Opinion: Back down to earth for Cavan

GAA opinion

Cavan supporters hoped to get out of Division 3 this year. Nobody figured it would be in this direction, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.

Another chapter in the Sorrowful Mysteries. Following Cavan is a rollercoaster; sometimes it scales the heights, other times, it derails and plummets to earth when you least expect it.

There have been many low points down through the years. The one referenced most often in recent days is the loss to Waterford in 2006. Cavan had put seven goals past them the year before, current manager Mickey Graham with four, and had the hard work done, or so it seemed.

The Déise men arrived north in cars; one player was said to be munching on a Mars bar as he sauntered through the players’ entrance. Waterford won; after the game, their manager visited the Cavan dressing-room for the customary post-match address, encouraging the shell-shocked Cavan players to “keep at it”.

In a couple of ways, the defeat to Wicklow is comparable. While they have been generally trending upwards for the last couple of years, Wicklow are not very good.

Meath knocked them out of the championship last year on a 7-14 to 0-7 scoreline in Aughrim; the year before that, Leitrim put them out.

Wicklow’s win was their first league victory outside of Division 4 since the four-tier system was introduced in 2008 and they celebrated lustily at the final whistle.

When an underdog pulls off a huge shock, it’s usually because they hung in there, got some lucky breaks and hit for a late goal when the favourites didn’t have time to react. It must be galling for the Cavan players and management to look back and think that none of that happened; Wicklow scored the first three points, the only three goals and led for almost the entirety of the match.

Of course, there were mitigating circumstances. This was a shortened league and the margins were ridiculously fine. Had the 2016 league been played on a three-match group system, Cavan would have been in a relegation play-off after losing two, by a point and two points, just like this year. Instead, they ended up winning five games in a row and gaining promotion to Division 1.

A kick of a ball either way in any of the three defeats – or, indeed, Fermanagh’s draw with Longford – would have catapulted Cavan into an entirely different reality, one in which they would have been taking on Offaly for a shot at promotion to Division 2.

Yet, that in itself hints at the current malaise. To lose sloppily once is unfortunate, twice is careless but three times? In football terms, that’s criminal. And if you do the crime, you do the time.

The general flatness on show against Fermanagh could be excused; the Erne men were coming off an awful run and were highly motivated while Cavan were like honeymooners returning to the office.

The Derry game featured lots of careless play but the players dug in and fought to the bitter end. That Graham was relatively upbeat afterwards told a tale.

But the Wicklow loss is unforgivable. There are no positives whatsoever to take from it. The defending was shambolic, the attacking limp, the general tempo lukewarm. From the off, there was a sense that Cavan thought they would win and were just waiting for things to come right.

That feeling hung around the team like a bad smell right up until the closing stages. By then, there was an urgency alright but they had left themselves too much to do, even against weak opposition whose players were cramping and panicking.

That’s not to insult Wicklow. They were hungrier and deserved their win. They showed Cavan no respect; in fact, the sounds from their camp after the match indicated that they were the ones who felt disrespected.

It was noticeable how fired up they were, a trend that pertained to Fermanagh and Derry when taking on Cavan, too. The Breffni men are now the hunted and not the hunters and have not adjusted well to the change in perception which their Ulster Championship success last November has brought about.

Opposition sides must now lick their lips taking Cavan on; here is a chance to claim the scalp of a reigning provincial champion, a team who beat two Division 1 sides in last year’s championship which automatically, in the general run of things, confers ‘big gun’ status.

Yet here is a big gun which is can be silenced fairly handily, it seems. Big game hunters prize a trophy scalp and Cavan are out in the open, easy to take down.

After the match, I was sitting in the press box and happened to overhear a snatch of conversation among some of the Wicklow panellists, who were having their post-match meal from foil containers.

The gist of it was that Cavan weren’t up to much. “Sure Antrim should have beat them last year in the first match,” commented one.

Obviously, the Antrim game was Cavan’s second in the Ulster Championship and while it was fairly close, we would strongly contest the charge that Cavan should have lost. But still – it provided an indication as to what is thought of Cavan now outside the county.

The Ulster win will now be dismissed as a fluke, a freak result in a freak championship, played in the depths of winter without the traditional run-in and no fans present. That is an insult to Cavan’s efforts but that will now be the perception.

The most common word which has come up in conversation in recent days has been “embarrassing”. Slipping to Division 4 for the first time ever certainly is that. Has there ever been a Division 4 side with three All-Stars in it? It is a staggering thought.

But yet the players earned those All-Stars and medals and still have credit in the bank with supporters. Unlike in 2006, when the fans almost turned their back on the team, this bunch has provided great days in the very recent past.

That 2006 squad never recovered. Managers changed, the ship steadied itself at times but viewed in hindsight, the years which followed were something of a tailspin. That should not happen this time.

Graham and his management experimented in this league campaign, partly out of choice, one imagines, and partly necessity. The tests produced few results worth talking about; a few young players showed enough to suggest they will cut it at this level in time. We probably knew that anyway.

What is most worrying is that, after almost an injury-free run at the business end last year, Cavan began to lose players this time and found that, in terms of experience, the cupboard was bare. Of the 29 players Cavan have used in their four matches in 2021, eight have played five matches or less at this level and two have been recalled having not featured for the last couple of years at all.

That sort of profile in a squad speaks to a team in transition – yet how can that be the case for a team which just made a breakthrough last winter and have lost nobody to retirement?

The truth is that Cavan, at full strength are a very good side but they do not have a high cruising speed. The depth in the squad, for one thing, is not there to allow it.

Weakened – and last Saturday, Cavan were without Jason McLoughlin, Gerard Smith, Ciaran Brady, James Smith, Killian Brady and Niall Murray of the 17 used in the Ulster final – they are significantly poorer.

We are not saying that at full tilt, nobody could beat this Cavan side. But down a few bodies and displaying a complacency and sloppiness that was unacceptable, anybody could.

Tyrone await and they are no great shakes but there is scar tissue there. Graham has magicked up something when you’d least expect it before but his next trick will have to be on a mind-altering scale if this season is to be salvaged.