Opinion: If Cavan perform, they will win
The value of the Tailteann Cup will likely be debated for some time, but like it or not, it’s where Cavan find themselves and the surest way to rubber-stamp your All-Ireland worthiness is to win it. Thus, Cavan’s quest begins with a home fixture against Down this weekend.
Installed as Tailteann Cup favourites after their impressive showing against Donegal – who the bookies make third-favourites to lift Sam Maguire – Mickey Graham’s men are definitely the team to beat. Down, on the other hand, are coming off a very disappointing showing against Monaghan, have a squad decimated by players opting out, a manager that may not want to be there, and a support base disillusioned to the point of dismay.
This, of course, makes Down a team with nothing to lose and this is often when a side are at their most dangerous, but the cold analysis suggests that this is fanciful thinking and little more.
Both managers face selection headaches, but for very different reasons. Martin Reilly, Oisin Kiernan and Ciaran Brady are all back in contention for starting places, though one suspects that Brady may be eased back into action given the nature and length of his lay-off, while Caoimhin O’Reilly misses out with a hand injury. Patrick Lynch was shaken after a heavy collision with Michael Murphy in that Ulster semi-final defeat, but Cavan will hope he is fit to play and resume his formidable partnership with James Smith in the full-forward line.
Should Reilly or Kiernan return to the starting line-up, it’s possible that Cian Madden or Cormac O’Reilly will be the men replaced but we can expect an otherwise unchanged side from that which started against Antrim and Donegal.
James McCartan’s starting 15 may be tougher to call than the winning lottery numbers given the recent upheaval within the squad, with five of the county’s U20s receiving call ups in the wake of the exodus, which included Ryan McEvoy and Caolan Mooney, both key players for the Mourne men.
McEvoy’s decision to opt out – along with losing Finn McIlroy who went to the United States after the league campaign – leaves Down short of options in the full-back line, meaning Darren O’Hagan is likely to drop back and pick up either Lynch or Smith in what will be a very defensive formation hoping to catch Cavan on the counter-attack.
Alongside O’Hagan will probably be Anthony Doherty who has been a bit-part player for Down since a very impressive display against Armagh in 2017, but is one of the few defensive options with the physicality to challenge Cavan’s powerful attack. And if O’Hagan picks up Lynch, then Doherty will pick up Smith and vice-versa.
McCartan may deploy Niall McParland on Gearoid McKiernan, hoping McParland’s physicality and experience as a former county captain may be enough to curb the centre-forward’s influence on the game.
Up front, Pat Havern is also likely to miss out through injury, leaving Down without their main target man in attack and making the running game their strongest option. We can expect them to attempt to work the ball to Barry O’Hagan and U20 graduate Andrew Gilmore in scoring positions, with O’Hagan the main scoring threat from play.
Despite being quite small in stature, Gilmore has good hands and a little like Darren McCurry, is good in the air for a man of his size. Without an obvious physical threat, Graham may task Padraig Faulkner with a marking job on Gilmore, though the suspicion is we may see the Kingscourt man given licence to roam considerably more with Jason McLoughlin tracking Gilmore instead. Cavan should comfortably have the winning of the midfield battle if, as expected, Darren O’Hagan is required closer to Down’s goal, which would leave another U20 player in Odhrán Murdock as the main man in the centre. Murdock is an exceptional talent, chips in with scores, and has a great future ahead of him, but up against the physicality of Thomas Galligan with perhaps Killian Clarke, Conor Brady or Killian Brady in support may be too much weight to carry on such young shoulders, especially since his midfield partner may be similarly inexperienced at such a high level, and this should give Cavan a solid platform on which to build.
With the high probability that Down set up extremely defensively – and to be fair to James McCartan, it may be his only real choice – the direct style of play that Cavan utilised so successfully against Donegal will be much more difficult to execute, so Graham may look to use Lynch and Smith as decoys and give license for more long-range shooting, with the likes of Gerry Smith, Thomas Galligan, Oisin Kiernan, Gearoid McKiernan and Luke Fortune all capable of kicking long-range scores.
Persistence with a kicking game against a well-organised blanket defence was one of the main reasons that Monaghan fell to Derry last week, but Graham is a shrewd tactician and one wouldn’t expect him to make the same mistake, though it’s difficult to see Down being anywhere near as prepared as Rory Gallagher’s side given the recent turmoil within the camp and Gallagher’s attention to detail and player buy-in to his system.
Conor Moynagh – who has started every big game he’s been available for since his return to the fold – will likely operate in a free role, dropping back to cover space when Down have possession and he will see a lot of ball when Cavan are in control. Moynagh’s intelligent use of the ball and knack for finding space could be key in a game where space in attacking areas is likely to be at a premium, whereas others are likely to have more visible and noteworthy contributions at both ends of the pitch.
In the 2020 Ulster semi-final which saw Cavan overturn a 10-point deficit, Cavan’s second-half ascendency in midfield – along with Conor Madden’s inspired half-time introduction – was the launching pad for their great escape, forcing Rory Burns to kick long where McKiernan and Galligan were plucking everything from the sky.
Niall Kane is likely to be the man between the sticks this time, but we can expect Cavan to aggressively press the Down kick-out from the off, forcing him to go long to his inexperienced midfield where Cavan’s strongmen should triumph more often than not.
All the evidence points to a comprehensive Cavan victory on home soil, and though the pessimist in me wonders if the negative press may have galvanised this Down side into a sum greater than their parts, I just can’t see it.
If Cavan perform, then Cavan win. It’s as simple as that.