PAUL FITZPATRICK ranks the top 20 club sides in the county as we head into the 2019 season.
While most positions on this list are open for debate, this one is not. As we we write, Castlerahan – the reigning ACFL Division 1 and Senior Football Championship holders - are undoubtedly the top team in the county.
Their odyssey towards the county title was at times agonising and trailing by six points with 15 minutes to go in the county final, it appeared that this team had reached the end of its lifespan.
But this group have shown an incredible ability to persevere despite numerous setbacks and they dug in again and turned that game around to finally get their hands on the Oliver Plunkett Cup.
Manager Donal Keogan has moved on and has yet to be replaced, as has trainer Martin Corey, but they have retained the services of strength and conditioning coach Steven Ivers, have appointed Carrickmacross man Seamus Mulholland as coach and are already looking forward to 2019.
The big question will be whether the bellies are now full or if Castlerahan, having finally got over the line, will be liberated and will go on to add another SFC title or two.
While some of their key men like Ronan Flanagan, Cian Mackey and Sean Brady are on wrong side of 30, they are in good shape and have plenty more to offer. To retain the title, the club may have to bring through another young player or two, though. Of the 16 they used in the county final, only the impressive Karl Cosgrove was 'new', as in lining out in his first county final.
Last season: 3rd in Division 1 (League champions), SFC winners
Key player: Ronan Flanagan
The Kilnaleck-based side were a revelation last season, picking up form as the championship progressed and landing big scalps all the way through including those of Ramor United, Kingscourt and Gowna.
That they were outsiders at the start of the campaign was based mainly on their youth; there was no doubting the pedigree of their young players. And while the loss in the first round of the Ulster U21 competition last Sunday was a setback, that can be written off as a blip.
Cavan manager Mickey Graham is a believer, it seems, and has called up the likes of James Smith, Pierce Smith, Conor Rehill, Stephen Smith and Patrick O'Reilly to his McKenna Cup squad, with some of them likely to feature in the National League.
Throw into the mix older players like Dara McVeety and, older again, Enda Gaffney – who was brilliant in the county final – and the balance looks perfect.
Given their age profile, it seems likely that there will be further improvement in this group over the next nine months and while it is a long way back to the big day, they will be one of the teams to beat without doubt, although the parting of the ways with manager Darragh McCarthy seems curious.
Cliché says you have to lose one to win one; Crosserlough have ticked that box too.
Last season: 9th in Division 1, SFC finalists
Key player: Pierce Smith
3 Ramor United
Eyebrows may be raised at the Virginia men's inclusion at third place in this list but for our money, they retain one of the strongest squads in the county.
There is no doubt that Ramor have under-achieved since winning the county title in a replay against neighbours Castlerahan but in 2016 but it is a measure of their standing in the county that a 2018 season in which they finished second in the league table, lost by three points to Crosserlough in the championship quarter-final and won the Reserve League is generally seen as a disappointment.
What has gone wrong at Dolan Park? Probably not that terribly much, certainly not too much that they could not regain the ground they have lost under new manager and club stalwart Ray Cole in 2019.
“You need a youthful exuberance that some other clubs had this year – and maybe we had in 2016 – to really go for a championship,” club chairman Michael Maguire told the Breffni Blue yearbook in the off season, “Maybe we were just lacking that this year alright.”
If Ramor can find that joie de vivre again, they will take a lot of beating this year.
Last season: 2nd in Division 1, SFC quarter-final
Manager: Ray Cole
Key player: Adrian Cole
It is a truism that Gowna, even when they have clearly been in transition, expect to contend for the Senior Championship every year. They did well to retain their senior status during a few difficult seasons but it is often forgotten that they did scrape into semi-finals in that time, too, and were probably better than they were given credit for.
The cavalry from the underage ranks finally started arriving in 2018 – the likes of Conor Brady, Cian Madden, Robbie Fitzpatrick, Ryan Madden and Oisin Pierson among others – and they quickly took to life in the senior ranks.
They beat Ballinagh and drew with Shercock, Cavan Gaels and Ramor to go through from the group stages unbeaten before a hugely impressive win over the Gaels in the quarter-final at a packed Crowe Park really marked their arrival as a senior force.
That their defeat in a replayed semi-final against Crosserlough was their only loss in seven championship matches tells its own tale. They go in at fourth, narrowly ahead of Cavan Gaels on the basis that the sides met three times last year, with two draws and Gowna winning the big one by five points.
Last season: 7th in Division 1, SFC semi-final
Manager: Sean Hagan
Key player: Cian Madden
5 Cavan Gaels
If it's always darkest before the drawn, the opposite is also true – the decline can come very quickly after a glorious high. Cavan Gaels went into the league final against Castlerahan on July 22 last having lost just one match – the Ulster Club SFC final against Slaughtneil – in 18 months.
At half-time in that league final, they were six points up but that was the high water mark and their stock quickly plummeted.
A loss to Castlerahan was followed by a championship campaign in which they won one match - against an already-qualified Lacken – from five. And while it might seem churlish to dismiss that record (which included two draws) as disastrous while praising Gowna's (which included four stalemates), there is a huge difference in where the teams were coming from.
Having a seasoned panel is a positive but youth is needed if they wish to rejuvenate in 2019. Based on the 19 players who lined out in the quarter-final against Gowna, only two will be under 25 by the time the championship rolls around again, which has to be a worry for the Terry Coyle Park men.
Last season: 1st in Division 1, SFC quarter-final
Manager: Ronan Clarke
Key player: Sean Johnston
The New Inns men are an unusual case in that they rarely shoot the lights out in the league but always find their stride in championship. Here's an incredible stat: no team has lost fewer games in the Senior Championship since 2016.
Lavey's only defeats in that time have come against eventual champions Ramor United in the 2016 semi-final, Ramor again in the 2017 quarter-final, Kingscourt in the opener in 2018 and eventual champions Castlerahan (after a replay) in the semi-final.
While numbers are not massive, Lavey make the most of what they have. They have played in a freakishly high number of draws in recent seasons which speaks to their doggedness and the fact that they are extremely hard to beat.
In Shane Tierney, Chris Conroy, Gerry Smith and Karl Duke, they had four of the stand-out players in the championship last year and if they can improve just a little bit – and a bright league campaign and promotion from Division 2 could help in that regard – they could make another step forward in 2019.
Interestingly, a handful of very talented young players have drifted away from the game in recent years but if they were to commit again and if Ray Cullivan is recovered from injury, they will be dark horses.
Last season: 4th in Division 2, SFC semi-final
Manager: Kevin McDonnell
Key player: Shane Tierney
Unlike Lavey, Lacken have sometimes played their best football in the league in recent seasons, winning it in 2016. They started like a steam train last year, winning their first five games before a mid-season dip.
In championship, they opened with a draw against Ramor, had a good win against Kingscourt and saw off Cootehill in a dreadful match before, understrength, they were slaughtered in the final round of the group against the Gaels.
That set up a quarter-final against Lavey where, for the second time in three years, the Celts were beaten at that stage in a replay. The absence of David Wilson was keenly felt – while the Sky Blues have power and brawn around the middle of the field in Thomas and James Galligan and Niall McKiernan and a brilliant full-forward in Ray Galligan, they are a little short on defenders and, probably, on the little bit of pace (at both ends of the field) that makes the difference against the best teams when all else is equal.
Still, the margins are fine. Lacken have beaten most of the best teams in the county in recent years and with four players on the Cavan senior panel at present, will feel they are nicely poised to kick on.
Last season: 4th in Division 1, SFC quarter-final
Manager: Ciaran O'Reilly
Key player: Niall McKiernan
Killygarry played their best football of the season in the opening half of their championship opener against Cavan Gaels in Lacken, when they were magnificent in building up a 10-point half-time lead. A wobble followed but they came away with the win; unfortunately, they didn't build on it.
A defeat to Ramor followed and even though they lost star man Conor Smith to injury in the first half, they managed a draw against Lavey. However, shipping five goals against Cootehill saw them slip to a second defeat and threw them into a relegation dog fight, where they belatedly found their groove again in dismantling Ballinagh.
The Crubany men needed fresh blood, having had a core of a dozed players backboning the side for a decade. Those reinforcements have arrived but injuries have delayed their progress, with the outstanding Smith, Mattie McKenna and Darragh Kennedy all spending prolonged periods on the sidelines.
If everyone is fit, they are comfortably a top-eight side and should probably be making the semi-finals or better.
Last season: 8th in Division 1, SFC group stages
Manager: Danny Brady
Key player: Martin Reilly
The Stars are in transition. They had two wins from four in the group stages last season, eventually being fairly well beaten by Castlerahan in the quarter-final. The spine of the side is as good as anything out there – Farrelly, Faulkner, Tinnelly, Clarke, Reilly, Dillon – and they have brought through talented young players under the radar.
The lack of a trigger man close to goal, a sharp shooter who can play off the likes of Reilly and Dillon and raise some white flags, was their glaring weakness last season, as their points total in championship – 8, 8, 9, 13, 7 - illustrated.
And yet, the Stars' pedigree is such that they will always fancy their chances. If they can make the last four, they will be confident of coming alive and will back themselves from there. They seem as far off landing the Oliver Plunkett Cup as they have been since their modern breakthrough in 2010 yet they can never be fully discounted. Where some teams are flaky, Kingscourt – whatever their limitations at any given time – tend to be the opposite.
Last season: 5th in Division 1, SFC quarter-final
Manager: Benny Lennon
Key player: Padraig Faulkner
Consistency is one of the Celtics' main problems and their championship campaign in 2018 embodied this. They opened with a six-point loss to Castlerahan before beating Crosserlough.
In the preview to their round three game against Lacken in the wide open spaces, this column predicted they would score heavily – in the event, they managed 0-4 over the hour.
And then, just when their senior obituary was being prepared, they struck 5-9 against Killygarry next time out and later saved their status in the play-offs.
Cootehill have a solid squad with some gifted individuals such as Enda Hessin and plenty of firepower but for some reason they have not been able to string a run of form together long enough to allow them to reach their potential.
It had been expected that manager Paddy Kelly would stay on but the latest word is that he has switched to Monaghan Harps.
Last season: 10th in Division 1, SFC group stages
Key player: John McCutcheon
AND THE BEST OF THE REST...
Having slipped down to intermediate ranks, the Dreadnoughts sent out an emphatic signal that reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. Division 2 league, IFC and and Ulster final appearance followed and with a very strong group of young players, they will be hopeful of making the last eight.
Oh we of little faith. This column expected Shercock to get relegated last season but they deservedly retained their place in the top flight. While they are working off limited numbers, at full strength they are no mean outfit, with four of their players – Clarke, Sankey, McIntyre and Clerkin - having played senior football with Cavan in recent seasons.
This time last year, we would have ranked Ballinagh comfortably in the top eight but the 2013 senior champions had an annus horibilis. Their side is ageing but they will have taken heart from their U20s reaching the Division 2 final in December.
They will be among the favourites to win the Intermediate Championship but the loss of Niall McDermott, who is in Australia, is a huge blow.
The final quarter fade-out in the intermediate final aside, 2018 was a positive year for Cuchulainns. They impressed greatly at times, even if they were a little inconsistent within games, and with a formidable forward line which would be the envy of some senior clubs, they should be there or thereabouts at intermediate level again.
15 Laragh United
Laragh are still a young side but they must be careful of falling into the trap of next year always being their best year. The time is now for the Stradone men to celebrate the silver anniversary of their 1994 IFC success by claiming the Gilroy Cup again.
They didn't do much wrong in 2018, with the suspicion being that they peaked a little too early. Playing Division 1 league football will be a big help this time round.
After five long years on the go, Arva ran out of road in 2018. It is hard to keep it going every year but there is no doubting their talent, with quality operators all over the field and an excellent forward line, although the loss of Johnny McCabe (Australia) is a sizeable blow.
The Bridge possibly should be higher in this list but they just haven't yet picked up the scalps they need to confirm their arrival as an up and coming force. The potential is there and a run to the last four of the IFC fpr the first time in over four decades proved that; they should improve this year.
For our money, the Annalee Park men have a senior standard panel on paper. They were unlucky to drop out of the top tier in 2016 and they put a huge effort into bouncing back quickly the following year, losing the final to Shercock in what was a fairly seismic upset at the time.
There are parallels with Arva in that they appeared jaded and low on motivation in 2018 but they held on to their championship status in a play-off.
The Rorys have been knocking on the door at intermediate level for a few years now, having lost in the semi-final to the eventual winners in 2016, a semi-final replay by a point in 2017 and a quarter-final replay against the eventual winners last time out. They are not far away.
The Shamrocks will be happy with their season’s work last year, defeating eventual winners Mullahoran in the championship and holding Laragh to a draw in the quarter-final. With Michael Argue back in tow, they should improve again.