Opinion: Cavan got some things right but more wrong


Mark McGowan

With the possible exception of Donegal in Ballybofey, facing Tyrone in Omagh is as tough as the defence of an Ulster Championship crown can get. Especially for a side low on confidence, battling an extensive injury list and with a third successive relegation visible in the rear-view mirror.

With James Smith and Ciaran Brady still unavailable and Conor Madden and Conor Smith deemed unfit to start, Mickey Graham gave championship debuts to Cian Reilly and Oisin Brady and in a move from left-field, named Ramor’s Brian O’Connell, who had never even appeared in a McKenna cup tie, at wing-back.

O’Connell has long had the pedigree for this level, however, had opted out of the squad for various reasons and was unavailable through injury in this season’s ill-fated league campaign.

Additionally, Killian Brady was recalled to the starting line-up and Conor Moynagh’s return to the panel saw him deployed at centre-half-forward. In the opposing ranks, injuries kept Conor McKenna and Darragh Canavan out of the matchday squad but former All-Star Cathal McShane’s recovery from long-term injury saw him occupy a place on the bench.

Tyrone’s new management team of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher had promised that we’d see a new, more attack-focused Red Hand side, but the humiliating defeat to Kerry four weeks previously forced a return to the drawing board and there was more than a hint of Mickey Harte as the home side dropped 14 men behind the ball with regularity.

Graham opted for Killian Clarke on Mattie Donnelly, O’Connell on Paul Donaghy and Cian Reilly on Darren McCurry. This allowed Padraig Faulkner to play a more advanced role and Thomas Galligan to move to the edge of the square where he was picked up by Ronan McNamee.

While Clarke coped with the powerful Donnelly admirably and debutant O’Connell looked like a seasoned campaigner against the classy Donaghy, it was a different story for the other man in the last line of defence. Guarding a player of McCurry’s talent is a tough job at the best of times, but being isolated in acres of space as Tyrone turned over possession meant that Reilly’s championship debut was a difficult outing.

The Edendork man has strength that belies his size, is good under a high ball and is deadly accurate. Reilly’s impressive league campaign justified his selection; however, it became quickly clear that a harsh lesson was on the cards and McCurry’s Man of the Match performance was aided by inaction from the Cavan bench.

The tricky inside-forward had three from play and an attacking mark converted before Raymond Galligan issued instructions for O’Connell and Reilly to switch. Whether this was the captain taking it upon himself to make the on-field decisions is unclear. The Killygarry youngster, who did pull off one brave steal, was replaced by Luke Fortune after 29 minutes but can be very proud of his efforts in his rookie season and is one for the future.

Ironically, in spite of McCurry’s brilliance, Cavan were well in the game at this stage and were arguably the better side. Heavy pressing on Niall Morgan’s kick-outs saw the Tyrone number one finding the sideline with a short one and putting severe pressure on his defence with another that was swiftly turned over by Oisin Pierson and resulted in a Cavan score.

Tyrone adopted the early tactic of having the defence practically huddle together in a central zone on their own kick-outs, before each player embarked on a run in different directions. The hope with this is that the opposition won’t be switched on and Morgan will have an easy target in open space. The flip side, however, is that a clued-in attack can ring-fence the huddle and have a couple of yards’ headstart to cover the runs and the O’Neill county were forced to abandon the practice before the half-hour mark.

Up to this point, despite McCurry running riot at the other end, Cavan were on level terms. Conor Moynagh was struggling to have a major impact despite seeing lots of possession as the packed Tyrone defence made advanced kick passing nearly impossible, forcing the Breffni men to run the ball.

Gearoid McKiernan, Gerry Smith, Oisin Brady and Oisin Pierson all enjoyed early success, but the inside line of Galligan and Martin Reilly were largely being frozen out of the game. The Lacken powerhouse was such a talismanic figure last season that the Breffni men may have been better served with Galligan as a battering ram to breach initial lines and create space for looping inside forwards or runners off the shoulder, as opposed to being a target man who was often double-marked and moving away from goal.

To be fair, a wrist injury meant his participation was in doubt and may not have been fit for the human wrecking-ball role.

The disappointing things is that game was won in the final 10 minutes of the opening half and first five of the second and Cavan had their chances in this period. Moynagh was guilty of indecision when a clear opportunity presented itself and was quickly smothered and Oisin Brady was wayward after an incisive run, while Gerry Smith opted to flick a goal chance past the onrushing Morgan when collecting the ball and attempting to round the Edendork shot-stopper shortly before the break.

It was a different story at the other end as clinical score-taking in similar situations saw Tyrone pull four clear at half-time before delivering the clinical blow after play resumed.

By this stage, Graham had brought in Conor Madden and Conor Smith for Oisin Brady and Moynagh. The substitutes were both injury doubts with a shoulder and hamstring respectively, so it’s hard to criticise them being kept in reserve, especially considering the spark Madden provided off the bench last year, but Smith has largely been under-utilised anyway in my opinion, which is surprising given the Killygarry man’s willingness to show for the ball.

His distinctive call when making a run highlights just how often he makes himself available and was the brightest spark in an otherwise disappointing second-half.

Cavan’s use of Jason McLoughlin in the forward line continues to baffle. The Shannon Gaels clubman is a sticky defender with a knack for getting a hand in and frustrating opponents, but at the other end of the field has limitations that he would probably be the first to concede.

If fully fit – and playing the full 70 minutes on Saturday would suggest he is – then McLoughlin would’ve been better suited closer to his own goals and may well have been the best choice for stopping McCurry.

Padraig Faulkner was the other alternative – and the 2020 All-Star is usually given the job of marshalling the opponents’ most dangerous attacking outlet – but it’s quite possible that Faulkner may have been a little under the weather given his reluctance to push forward in a slightly freer role and appeared gassed with 15 minutes to go.

As it became clear that Cavan needed goals to get back into the game, they resorted to long ball tactics, but with the exception of a good attacking mark claimed by Conor Smith (who was fouled in the process), the delivery to Galligan left a lot to be desired with Oisin Kiernan uncharacteristically off target and a Gearoid McKIernan punt that came down with snow on it which was always going to favour the defending side with greater numbers on hand.

In last week’s preview I advocated for the return of Killian Brady to add some much-needed steel to the Cavan defence, and whilst the teak-tough Mullahoran man did that, he was error prone in possession and record-setting servant Martin Reilly had one of his quietest outings in what will hopefully not prove to be his last.

Ultimately, with relegation to Division 4 and a first-round Championship exit, it’s hard to find many silver linings, but Cavan fought to the bitter end and barring the 15 minutes either side of the break, matched Tyrone score for score. This will be scant consolation for a group that restored pride in the Cavan jersey and will be remembered fondly for generations to come.

But that’s the nature of sport. And there’s always next year.