'We're rightfully here and it's an opportunity now'
While defeat was ultimately their lot, Cavan’s performance against Donegal in the recent Ulster SFC semi-final was widely lauded. Coming in as underdogs with the bookmakers, Mickey Graham’s side took the game to the Tír Chonnail men and were level with 10 minutes to go before Donegal pulled away.
That didn’t make the defeat any easier to swallow but, says Killian Clarke, Cavan just have to get on with it now. What was the mood like after the game?
“It wasn’t great, as to be expected,” Clarke, speaking at the Tailteann Cup launch on Monday in Croke Park, told the Anglo-Celt.
“There was a bit of mourning done last week but we just have to park it and move on. We felt that we put a good enough performance in in the first half and then there was a goal or two in the second half that really pinned us back. Disappointing all the same.
“When you’re tit for tat with the likes of Donegal, a goal is a massive score in those games, there’s always going to be a point or two either way with the brand of football that we’re playing and the way they’re setting up as well. They got the goal this time around, hopefully the next time we meet it will be a different story.”
Cavan now enter the inaugural second tier championship competition. It is something the long-serving Shercock man sees as a good opportunity.
“We’ll definitely focus in on it. It’s a good opportunity for us to get a few more games in before the end of the year. Hopefully if we make it to the latter stages, we’ll find ourselves playing maybe two more games in Croke Park as well.
“We’re quite a young side, there are a few younger lads who would have played maybe the National League final and apart from that, they mightn’t have been in it too often. It definitely will be a good experience and an opportunity for us to improve and keep driving on for better performances.”
Cavan upped the ante between league and championship this year, he agreed.
“We probably had our purple patches in the league where we played well in games, fell asleep for parts of games as well and teams did a bit of damage against us so it was just about getting that more consistent performance and that’s what we’re looking to target for the Tailteann Cup, definitely.
“For 20, 25 minutes against Donegal, we were excellent, we had eight or nine scores after 20 minutes and then a point then in 15 minutes. So it just shows you, when we’re focused and we’re well set-up and well-driven, we can do damage up front.
“And then when we have that lapse in concentration or whatever it might be, we struggle to get scores on the board.”
A few younger faces have broken into the Cavan team of late which has provided fresh energy, he said. The former Irish International Rules player has been lining out at senior level for Cavan since 2012 and he admits that the abandon of youth has helped lift the scene.
“Elder statesman is the word thrown about the odd time!” he joked.
“Ah no, it’s great to see the younger lads coming through. It’s funny, when you’re playing in a structure for so long, you know systems and you know what way you want to set up and you might do that for five, six years and when these young lads come in, it’s quite refreshing.
“It’s not that they play off the cuff but if you can sharpen the tools a wee bit with them, you can definitely find a spot for them. They do their own thing and play well, it works out alright.”
Down will be looking for revenge from the 2020 Ulster semi-final, Clarke agreed.
“They definitely will. I think they have had a few casualties of late with different squad members and that so you don’t really know what type of Down team you’re going to be getting, it could go one of two ways, either galvanise them or they could down tools.
“We have to prepare for the best opposition as per usual and really focus in and look for a performance from us moreso than what the opposition is like.”
For Cavan, the challenge now is to embrace the new competition and try to win it. There is some scepticism out there about it but Clarke has a different view.
“[Some] people are disappointed, there is a narrative out there that you can’t play in the bigger competition but I’d be of the opinion that we’re justifiably in the Tailteann Cup, we had two bad years in the league where our league performances weren’t up to scratch. We’re working away, hopefully back up through the leagues as well and we’re building on, continuously looking for that perfect performance. I think we’ll be chasing that for the next 50 years, there’ll always be something to work on.
“I think we’re rightfully here and it’s an opportunity for us to compete against teams in the same divisions so we’ll be using that as hopefully a good stepping stone to set up a great year next year as well.
“Is there pressure on us? I wouldn’t say pressure, I think a lot of the pressure on us as players with Cavan is the pressure we put on ourselves. We’re targeting our own performances, regardless of what opposition we are playing. We have our own targets and what we want to achieve during games.
“I wouldn’t be too worried about there being too much pressure on our side anyway.”
The opportunity to potentially line out in Croke Park again is a huge incentive said Clarke, who has played there more often than anyone else on the Cavan panel.
“It never gets boring, when you hear the crowd roaring the hairs lifting on the back of your neck, it’s a great day out.
“I’m really looking forward to it if we do get that far but that’s a wee bit further down the line hopefully.”