Danny Ellis. Photo: Adrian Donohoe.

High quality JFC final renewal in store

Throw in at Kingspan Breffni, 7pm on Saturday, October 8.

From the outset, the consensus was that the Sean Leddy Cup would winter in one of Arva, Drumlane or Knockbride. It was no surprise to see that trio reach the semi-finals – and a resurgent Drumalee proved themselves the best of the rest – and in truth, it’s no shock either that Arva and Drumlane are the two still standing.

League form is sometimes flaky but it has held up in this year’s Junior Championship – and Arva will hope that continues to be the case. They finished top of Division 2 and ended up securing promotion; Drumlane were third, Knockbride 11th and Drumalee were the highest ranked junior team in Division 3.

It was a surprise when Drumlane were demoted to junior ranks in 2017 but they bounced straight back up. Many of us fancied them to make an impact at intermediate level but it’s only in hindsight it has become clear that they were in transition over 2019-21.

Last year, but for a freakish injury list, they probably would have held on to their status but as it was, they found themselves in a relegation play-off and even with bodies back, down they went, Cootehill pilfering a late goal in Milltown.

This season, Drumlane have regrouped. Form in a topsy turvy and extremely competitive Division 2 was strong but they have had to battle at times in the championship, where they were handed a draw in the group which was about as difficult as it gets.

A heavy opening-round loss to Arva in Bawnboy was a setback. They bounced back well when putting 2-13 on last year’s finalists Drung and comfortably beat Shannon Gaels by 10. Still, their body language was cranky and there was a sense they still hadn’t got the Arva loss out of their systems. The the way things fell, they still needed to beat fellow contenders Knockbride in the final group game and in hindsight, it might have been the best thing to happen.

When the Canningstown men raced into a 1-3 to 0-0 lead in Killygarry, Drumlane’s race seemed run but they dug deep, captain Ryan Connolly outstanding, as they scraped a one-point lead.

Although they lost the influential Donal Monahan in that match, Drumlane were still buoyant. They slaughtered Mountnugent by 30 points in a sunny quarter-final before surviving a stern test against a defensive, tough Drumalee side in a game much more akin to winter football.

Arva, for their part, went unbeaten through the group but had their own kick in the backside when squandering an eight-point lead and having to come from behind against Knockbride.

Other than that, the group stages were plain sailing; against Kill Shamrocks and Corlough, Arva won as you would expect a Division 1-elect side to do.

It was in the quarter-final that Arva were really tested, “put to the pin of our collar” as captain Jonny McCabe described it. They went in red hot favourites but were kept honest by Shannon Gaels. In the end, it took a late flurry of scores to settle the nerves and see Arva through to the semi-final, where they were impressive in turning back Knockbride.

Into the team as the championship has gone on have come experienced defenders Thomas Brady and James Morris (although the latter suffered another injury last time out, he is expected to be fit). These two tried and trusted players have helped shore up a good back-line which still leaked a little too much at times earlier on.

Cormac McCabe, at centre-back, was superb last week. In front of him Ciaran Brady was Ciaran Brady, ravenous on breaking ball, breaking lines and doing everything at speed.

Up front, Conal Sheridan is the focal point of the attack, a senior quality ball-winner and ball-striker. Kevin Bouchier is not as prolific but that’s not his role; as a playmaker, there have been few better in the last 10 years. Beside them, Peter Morris has never let the side down, is dependable and very accurate off the left boot.

Drumlane, too, pack a punch up front. Ryan Connolly is the main man, from frees and play. In the semi-final, he looked on a different level physically to anyone else on the pitch and it showed in the dregs of the game when he came up with big plays.

At full-forward, Michael Owens, standing well over six feet, is a terrific target man who played particularly well against Shannon Gaels and Mountnugent. Daryl McGurren, two-footed, strong and accurate, flanks him and is dangerous too.

Darragh Dolan is a key figure. His pace is hard to handle; he is a goal threat too and his direct runs create overlaps and dead-ball opportunities which Connolly laps up.

At midfield, veteran Dane O’Dowd, former Cavan senior, has been a driving force for years and has been to the fore again in recent matches. The defence, since the Arva game, has been watertight, conceding totals of 0-11, 0-7, 1-11, 0-8 and 1-4 in the five rounds since.

While Monahan will be a big loss there, the defence as a unit is still strong, with James McCahill outstanding last time out and former underage soccer international Harry Clarke doing well in nets.

There is no doubt that this year’s junior final is one of the strongest we have seen in many years in terms of the talent which will be on show. There could be as many as 20 players lining out who have represented the county at minor, U20/21 or senior levels. That opens up a separate debate – have the restructuring measures in recent years resulted in a juiced-up Junior Championship and is a race-to-the-bottom preferable?

That’s an argument for another day. What is certain is that there are two exceptionally good junior teams in this final. Denn, last year’s champions, went on to win the Ulster title. They were taken to a replay by Knockbride in the semi-final last year, the same Knockbride who drew with Arva this year and ran Drumlane to a point. All of which adds to the sense that the top end of junior football in Cavan is as strong as that in any Ulster county.

This suggests we may see a high-quality match this weekend but who will get their hands on the silverware?

Arva manager Gabriel Keogan last week referenced the fact that the teams have enjoyed very similar runs to this stage of the competition and if we are to draw lines of form, the St Patrick’s are ahead of the Sons of O’Connell. Of course, we know that football doesn’t work that way.

Factors such as pedigree, big-match temperament and desire are more important than form, which is temporary. Place-kicking is always huge in close games, as is the ability to score goals, and both are well-served in these regards, too.

The margins will be very fine but, gun to the head, Arva get the nod.