Draw is far from easy but offers a big opportunity


The top 16 teams in Ireland will now contest the Sam Maguire and within that, there are three obvious tiers, writes DAMIEN DONOHOE.

On the weekend after next, we will start a new journey as Cavan supporters and head west for our first taste of the group stages of the Sam Maguire since this structure was introduced. To get to this point, we had to prove that we are ahead of 16 the teams in the country with our league results. That was done with three positions of safety between us and the Tailteann Cup.

From the feeling of disappointment that grew after the Tyrone defeat blossomed a hope and maybe even a belief that our best days may be ahead of us. The over-riding feeling after Tyrone brought Donegal to extra-time was this Cavan team is very capable of beating any Ulster team on their day and I’m glad that I don’t have to wait until April 2025 to see them in championship again.

The leagues don’t lie and in my opinion, we have three tiers of teams competing for Sam. In the top tier there are three teams: Dublin, Kerry and Derry. The reason they are top tier is you would expect them to beat the teams in the tiers below them nine times out of ten.

It will be a surprise if one of these teams doesn’t lift Sam. If Derry were to lose any of their three group games, I think they would drop to the second tier after the damage Donegal did to their reputation.

In the next tier, I feel there are seven teams: Mayo, Tyrone, Galway, Donegal, Armagh, Roscommon and Monaghan. Like top-tier teams, they are expected to beat the teams in the tiers below them nine games out of ten and on their best day could beat a tier one team.

So that leaves the rest of us in the third tier and from there, if a team makes a quarter-final it’s a very good year but they are unlikely to make the last four or beat a tier one team.

If we take the league rankings of teams as a guide, then the current system has held up well. Clare, who finished third in Division 3 (19th overall), are the only team outside the top 16 teams in the league to gate-crash the party. The flaw is that they only had to beat the lowest-ranked football team in the league to qualify.

Westmeath have drawn the shortest straw as bottom seed in Group 1 with all other teams in their group playing Division 1 sides 2025.

All other groups have at least two teams that will play outside of the top flight next year. Derry, coming in as league champions, were the third seeded team that everyone wanted to avoid while Roscommon or Monaghan were the teams most wanted to get.

It would look like Westmeath are unlikely to progress from that group but who takes first, second and third is anyone’s guess. The price for winning Connacht is a match with a Derry side that have been licking their wounds for five weeks.

The interesting draw would be if Armagh beat Donegal in the Ulster final; it would set up a McGuinness v Harte re-match in Celtic Park in round two and that would be worth seeing.

Group 3 has Clare in as seed two but they will be most people’s prediction to lose out in the group. Cork will be the game the Banner County will be targeting in round one as there are only six league places between them. One thing that is for sure is Donegal will have a rematch with an Ulster side they have already beaten in the championship because if they win Sunday’s final their prize is a re-match with Tyrone in two weeks.

In group three there is no building up to big performances in round two or three. The winner of Tyrone v the Ulster champions will be in pole position to top the group while the loser of the Clare and Cork game will be favourites to exit the championship.

Between Tyrone, Cork and Donegal or Armagh there isn’t a huge gap so all three teams will fancy their chances of grabbing the top spot. If Armagh were to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup I feel it could be the catalyst to propel them to the very top of the second tier and maybe break into that top tier.

Vinny Corey and our neighbours Monaghan must have been walking around with their fingers crossed for the last three weeks because they got the weakest group of all. The Farney, ranked as 10th, are the second highest ranked team in the group after Kerry as Munster winners. That is assuming Dublin beat Louth this Sunday and if so, Louth had finished 14th and Cork 13th in the league.

While Monaghan have recent experience of beating Kerry in league football, the task is multiplied when it’s a championship game in the Kingdom. Louth and Meath will both fancy their chances of a round one win and in doing so give themselves a huge chance of progressing.

While the draw was fortunate for Monaghan in one way, it also puts huge pressure on the team to stay in touching distance of the top sides. If Monaghan failed to get past the group stages, it would be the final nail in a terrible season for a team with such a fierce reputation over the last decade or more.

So I think it’s fair to say it looks like Raymond Galligan and the lads, have been handed the second most difficult draw/group.

We will see a lot of people’s favourites to lift Sam Maguire and number two-ranked league side Dublin come to Kingspan Breffni for our home game which is the absolute acid test. Before that it’s a trip to Castlebar to hopefully inflict another cut on a wounded Connacht runner-up, Mayo.

In that first game we will be going to a ground that we had a memorable win in league football in 2017 but as I said above, championship is a different thing.

Imagine the spectacle it would be if both Cavan and Mayo play aggressive, attacking, fast football with maximum intensity (I’m trying not to use the word ‘chaotic’ again here). That would be brilliant preparation for the Dubs coming to town and would swell the crowds by thousands.

The most likely outcome in our group is that it will come down to the final games to decide the positioning. Raymond and the lads will be going hard to win all games I’ve no doubt but for those of us outside the camp, we can say that the Roscommon game is the one to target.

Roscommon’s league resulted in relegation to Division 2 for 2025 so we will see plenty of the Rossies in the next 12 months and we want to sow doubt in their mind ahead of that. They have had the upper hand in our battles over the last decade so it’s time to set that right.

The only game they have won this year was against Monaghan while salvaging a draw against Galway so we shouldn’t have anything to fear.

As a Cavan supporter, there is an excitement about the All-Ireland series that just wasn’t there for the Tailteann Cup and that’s because we have to play three of the top 10 teams in the country in the next six weeks.

If it goes well, we get to play a fourth and keep the dreams, hope and the wonderful distraction from normal life going for another few weeks.