PAUL FITZPATRICK caught up with former Cavan captain Stephen King ahead of Saturday’s derby clash.
When it comes to the oldest derby in the game, former Cavan captain Stephen King knows more than most.
The Killeshandra Leaguers clubman represented Cavan at senior level for the guts of two decades, famously getting his hands on The Anglo-Celt Cup in 1997, and lined out against the Farney men almost annually in some competition or other.
There, is he says, something special about Cavan v Monaghan.
“I don't know what it is, maybe it's because Cavan and Monaghan know each other so well and are sitting in each other's pockets there, particularly in east Cavan, but it's always a huge game and usually there isn't much in it,” King told The Anglo-Celt this week.
“If you take places likes Carrickmacross, Corduff, Bailieborough, Kingscourt, Redhills, it's a fierce rivalry around there. And if you're a betting man, keep your money in your pocket in any of these games.”
That last piece of advice is sage. If there's one thing that history teaches us about this fixture, it's that the underdogs always have a chance.
“Whatever it is about local derbies, regardless of the form going into them, it's a cliché but it is all on the day, form is irrelevant.
“Obviously Monaghan seem very strong on paper but they would be very wary of Cavan and have always been wary of Cavan. Certainly when it comes to the championship this year, that match will be no forgone conclusion.”
King played against Monaghan in every type of fixture, in hail, snow and sunshine. Anything could happen in those games.
“What matches stand out? I remember we played them up in Castleblayney in '93, they would have been heavy, heavy favourites but we should have beaten them up there. We were all over them but Ray McCarron got two goals and brought them back into it and they got a draw, it was a game we should have had in the bag.
“They came down to Breffni Park in the replay and blew us out of the water, we got a trouncing that day. You'll always remember stuff like that.
“And in '87 they were red hot favourites coming to Breffni Park and Cavan won it, they had a very good team with Nudie Hughes and Gene Sherry and those fellas.
“It was a tough game. Myself and Dick Clerkin's Dad Hugo were asked to leave the vicinity of the playing area! That was the only time I was ever sent off for Cavan.”
Monaghan were heavily fancied on that occasion, too, but King and Jim Reilly took charge around the middle. Writing on these pages, Monaghan journalist Séamus McCluskey began his colour piece with the lines “A midfield, a midfield, my Oriel kingdom for a midfield.”
Not that King got any credit, naturally, for his performance from his opponents.
“I remember, I think it was Nudie, saying to me, ‘Cavan only won because you went off and they got you out of the way!’” he laughs.
The Celt reported that the crowd of 15,000 for that match was a record for a first-round Ulster Championship tie. The sun shone and the craic on the terraces, as they say, was 90.
“There was something different about those games,” says King.
“The size of the crowd was one thing and there was a different atmosphere, and both sets of supporters really got into it. It's probably one of the greatest things about the GAA, that honest-to-God rivalry.
“Both sets of supporters want to win and both teams want to win but there's no animosity, it's competitive but good-natured rivalry.
“I remember someone saying to me once that there's no such thing as a challenge game against Monaghan and they would feel the same way towards Cavan. It's do-or-die.
“Whether it was the championship or a McKenna Cup game, you always wanted to win against your neighbours and I'm sure it's the same if you go to other provinces, it's not just an Ulster thing.
“You want to keep the bragging rights over your neighbours if you can.”
The circus rolls into town again this Saturday, pitching up in Clones this time with an unusual 2pm throw-in time. While other results would have to go their way, the winner of this game is likely to stay in the division. In that sense, outside of championship, this is about as big as it gets.
While Cavan have just one win from their opening five matches, King believes there are signs of promise.
“What I like about them is that they are focusing on attacking, that defensive rubbish seems to be gone. Cavan are trying to get scores on the board and playing with a bit of abandon at times.
“Look, it's not going to be a quick fix. I like what I see of them at the minute and I think they're going in the right direction.
“They have a lot of new lads to look at as well. I wouldn't be overly disappointed if we got relegated, obviously you'd like to stay in Division 1 but if you put your hand on your heart, are you a Division 1 team? Personally I don't think you are at the minute.
“I think you're a good strong Division 2 team which is very competitive as well.
“But playing in Division 1 will stand Cavan in good stead. I do like what they're trying to do in terms of playing more attacking football. Very defensive football is dreadfully hard to watch, going over and back.
“It's not attractive but Cavan are trying to play more attractive football. I have to give the management kudos for that.”
Stephen won an Ulster Championship alongside current Breffni boss Mickey Graham 22 years ago but he admits that he hadn't ear-marked him as a potential senior manager at the time.
“Ah, he was very young that time. Or should I say I was very young that time!” he joked.
“In all seriousness, I was happy as a supporter when Mickey was appointed because here was a guy who knows what it's like to be a forward, knows how frustrating it is when you make a run and the ball doesn't go into you.
“My immediate thought was that Mickey will change this because he was one of those forwards himself who liked to get the ball early and attack defences.
“I'm not surprised that there is a wee bit more attacking football from Cavan.”
Most commentators are agreed that there will not be much in it but can Cavan get the job done and pick up a first competitive victory over their neighbours since 2013? King believes they can.
“I absolutely can see Cavan getting a win. The biggest disappoointment from a Monaghan point of view was when they lost in Inniskeen against Galway.
“I actually fancied Roscommon to beat them but I definitely didn't think Galway would beat them and I think that game set them back a wee bit.
“To give Monaghan credit, they played terrific football against Kerry for 65 minutes so they are finding some form again.
“Cavan have always done pretty well in Clones. Inniskeen would have been a different proposition but we normally put in a reasonable performance in Clones.
“This could be an open enough game and I think Cavan have every chance of taking a scalp here.”
Anything could happen.