Opinion: Cavan must adjust to playing without driving force of the team

Opinion

When Cavan won the Ulster Championship last winter, something that slipped by without much remark passed was how they had a clear run of injury for most of the campaign, relatively speaking.

Okay, there were a few players who were sidelined long term – Conor Brady and Niall Murray had both started the Ulster final in 2019 but both made it back before the 2020 championship ended – and Oisin Pierson got hurt scoring a great goal against Monaghan in the opening round, with James Smith getting a knock in the same game.

But for the most part, the key experienced players on the Cavan side, the spine of the team, remained fit and well for the duration. In hindsight, that was crucial to the Ulster final success over Donegal; by and large, Mickey Graham had his strongest possible side to call on, he primed them for a big performance and they detonated in unforgettable fashion when it was needed.

In the Ulster final, Graham used only 17 players, with Murray and Conor Madden – who was introduced three times in all and contributed 1-2 in his various cameos – the duo called on to come in. Seven of the 11 players on the subs bench were aged 22 or younger, namely Pierson, Liam Brady, Thomas Edward Donohoe, Stephen Smith, Oisin Brady, Cormac O’Reilly and Cormac Timoney.

So, looked at from a remove of a few months, it was clear to see that there were two tiers to the Ulster-winning Cavan squad – there was the tried and trusted cohort, most of them veterans of 60 or more games, and there were the promising youngsters who had done enough to force their way into the match-day squads but hadn’t managed to dislodge the dozen or so core players.

Six months on and the news broke last week that one of that core, defender Ciaran Brady, had sustained a dreaded cruciate knee ligament injury. Brady collided heavily with Longford’s Rian Brady in the match last Saturday week.

It happened close to the sideline and immediately, the Arva man seemed to be in distress as he shimmied himself along the turf to get over the white line where he could be treated.

James Smith had gone off a few minutes earlier after taking a heavy fall when contesting the throw-in at the commencement of the second half. Later that night, a friend texted me wondering about the status of Smith.

“I’m not worried about the Holla [Ciaran Brady],” he said, in passing, “he’s one hardy hoor.”

That summed up the regard in which Brady is held by the supporters. When he’s playing, you don’t need to worry about the number seven shirt. Brady takes care of business.

Cavan supporters like to say of a young player that he has “a great cut to him”. It’s one of those phrases which is hard to define but easy to recognise when you see it. I like to think of it as a controlled aggression, concentration, desire and drive; a busy player, a player who wants the ball and is up for the physical challenge.

Few Cavan players sum that up as much as Ciaran Brady does. He is all-action, relishing life in the trenches. What separates him from others is that he is a classy ball-player as well, someone who loves to run at defenders and is comfortable shooting off either foot.

A few years ago, he was Cavan’s highest scorer in Division 2 of the National League and he has consistently played at a high level throughout his county career.

As a minor, he was outstanding in the half-back line alongside Conor Moynagh and Gerry Smith in winning an Ulster medal. He picked up two more at U21 level and then, last November, his first at senior in his sixth season, having come off the bench to kick a point against Monaghan for his Ulster Championship debut in 2015.

Cavan have a long history with knee injuries. Outstanding young players such as Fintan Cahill, Ronan Carolan, Damien O’Reilly and Gearoid McKiernan have all found themselves ruled out for long periods with this particular ailment.

The difference with Brady is that he’s 27, that bit older, but he is the latest outstanding county player to succumb to this particular injury. The good news is that all of the aforementioned bounced back to enjoy great careers.

What was shocking, though, as my friend alluded to, was that Brady seemed indestructible. He has rarely missed a match though injury and in the end, it took a freak impact injury to slow him down.

He has been playing the football of his life, too, over the last year and was extremely close to picking up an All-Star last year; people who were in the selection meeting have told me that he had a lot of support among the journalists there.

The last Cavan player to “do the cruciate” was McKiernan eight years ago and the news back then was greeted mournfully. But sports and medical science has advanced to such a point now that players are expected to make a full and complete recovery and to come back as good as ever, as McKiernan did.

I clearly recall at the time thinking that Cavan’s chances that year were gone when hearing that McKiernan would miss the rest of the season (his injury happened in April); instead, Cavan were still playing championship football in August for the first time in 16 years.

The man himself will approach his rehabilitation with the same diligence he has his training and performances over a decade in the blue jersey at all levels and there’s no doubt he will be back for 2022. We must put it in context, too; an injury like this seems catastrophic but in time, it will be seen for what it is, a pausing of a successful career.

That said, as a player and as a leader, Brady is irreplaceable on the Cavan team but his teammates have no choice but to get on with it. With championship on the horizon, suddenly the glorious Ulster final seems like a distant memory. Reality has hit home, like the ice bucket challenge which went viral a few years back – cold, sharp and sudden.

The clock is ticking and Tyrone in Omagh suddenly takes on a chilling air. Cavan must learn to cope without one of their most decorated and dependable men, the driving force of the team, and they must learn quickly. The Ulster champions’ credentials face a stern test now.

In the meantime, we wish Ciaran the very best in his recovery and look forward to seeing him back, which he surely will be. And the wing-back jersey will be waiting when he returns.

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