Denn captain Bernard Gaffney looked to the heavens as he raised the cup following his side’s Ulster Club JFC final win. PHOTO: ADRIAN DONOHOE

Why Cavan sides are becoming more competitive in Ulster club championships

OPINION: Mostly Football

Damien Donohoe

Cavan clubs are now looking forward to the Ulster club championships after winning their respective county titles but it wasn’t always that way. There have been times in the not so distant past when the Cavan champions didn’t even train for the provincial competition such was the level of interest or maybe the level of expectation.

Cavan’s record in the Ulster club championships has been nothing short of terrible. The Ulster senior club championship started in 1968 and since then a Cavan side has never won it and on only six occasions have we been represented in the final.

At intermediate level in the 24 finals that have taken place Cavan have been in four of the with Ballinagh in 2007 the only team to get over the line. The Junior championship has been our most fruitful in the 21 years since it began. A Cavan team has made the final on three occasions and the record will show it was won all three times with Denn and Drumgoon without an asterisk which Swanlinbar have beside them being crowned champions for Corduff fielding an illegal player.

Consistently entering the provincial stage and being beaten wasn’t good for football in Cavan. It lead to a lack of belief and an inferiority complex. Underage players putting in the blue of Cavan had very few examples in recent memory of Cavan teams being able to beat other teams from around the province.

Club players would invariably look to the previous years champion and see an exit in the opening round and think what’s the point. Our schools were rarely winning a Ulster competitions at any grade and were for the most part St Pats were the whipping boys of Ulster colleges A grade.

But there is good news. Thankfully we are now starting to see a change in fortunes for Cavan teams in the club provincial championships and it was 2018 when the change happened. In 2015 there were 17 team competing in the Cavan senior championship. That was reduced to 12 teams for the 2018 season and as a result the Cavan intermediate champions went from being the 18th to the 13th best team in the county as they prepared for Ulster. Likewise at Junior level Cavan champions were the 30th best team in the county in 2015 and by 2018 they were 27th.

If you compare the win rate of Cavan teams for the three years either side of 2018 (2020 not included as there was no provincial competitions) there has been an improvement. For 2015, 2016 and 2017 across all three provincial championships the win rate for Cavan teams was 30%. For 2018, 2019 and 2021 that increased to 46%.

When broken down into each championship, Cavan went from a 40% win rate in Junior before 2018 to a 66% win rate since 2018. At intermediate level the improvement is even greater as it went from 0% win rate to 50%. So there is no doubt that our intermediate and junior champions are better prepared and capable for Ulster since 2018.

Drumlane’s win on Sunday has in my opinion doubled down on the advantages of a greater number of junior teams in Cavan. Martin Dunne’s side had to dig deep in the closing stages of the their match against the Derry champions, who are more accustom to intermediate football then junior football, to seal the win. The beauty of this is it wasn’t the first time they had to do that in this years championship so they were well prepared for it.

To buck the trend, the Cavan senior champions have faired worse in Ulster since 2018. On all three outings our senior champions have lost in their maiden voyage since 2018 but before that we had a win rate of 40% thanks to Cavan Gaels two wins in 2017.

It would be easy to say that the reduction of the number of teams in senior and the increase in the number of junior teams in Cavan was the sole reason for this change in fortune, but it is part of but not the only reason.

The success of our county U21’s and minors between 2011 and 2014 in winning five Ulster championship and making three further finals in 2010, 2015 and 2017 gave players, who in some cases won championships with their club, the belief that they are as good as any players in Ulster.

The success of our schools in Ulster is vital for the confidence of our club players. In 2016 the amalgamation of the Ulster colleges and vocational schools in one meant all Cavan secondary schools now compete against Ulster teams so beating them happens more regularly. We’ve seen Virginia College winning the Markey Cup and St Mogue’s win the Ward Cup in recent years and beating teams from around the province along the way.

The final step to show progress for Cavan clubs is to improve our success rate at Ulster club senior championship. The teams that usually do well in Ulster are the serial county champions but in Cavan we’re in a period of flux as Gowna became the sixth different winner in eight years. There has been eight different teams compete in the Cavan senior final in last ten years.

In Dublin there has been nine different side compete in their Senior championship final in the last ten years and four different winners. They have also had four clubs progress to win the Leinster senior club championship in a period of flux. I can hear you shouting ‘yeah but that’s Dublin’ and it’s true but they have all the advantages so here’s another.

In 2018 Gaoth Dobhair became the fifth club in Donegal to win the senior championship in ten years. There had been nine different teams compete in the Donegal senior final in the previous ten years. Gaoth Dobhair were in their first final since 2006 but still they went on to win the Ulster Senior club championship title. It can be done in a period of flux.