Cavan are within sight of football's nobility
After a poor League start, Cavan under Terry Hyland are two games away from promotion
Navan on the last Sunday in February and Cavan were two-and-a-half games into their Division 2 campaign, staring at the possibility of a third defeat. Narrow losses to Tyrone and Derry had been followed by 35 minutes of football that saw them trailing Meath by seven points.
Terry Hyland got his team into the Páirc Tailteann dressing room and worked the oracle with them. When they returned for the second half, they were a team transformed, men possessed. In those 35 minutes they scored 1-15 and the maths of Division 2 now suggested a different equation.
Breffni Park on the last Sunday in March and Cavan are two games away from promotion, a league final and a return to Croke Park.
Cavan can see the summit but manager Hyland is well aware that the higher you climb, the thinner the air gets. Rewind the clock 12 months or thereabouts and Cavan were in a similar position, the peak in sight as they continued their ascent up football's mountain, chasing back-to-back league promotions. That expedition stalled.
"Technically we are not even sure of our status in Division 2," is his cautious response to the suggestion of promotion. "We need to win this afternoon to guarantee our place for next year because we need seven points to be sure of staying in this division before we even think about getting to the final.
"There is a switch-around in positions from round to round. At the moment ourselves and Galway are joint second but Derry are only a point behind and Fermanagh have four points. The bottom three teams are all on three so promotion and relegation are still in the balance."
The predicament in which their opponents Laois find themselves has Cavan on high alert. Laois, along with Meath and Armagh, are on three points. For them it's all duck or no dinner. Win at Breffni Park and they have loosened the noose. Lose and the trap door beneath them gapes wide open.
"Laois are coming here looking for two points and we are very aware of what they are capable of. They have free-flowing forwards and are capable of getting high scores so we will be well-prepared. We will treat Laois with the utmost respect, properly analyse them and break down what we have to do."
A repeat of last year's command performance would do nicely. In the 2015 fixture Cavan went down to Portlaoise and beat the midlands side in O'Moore Park
The men who sit behind computer screens, analysing statistics to compile the odds, make Cavan overwhelming favourites to win this afternoon. If they were a racehorse, Willie Mullins would be their trainer, such is the confidence of the bookmakers in a home win.
It's a new reality for Cavan, going into a pivotal clash with promotion tantalisingly close, as favourites for victory but Hyland knows his men and he knows that they won't be found lacking.
"We need to put in the performances on the pitch this afternoon and I would hope that the experience of last year would stand to the players against Laois," he says.
"They are maturing physically all the time and mentally too, I think they can back it up. Footballers now are only hitting their peak in their mid to late 20s and we have quite a young squad so they should improve from what we learned last year."
Three Ulster under 21 championships, an All-Ireland final appearance in that competition and reaching the last eight of the senior All-Ireland championship in 2013 had raised hopes in the county, which promotion in 2014 encouraged.
Last year was a sobering one. From near promotion to Division 1 to a home defeat to Roscommon in the second round of the qualifiers, 2015 fizzled with anticipation but, much like those cheap fireworks hawked down side streets in October, it ended in a tamely disappointing manner.
The extension of Hyland's tenure into 2016 was only confirmed in September and between the end of Cavan's involvement in championship 2015 and the start of the 2016 league, almost an entire team's worth of players left the set-up. Hyland understood why so many had to go. Inter-county football, he warns, will soon be the preserve of students and maybe teachers.
"It's getting to the stage where only a few jobs or careers will be able to accommodate GAA players because of the commitment and way things are handled now. Lads with trades, working on building sites or doing shift work, won't be able to play inter-county football. Everything has gone so professional and is controlled to such an extent that it won't be possible, even the way diets are prescribed - if you're told to eat meals and snacks at certain times of the day, there are not very many jobs where employers can facilitate that."
New players and those who have that experience of success at under 21 level have filled the vacuum which existed at the heart of the panel and others have stepped up to the plate.
The black sheep of Cavan football was brought back into the flock over the winter, his return to the senior team an altogether quieter affair than his departure from it. Seánie Johnston's return is just one element in the winning combination Hyland is creating.
"There are a number of different reasons why the team is performing so well. David Givney, Dara McVeety, Killian Clarke, Gearóid McKiernan are all playing very well. Séan is back in the fold. Seven of the team are only 22 and they are maturing into an age they can play senior football.
"It takes time for players to make the transition from under 21 to senior level because a lot of the time, you are playing against 18- and 19-year-olds so you can get away without maturing at that level but you can't at senior level."
Five of the eight teams in the division are from Ulster and on the final Sunday in May, Armagh will return to Breffni Park where they lost comprehensively earlier this month. Hyland does not see that result as a predictor of what will happen in May.
"It is like a mini-Ulster championship in Division 2 but if you look at the results, in most of the games there have only been one or two points in it. There haven't really been big, big wins with the exception of Armagh so it is hugely competitive and there have been lots of tight, entertaining games."
Back to the present and it is the league that dominates the thoughts of Hyland and his players. Neighbours, and fierce enemies, Monaghan have illuminated the way for Cavan. Victory over Laois this afternoon would take them a step closer to joining Monaghan in Gaelic football's G8.
"A win catapults us into a possible promotion battle with Galway at home next Sunday. We want to be at the top of the league, everyone wants to better themselves, wants to play against the best and that's what we hope to achieve."
Cavan on the last Sunday in March are two games away from promotion to Division 1, four halves of football from reaching Croke Park on the last Sunday in April.
Sunday Indo Sport