Gowna best placed to buck Ulster Club trend
OPINION The gap in the Ulster Club SFC may not be as wide as opinion suggests, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.
It’s hard to argue with the bare results. Over the last 30 years, Cavan’s record in the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship has been a stain on the county’s reputation, to the point where the ability of Cavan’s leading clubs is simply not respected by their peers outside of the county - and with good reason.
Gowna captain Ryan McGahern recognised as much in his post-final interview when he made the twin-pronged comment that he is “a bit disappointed the way people in Ulster don’t really think much of Cavan football and we don’t represent ourselves well when we go into Ulster”. McGahern stated the truth and then gave the reason why it is so.
The stats make for grim reading and are worth recording. In 2017, Cavan Gaels reached the Ulster final with wins over Lámh Dearg from Antrim and Derrygonnelly of Fermanagh, in a replay, before falling to the might of Derry kingpins Slaughtneil.
Other than that, the Cavan senior champions have been beaten in the first round of the Ulster Club Championship every year since 2009. And in that time, it’s true to say that there were some very bad losses – Mullahoran v Errigal Ciaran (17 points), Kingscourt v Kilcoo (19 points) and Ramor v Kilcoo (14 points) the stand-outs.
Damningly, no Cavan side other than Cavan Gaels have won a single match since Gowna beat Clontibret in 2002. No Cavan champion have beaten the representatives from Derry, Tyrone, Armagh or Down since 1995, when Bailieborough Shamrocks got the better of Ballinderry in a replayed semi-final before controversially losing by two points in the final against Mullaghbawn.
Now, the case for the defence (we’re not sure if even Johnny Cochrane could win this case but we’ll try). While a few dreadfully limp exits in the last 10 years may suggest that the standard of Cavan’s champions is very poor, there are a couple of mitigating factors.
For one thing, it is proven that most – not all - clubs who are successful in the Ulster Club are relatively dominant in their own county. When a team can assert control in their ‘domestic’ championship and gain some experience in Ulster, they appear to have a much better chance of picking up wins in the provincial championship, regardless of the perceived strength or weakness of their own county.
Derrygonnelly are a good example. There is no strong tradition of Ulster Club success at any grade in Fermanagh yet the Harps, who have won the New York Cup seven times since 2015, were good enough to beat the Tyrone champions twice in recent seasons.
The Red Hands are the leading county in Ulster in almost all grades of football. Their Senior Championship is littered with decorated players and coaches yet when its winners enter Ulster, they almost invariably make little progress.
The reason, it seems, is that no club has retained the county title since Carrickmore in 2005 and eight different clubs have got their hands on the cup since 2013 alone, which is similar to the situation in Cavan.
The other factor is that, historically, while Cavan have never won the Ulster Club Senior Championship, the representatives have generally been competitive and very often blew a winnable game. The most common result has been a narrow loss, often in a replay, to one of the strongest sides in the country. A hard luck story, basically - and we almost own a patent on those at this stage in Cavan.
There have been a few aberrations, mostly in the last decade, which has probably contributed to a general sense that Cavan senior clubs are a hopeless case when it comes to Ulster.
An analysis of Cavan’s results over the last 35 years in general offers plenty of hope for two-time defending champions Gowna as they prepare to face Donegal’s Naomh Conaill.
In those 35 cracks at Ulster, Cavan sides have made just four Ulster finals (1987, ’90, ’95 and 2017).
Of the other 31 games (there was no competition in 2020), Cavan’s senior winners have been beaten by a point on six occasions. On one occasion (last year, Gowna v Enniskillen), they lost a penalty shoot-out and on another (2009, Cavan Gaels v St Gall’s), they were beaten in extra time.
Of the remaining 22 seasons, three were ended in replays and a further five were defeats by three points or less.
Are we clutching at straws? Yes, probably. But it’s worth noting, too, that Cavan clubs have regularly lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions or finalists, often narrowly (in 1998, for example, Crossmaglen needed a replay to get over Mullahoran while in ’99, they edged Gowna by a point). In the past 35 renewals, Cavan clubs have lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions or finalists on eight occasions.
We have seen young teams emerge in the past, notably the great Cavan Gaels side, and none made the breakthrough in Ulster (the Gaels’ failure to do so in 10 attempts, belatedly making one final with a side which was not their strongest, is still a head-scratcher) so what evidence is there to suggest that Gowna may buck the trend?
Well, for one thing, since the inception of the Ulster Club Championship, no team has won the Cavan final by as wide a margin as Gowna did this year.
Added to that is the fact that they comprehensively defeated their closest rivals, Crosserlough, in the semi-final. With 10 players aged 21 or younger seeing game time in the final, they are probably the youngest side ever to retain the title, too.
Gowna were sore at their loss to Enniskillen on penalties last year and there is considerable regret in the club that, when they were a formidable force a generation ago, they didn’t kick on in Ulster. There is a sense that they have the ambition to push on. That may seem like the bare minimum one would expect but, in reality, it isn’t always the case with the champions of Cavan.
Also, and this is the most salient point, unless our eyes are deceiving us entirely, Gowna are a very good team.
As far back as 2018, they were beaten by only two points in a replayed semi-final.
While, yes, quite a few young players have come into the team since then, a dozen of the team from that day saw game time in the county championship this year. How much have they improved since then? Beyond all recognition we would argue – and yet they were very close as it was.
So, Gowna are not bad to put it mildly. Neither, in fact, are Ballyhaise or Arva – it could be argued with some merit that Cavan has its strongest ticket of clubs heading into Ulster, maybe ever.
Whether or not the Gowna men can beat the experienced Glenties, time will tell. But the smart money says that Cavan’s desperate run of results at the highest level of club football in the province may pick up.
Main photo: Cathal Scullion of Bellaghy in action against Gavin Hartin, Laurence Brady and Dessie Brady of Gowna during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Club Championship semi-Final match between Bellaghy and Gowna at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones in 2000. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile