Derry had the edge but there are positives for Cavan

OPINION: Tactics board

While there were positives to take from the three group games, Cavan will be disappointed with the season so far generally, writes MARK McGOWAN.

Must-win matches in your third outing of the season wouldn’t exactly be commonplace, but that’s pretty much what Cavan faced when they welcomed Derry to Kingspan Breffni on Saturday afternoon.

Rory Gallagher’s side had easily accounted for Longford and Fermanagh in their opening two fixtures, and barring an absolute tanking at the hands of the Ulster champions – and a similar margin of victory for Fermanagh in Brewster Park – their safe passage to the semi-final was guaranteed.

Gallagher must have been tempted to experiment a little and offer game time to the extended squad, but the Fermanagh native named a full-strength side, taking nothing for granted against Mickey Graham’s men.

Well-travelled, Gallagher very much cut his teeth in the inter-county arena alongside Jim McGuinness between 2011 and 2013 – helping deliver just Donegal’s second All-Ireland – and had deployed similar tactical strategies in his management spells with Donegal and Fermanagh since. Repetition was one of McGuinness’ mantras and this may be part of the reason that Gallagher is keen to give his strongest selection as much game time as possible.

With James Smith and Ciaran Brady picking up injuries against Longford – the latter facing an extended spell on the sidelines – Thomas Galligan not fit to start, and several other first-teamers unavailable for one reason or another, Graham had no such luxury, and brought in Chris Conroy and Niall Murray for their first start and first appearance respectively in this league campaign in an attempt to balance youth and experience throughout the team.

The manner of Derry’s victory over Fermanagh a week previously had Erne manager Ryan McMenamin in awe at the Oak Leaf players’ conditioning and pace and they very much hit the ground running at Kingspan Breffni.

Supreme fitness and relentless pressure was a trademark of Donegal in Gallagher’s first few years there, and the pace with which Derry broke from defence was a little reminiscent of Donegal in their second evolutionary stage.

Donegal tended to blitz sides and do the vast majority of their scoring in a short time frame and Derry twice hit six points without reply to begin both halves, which of course laid the foundation for the subsequent victory, retreating deep when Cavan got possession, but committing no shortage of players forward when in possession themselves.

Gallagher would’ve been well aware of Cavan’s struggles against a blanket defence, although Derry’s discipline and strict adherence to his system are still a long way from championship level, even if their pace and movement aren’t.

Cavan identified Shane McGuigan and Benny Heron as the biggest threats closest to goal and put their most experienced defenders on the case, with Killian Clarke on McGuigan and Padraig Faulkner on Heron. Despite an uncharacteristically sluggish start that suggested he may not be operating at 100 per cent, Faulkner limited Heron to a single point, but Clarke struggled with McGuigan who scored four from play and the same again from placed balls, although the Shercock man did exert influence in other areas of play.

Derry clearly identified Gearoid McKiernan as Cavan’s biggest threat – as most opposing managers do – and noticeably tried to rattle him in the early stages with Padraig McGrogan, Conor Doherty and Conor Glass all “getting to know him” in the most GAA sense of the phrase.

Without James Smith to worry about, McKiernan was also identified as the danger man on Ray Galligan’s kick-outs, with Glass dropping from midfield to stop McKiernan launching attacks on the back of some high fielding. They were also quite happy to adopt a defensive formation and allow Cavan to take possession short, whereas the Ulster champions adopted quite a high press, forcing Oran Lynch to go long more often than he would have liked.

Despite appearing to have more pace in key areas, Derry struggled to win breaking ball and this will be a source of comfort for Graham who has yet to have all options for the middle available this year.

That said, Conor Brady, who is finding his feet after a long spell on the sidelines, struggled to have any real impact on the game and Killian Brady – who was getting through a mountain of work and was instrumental in the winning of dirty ball in the opening period – was withdrawn at half-time instead.

This is the second successive match that the Mullahoran man has lasted just 35 minutes, and the substitution appeared tactical rather than forced. He was replaced by Michael Argue in a move that bore little fruit.

With such a young squad at his disposal – the average age of Cavan’s reserves on Saturday was about 23 and less inter-county experience than their ages might suggest – Argue is a little more seasoned. The towering Bailieborough man made his debut under Terry Hyland and looked set to assert himself as an elite inter-county player but for various reasons he drifted away from the panel and he will hope to nail down a place now on his return, with wing-forward arguably a better fit than midfield.

Elsewhere, the decision not to start Conor Smith seemed a little strange given the impact the Killygarry man had off the bench the previous week. He was introduced at half-time as Graham made more of his trademark early substitutions, and put in a tireless display that unfortunately yielded less than it deserved.

The lack of a clearly defined right-footed free taker is a problem that has reared its head in both National League defeats this year and is a problem that needs rectifying as soon as possible. No sooner had Ray Galligan slotted over a 45-metre placed ball than Cavan won another in a near-identical position which Patrick Lynch failed to convert.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the Crosserlough youngster, but the additional pressure of trying to emulate one of the most rangy dead-ball kickers in the country within minutes could easily have been avoided.

Despite the loss, there are plenty of positives to be taken, not least the fact that against a full-strength Derry side at near-championship tilt, an understrength and under-performing Cavan side still were within a solitary kick of victory, but nevertheless it’s a relegation play-off against Wicklow to avoid the humiliation of being relegated to the nation’s bottom tier whilst provincial champions.

2020 was always going to be hard to top, but 2021 has been a struggle so far. Anything other than a win over Wicklow would be disastrous; after that, Cavan will wait in the long grass and hopefully plot another classic Graham championship coup.