Last Friday week, Cavan played Offaly in a hush-hush challenge match at Kingspan Breffni. An official was posted on the gate; entry was on a need-to-know basis.
Such secrecy surrounds all inter-county sides at this time of year and it's no surprise. Football teams prepare so diligently and the margins are so fine that big matches can turn on the smallest things – a move that has been worked on behind closed doors, a curveball in terms of positioning a player.
It makes sense that managers would want to limit their opponents' knowledge. Mickey Graham will not be too annoyed, though, we're sure, by the local newspaper reporting that Cavan beat Offaly while running their bench, that key men like Gearoid McKiernan, Dara McVeety and Killian Clarke played well and that Caoímhín O'Reilly featured for a while.
O'Reilly is in a curious position. Relatively speaking, he has not played all that much senior football for the county; in fact, he has yet to play a full match, due, it must be said, to curious selection policies by the former manager and, this year, injury.
Yet when he has played, in the 2017 qualifiers and the 2018 campaign, he has threatened to transform the Cavan attack. Powerful, explosive, direct and with a real goal threat, O'Reilly looks like the sort of ball-winning inside forward Terry Hyland sorely lacked in the latter years of his tenure.
Around 2015 and 2016, so short of options was Hyland in that position that he was forced to improvise, throwing in midfielders like Michael Argue and even defenders like Killian Clarke (although the Shercock man is useful anywhere) on the edge of the square at times.
We would go as far as to say that had he had a strong, reliable ball-winning inside forward to lead the attack, Cavan probably would have won an Ulster title under Hyland. Remember what we said about fine margins?
Cavan have lost their last three championship matches against Monaghan, by an average total of 1.33 points. It can't get much closer.
Generally, the Drumlin Clasico hinges on a goal. That was the case in their last meeting in 2017, Monaghan winning 1-15 to 0-15.
The 2015 game was a 0-16 to 0-15 win for Monaghan but 2013 was 1-10 to 0-12. Way back in 2001, Cavan won 0-13 to 0-11 - inspired by current selector Dermot McCabe – but in 1995, it was 1-9 to 0-10 to the Breffni men and even the year before that, Monaghan's 13 scores were superior than Cavan's 13 by virtue of their three majors in a 3-10 to 1-12 win.
Needless to say, the gaps are wafer-thin; in the context of this fixture, four points is something of a hammering, five points a complete trouncing. Only twice in the last 10 championship meetings, going back to 1987, has there been more than three points in it – and one of those, in 1993, was a replay.
The stand-out statistic from all those games is the goals tally. Cavan have raised just four green flags in those 10 matches and have drawn a blank in seven of them. Monaghan, in contrast, have hit the net 10 times during that run.
A goal or two, then, is more than likely where this match will be won or lost. And that bodes well for Cavan. The Blues had the joint-best record for non-concession of goals in the four divisions of the National League along with Division 3 Carlow, coming in at 0.43 goals per game.
Cavan conceded just three goals, keeping four clean sheets, a record which should have been five but for a dreadful refereeing non-decision in Castlebar.
Monaghan, on the other hand, kept just one clean sheet, against Kerry, and shipped eight goals.
And at the other end, the Farney men have not been shooting the lights out. They hit the net twice in their impressive opening day win over Dublin and not at all since. Cavan were not exactly prolific either but since starting with three blanks, they scored five goals in the final four matches.
So, it's advantage the home side in that key metric and the likely appearance at some stage of O'Reilly – who scored a goal in the first half on his Ulster Championship starting debut against Donegal last year and after 30 seconds of his National League debut a few months earlier – can only help in that regard.
Talk of McKiernan at full-forward and McVeety midfield should also help prise Monaghan open.
Cavan have some injury concerns, not least wing-back Ciaran Brady who is unlikely to be fit to start, but the rest of the leading players – Galligan, Faulkner, Reilly, Clarke, McKiernan, McVeety et al – are in good shape.
Monaghan, in contrast, are sweating on Conor McManus – although the man who has broken blue hearts so many times will surely play regardless – and Kieran Hughes as well as Neil McAdam, a spoiler who has done a job on McKiernan in the past.
Crucially, they are definitely without Darren Hughes, which is a huge blow; the Scotstown farmer is the pulse of the side and a dominant figure in the engine room.
There is a sense that Monaghan are an ageing team. O'Rourke has been very loyal to his veterans – the likes of Dessie Mone and Vinny Corey spring to mind – and they have been outstanding servants.
The cavalry is arriving too but Monaghan, as Dick Clerkin hinted here a couple of months back, need to keep retreading the older men and putting them back on the road until the reinforcements step up.
That's a tricky balance and that road may run out sooner rather than later.
Monaghan's experience manifests itself in a coolness under pressure. Their free-taking is outstanding and that has to be a concern for Cavan – 40pc of the scores Mickey Graham's men conceded in the league were from frees, which was the second highest in the country while, at the other end, the home side's own place-kicking woes have been well-flagged.
All of that said, in the heat of championship battle, much comes down to a battle of will. When all else is equal, the team that wants it more wins every time.
Last year, Ciaran Brady made the memorable comment that “you fast learn that you don't f**king get anything, you have to grab it and take it. Nothing is handed on a plate to you”.
Monaghan are tried and trusted in big games. They do not wilt under pressure. Cavan are unproven in the biggest games, on the home stretch, and they won't be until they go and do it.
It's time, belatedly, that this team came of age, for the supporters but most importantly for themselves. They are good enough and the conditions are right. The day has arrived. Go and grab it.
Cavan to win, by something like 2-11 to 0-15.
Goal will likely decide it and that bodes well for Cavan
Story by Paul Fitzpatrick
Friday, 17th May, 2019 10:07am
Friday, 17th May, 2019 10:07am