Breffni boys on rise now that shackles are off
Transformation has put top-flight status in Cavan's hands
Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30
There was a moment in Cavan's All-Ireland U-21 semi-final defeat to Dublin two years ago that brought it home to many of their large contingent of supporters just how guarded the county's football philosophy was becoming.
A Dublin team containing Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Cormac Costello and Paul Mannion, among others, were clearly feeling the squeeze when one of Cavan's most talented and quickest players broke clear and found himself in a decent scoring position.
The instinctive option was to accelerate again and shoot but instead, he momentarily checked his stride in open space and the opportunity was lost, a shot off his weaker foot nestling safely in goalkeeper Lorcan Molloy's arms.
Dublin eventually escaped Portlaoise with a one-point win and they won the final against Roscommon with ease.
Maybe it's unfair to crystallise Cavan's style into one snapshot moment of reluctance but those present sensed how caution appeared to be conditioning their players' thinking ever more.
Security was important but if it compromised natural instinct that much?
Those seeds of caution had been planted among the senior team too and their dearth of goals for so long became a running commentary.
Brendan Fitzpatrick's goal against Westmeath in last year's sixth-round Division 2 match was their first in more than 600 minutes of league football.
Only Westmeath, with 4-75, generated less scores in the division than Cavan's 1-85 in that campaign. Against that background, their transformation this season has been quite remarkable.
On Sunday their fate is in their hands as Galway visit Kingspan Breffni Park for what is effectively a promotion play-off.
Cavan have the luxury of being able to draw but their mindset may not even countenance that scenario.
The shackles have been off more and the balance between defence and attack has been struck better, as manager Terry Hyland consistently said it would.
And Cavan are now among the top scorers in all four divisions with 7-86 accumulated, 6-62 in the last three-and-a-half games since they trailed Meath by 1-9 to 0-5 at half-time.
The three goals they pillaged in the next match against Armagh was the first time in four years that they scored more than two goals in a league or championship game.
No doubt, the return of key players this season has given Hyland his strongest hand that allows them to play a more expansive game.
David Givney and Eugene Keating switched to Dublin clubs for 2015 (Givney has since returned) and removed themselves from inter-county football but are back and Givney, in particular, has made a difference, scoring 2-4.
Seanie Johnston has made an even bigger impact since his four-year exile from the county ended in December. The Cavan Gaels man has appeared energised like never before as he seeks to retrace lost steps.
He may never have scored a championship goal before but in his last three matches he has netted each time to bring his tally to 3-16, serving a timely reminder of his natural, attacking flair.
Only Gearoid McKiernan, one of the top midfielders/centre-forwards in the game, comes close with 1-19.
The generous spread of scorers is another feature, with 20 different players on the mark. Significantly, four defenders; half-backs Conor Moynagh and Ciaran Brady and corner-backs Padraig Faulkner and Jason McLoughlin, have contributed 10 points.
One of the other big success stories of the last 12 months has been the conversion of Raymond Galligan to goalkeeper.
Cavan used three different goalkeepers for their four Ulster U-21 successes but the appeal of the Lacken man is his accuracy off the ground with both feet and that allows him to pinpoint kick-outs better, enabling them to launch attacks from different parts of the field.
Those U-21 teams now, inevitably, form the bedrock of this push towards Division 1.
Cavan have used 29 players in their six league games and 17 have played a part in at least one of those four Ulster Championship wins.
Incorporate the 2010 Ulster final defeat to Donegal and that catches Givney and Rory Dunne too.
Over the last three games Hyland has had the luxury of being able to select an unchanged team but with Johnston probably missing this weekend, due to a hamstring injury, that will now change.
That bounty of U-21 success created another fruitful spin-off with more than 20 clubs involved.
That has percolated into the senior team to such an extent that Hyland's unchanged starting team over the last three weekends has featured players from 15 different clubs, very rare at this level.
Add in the five substitutes used last weekend against Laois and that figure rises to 19, Cavan Gaels' pair Johnston and Niall Murray the only crossover.
It's a small detail but significant for how development has filtered into just about every part of the county.
Roscommon have shown that the leap to Division 1 can be made. Success on Sunday would justify the patient approach to style and development Cavan has taken with these players.