Division 2 status is the more likely scenario and may even take priority.

With this in mind, Mickey Graham had to juggle several dilemmas as the 2021 season got underway. With no McKenna Cup – the traditional blooding ground for fresh faces – and the impending visit to Omagh kick-starting the defence of their Ulster crown, Graham opted to hand out first appearances for Patrick Lynch and Oisin Brady, while 18-year-old Caoimhan McGovern was making his starting inter-county debut.

With Ulster player of the Year Thomas Galligan and Ulster All-Star Gerard Smith unavailable for Cavan, Graham opted for Oisin Kiernan in the playmaking centre-half back role, while Padraig Faulkner picked up the dangerous Daragh McGurn and Killian Brady was tasked with stopping Sean Quigley.

The Roslea Shamrocks man, when he’s available, has long been the focal point of Fermanagh’s attack, with his bulky frame masking quick feet and a delicate touch. Having stepped away from the Ernesiders’ panel in 2020, Quigley appears to have re-found his love for the game and is in arguably the best physical shape of his career.

Brady was the obvious choice to shadow Quigley, but as is often the case when marshalling dead-ball kickers, Quigley’s confidence soared after converting back-to-back long-range frees and the Mullahoran man’s struggles to contain the big man at times – although limiting him to just a point from play - were as much a reflection of the Cavan defence as they were of him personally because he excelled in turning over possession and did the simple things right.

Fermanagh’s defensive set-up – they regularly had 14 men behind the ball – and impressive conditioning meant that Cavan struggled to break the line with any sort of regularity and were unable to create a single goal-scoring opportunity, though they did have considerable success with long-ball tactics that saw Martin Reilly and Lynch targeted on several occasions in the opening period as Cavan looked to keep three men up front at all times.

As impressive as Lynch’s debut began – one from play and two frees in the opening 12 minutes – McGovern took time to find his feet and in other circumstances could have even been withdrawn before half-time, but to Graham’s credit, doing so would be a bitter blow to the confidence of one so young and he resisted the urge.

McGovern repaid his manager’s faith as he grew into the game, kicking two scores from play in the second-half, including one off the outside of the right foot and is definitely one to watch as the season progresses.

When the favourites get beaten there is always a tendency to cite complacency, but it would be hard to argue that that was the case on Saturday. Graham selected 11 of the 15 who started last year’s Ulster final. Of those available for selection, only Chris Conroy and Jason McLoughlin didn’t start, but both were introduced in the second-half with the game in the balance as Graham looked to have his strongest 15 finish the game.

Whereas the management’s in-game tactical changes bore fruit on an almost unprecedented scale during last year’s championship run, unfortunately that proved not to be the case on this occasion.

Whereas some coaches generally wait until the 45-minute mark and beyond before making unforced changes, Graham is no stranger to shaking things up early and the introduction of Conor Madden and Stephen Murray, two players who have excelled off the bench, at half-time were positive changes designed to put Cavan on the front-foot and break Fermanagh’s resistance.

But Murray looked uncharacteristically heavy-legged – and was later withdrawn again to make way for Chris Conroy who struggled to get into the game – and Madden did much of his work too far from the opposition’s goal, which was probably a result of trying to find space where there was little to be had.

Likewise, Michael Argue was brought on to replace Lynch as the young Crosserlough man’s influence had begun to wane as the second-half progressed, but Argue failed to have any real impact playing at full-forward.

Despite Argue’s height, primary ball-winning in confined spaces isn’t his biggest strength and as Fermanagh were reduced to 14 men – and later 13 for a ten-minute spell – they retreated deeper, looking to play counter-attacking football and rely on Quigley’s accuracy from placed balls of which there were plenty.

Ordinarily, the lack of discipline shown by both sides throughout would be cause for concern for both managers, especially when referee Martin McNally had shown such fondness for moving the ball on a very generous amount for the slightest hint of dissent, but that sense of competitiveness – of living on the edge – is a big part of what sets inter-county players apart.

In addition, that these athletes in the prime of their lives have spent the best part of half a year with no competitive action, there is little wonder that there was a certain bite and feistiness to the affair. And it’s a local derby of course.

Ultimately, Fermanagh appeared to have more in the tank and were fully deserving of their victory, even if it came by the slightest of margins.

Graham will reflect on two points dropped having led in the second-half, and now knows that Cavan can’t afford any more slip ups if they are to regain the Division 2 status that they lost last year. He’s track record suggests that he’s a championship manager who uses the league as preparation, but with just two more games (and either a relegation playoff or semi-final), championship-level action is fast approaching.

Still, the tone of his post-match comments suggests that the Cavan manager has his sights set further down the line, too. As he said himself, there's a lot of football to be played yet.

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