OPINION: Opportunity knocks for Cavan

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Thursday, 4th July, 2019 12:43pm

OPINION: Opportunity knocks for Cavan

Thomas Galligan in action against Tyrone in the National League.

This team have been handed a chance to prove themselves, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.

It always seems to be Tyrone. In the build-up to Monday morning's qualifier draw, theirs was the name on every Cavan supporter's lips.

“I bet you,” many said, “we will draw Tyrone.” So spooked was this correspondent that we got a mathematician (well, like Christy Ring, he says he studied sums) to work out the chances of us drawing the Red Hands, which he reckoned was 22.2pc.

Anyway, it happened and we must get on with it and view this draw in a positive light – any time you come up against a top side, it can be looked upon as a chance to take out one of the big guns and accrue the benefits that brings.

And while Cavan saw off Monaghan and Armagh this year – and the Farney scalp was a prized one – another notch on the pistol would announce their arrival as not just a dangerous team on their day, if conditions are right, but a real force.

Because, broken down to the bare bones, what this draw represents for Cavan is the chance to turn a good season into a great one and prove - to themselves as much as anyone else - that they belong at the top table. With respect to other potential opponents in the draw, had Cavan scraped through against lower-league opposition, there would be an asterisk attached, a feeling that they benefitted from a handy run.

Needless to say, were Tyrone to fall, that accusation could never be levelled at Mickey Graham's side. Not that Tyrone are in the slightest bit worried about playing the Blues, you understand. Their former star Enda McGinley – one of the most astute pundits on the circuit - illustrated as much on Newstalk's Off The Ball on Monday evening.

Tyrone, said McGinley, will have their Sat Nav set for Jones's Road on All-Ireland final day – Cavan represents just another stop en route.

“With all due respect to everybody within the draw, Mickey Harte will always be thinking about a chance to win the All-Ireland title,” said McGinley. 

“Looking at the way the draw has worked out, playing Cavan in the next round, a team that Tyrone will give due respect to but wouldn't really fear, that throws them into a Super 8 group with, yes, Dublin, but then Roscommon and Cork or Laois and, well, Tyrone if they've taken care of Cavan.

“From a Tyrone point of view, that would look like a brilliant ticket to get to an All-Ireland semi-final where you would be playing either Kerry or Donegal and again, they are not Dublin... The way the draw has worked out for Tyrone, I think Mickey Harte quietly will be thinking he is going to get another crack on the biggest stage of all this year.”

It's true that Tyrone, under Harte, always have an eye on Sam. Last August, Sean Cavanagh spelled it out.

“As a former Tyrone player and current Tyrone supporter,” he said, “we feel Croke Park is where we play the best.”

There is some basis to that. Since Harte took charge for the 2003 season, the Tyrone seniors have played 44 matches at HQ, incorporating regular league games, semi-finals and finals, qualifiers and All-Ireland quarters, semis and finals.

The Red Hands' record in that time reads played 45, won 28, drawn four and lost 12, equating to a win rate of 62.2pc.

For context, in his glorious first six seasons, Harte's Tyrone were beaten just three times in 20 trips to Croker and had a 75pc strike rate. Their record since hasn't been as strong but given that Dublin 3 is where the heavyweights hang out, it's still pretty impressive.

Cavan are just not on Tyrone's radar and haven't been for a long time. In Mattie McGleenan's first match in charge in January of 2017, Cavan turned them over in a McKenna Cup match at Kingspan Breffni.

Depressingly for Breffni fans, that victory represented a first win in any senior match against Tyrone since the McKenna Cup final in 2000. The great hope was that it would represent a changing of the guard but, in hindsight, it has proven to be merely an aberration in the overall trend. 

Tyrone had beaten Cavan in a replayed Ulster semi-final the previous summer. They would win the league game in Omagh later in 2017 (0-19 to 1-9) and, the following January, inflicted a record home defeat on the Blues, 2-22 to 0-7, on a painful, foggy night in Breffni.

There followed a qualifier win in the sun in Brewster Park in which Cavan rallied well in the second half before going down by 0-18 to 1-12 and then, in this year's league, Tyrone were 1-15 to 0-9 winners in Omagh.

It's a sorry record. The Harte mentality of trying to win every single match is well-flagged but what isn't is that he sends his teams out to win every match by as much as possible.

So, what would ordinarily be eight or nine-point defeats as the winning side eases off can turn into 15 or 16-point margins very easily when it's Tyrone who have their foot on your throat. Such hidings form scar tissue; that's ugly and it lingers.

Cavan haven't beaten Tyrone in Senior Championship football since 1983, when they won by 0-11 to 0-10 in Breffni Park. But even then, as centre-back Joe Dillon (who put the shackles on Frank McGuigan that day) recalled in 2016, Tyrone held the upper hand.

“The one team that always seemed to pip us – and we were so close on many occasions to winning championship matches – was Tyrone,” Dillon remembered. 

“They always seemed to get the edge on us. Why? A few things. They were cute, it was good management, they were very shrewd at making switches and man marking and did their homework at a time when it wasn’t thought of, you were picked on how good you were with your club and told to play to your strengths.

“There wouldn’t have been the same thought in most other camps. They had that intensity too and they hunted in packs, they didn’t play like other teams in Ulster at the time. They knew how to take the opposition’s best players out of the game, a lot like now. You could say Art McRory was the Mickey Harte of his time.”

So, in terms of baggage, Cavan are heavily-laden coming into Saturday's match and there is pressure there, too. Because while a win would provide affirmation, a loss – particularly a heavy one – would risk undoing a lot of the progress made so far this summer.

This is not bonus territory for Cavan – this is a game which they must compete very strongly in at worst if they are to frank their earlier form. Can they? As Michael Hannon argues elsewhere on these pages, there are strong signs that they can.

Team selection will be the most interesting of the season. Graham has learned more about his players with each passing week and the Ulster final collapse will have taught him most of all.

The time may have arrived to make some changes up top and take some risks. Stephen Murray has surely done enough to warrant a starting place, Cian Mackey – for all that he may not have 70 high tempo minutes in him – the same.

And Caoimhin O'Reilly's graph is trending upwards, from not making the 26 against Monaghan to coming off the bench against Armagh and then coming on and scoring against Donegal.

Graham may opt to stick but should be twist, it could energise the team. Beating Tyrone for the first time in a generation will require taking risks and being bold.

Cavan were good enough to topple them in 2016 but, in the drawn game, played in fits and starts only, the sign of a team who don't truly believe. Last year, they rattled the Red Hands but had left it too late.

Think what it would do for this squad of players and their new manager if they were to take down Tyrone. These are the days they train for. Bad draw? Not a bit of it – this is the opportunity of a lifetime.

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