King urges Hyland to change Cavan style or risk more Ulster pain
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
Stephen King never thought it would be like this when he captained Cavan to the 1997 Ulster title.
It may have been their first provincial title success for 28 years, but the fundamentals looked sufficiently sound to ensure that the wait wouldn't be anything like as long again.
As well as winning the senior title, Cavan had done very well at U-21 level, reaching the 1995 Ulster final where they lost to Donegal in a replay, before winning the 1996 crown and testing Kerry all the way in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The future looked bright, but 18 years on the wait for the next Ulster senior title still goes on.
Now, though, there is genuine hope. A win over Monaghan tomorrow would earn Cavan a semi-final slot against the Fermanagh-Antrim winners.
Monaghan apart, it's the easier side of the draw and represents a real opportunity.
"Once the draw was made, Cavan people saw this year as a great time to make a real push for the Ulster title. Monaghan in the first round was always seen as tough but it's in Breffni Park. That's a good break - we've got to make it count," said King.
While home advantage is a plus, there's the question of whether Cavan's set-up equips them to win any title. Based on ultra-defensive solidity, they conceded an average of just over 1-9 in seven Division 2 games.
That giveaway usually wins more games than it loses but, in Cavan's case, it yielded only a 50pc return (three wins, one draw, three defeats) and a fifth-placed finish. The problem is that tight security can tie up so many resources that it impacts negatively at the other end.
In Cavan's case, their strike rate is so low that the defensive side needs to be virtually perfect all the way.
Even then, it's all but impossible to win consistently off the Cavan returns of recent seasons. King is forthright in his assessment of Cavan's structure.
"In my opinion, we won't win an Ulster title unless we're more offensive. Cavan's style of play has been hard to watch. I have to say, I don't like it. At some stage, a team just has to be creative," he said. "Winning games 12 points to 10 or whatever is fine on certain days, but you can't keep doing it all the time. It doesn't work that way.
"I don't agree with a team sitting rigid and working totally to a system. A lot of that has come from the college scene and seems to be spreading all the time.
"I'd hate to be playing that sort of game. If I was, my career would have been a lot shorter" added King, whose senior inter-county stint lasted 17 years.
Four successive Ulster U-21 title wins (2011-14) underlines the health of Cavan football at present.
For while none of those teams went on to win the All-Ireland title, Cavan's dominance of a very competitive province at U-21 level for so long has to be significant. King sees it as an opportunity to re-cast Cavan football as a serious force again.
"There's no doubt about it - there are a lot of really good footballers in Cavan at present. That's why I don't understand why we're not playing a more creative game," he said.
"Good progress has been made in that the team came up from Division 3 to 2 and comfortably held its own there, but I'd like to see them being more adventurous now. They're good enough for it. They have to do it.
"As I see it, Cavan won't win an All-Ireland title this year, but they are realistic contenders for the Ulster title. To do that, we have to be more creative. Take more chances with our play, let the ball in quicker. Let players express themselves more when they're in possession.
"I'd trust them a lot more to play off their own instincts. These are very good players, lads who are well able to match anybody. I hope they go for it a lot more against Monaghan.
"They'll need to if they're going to make real progress. There's no point keeping the opposition score down if you're never going to score enough to win."
Expectations are rising in Cavan, but then that applied last year too after a good 2013 when they reached the All-Ireland quarter-final for the first time.
They lost to Kerry, but still finished the summer campaign in positive mode, having won five of seven games. It was very different last year. Cavan lost to Armagh in the Ulster first round, then beat Westmeath in the qualifiers before losing by 11 points to Roscommon, who lost by five to Armagh next time out.
That makes this season extremely important in the life-cycle of this Cavan squad and management. Terry Hyland is taking them into the Championship for the fourth time so, in a sense, it's judgment season.
The reality for Cavan is that, of the nine Ulster counties, only Antrim have achieved less than them in the Championship since the turn of the Millennium.
Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal have won All-Ireland titles; Monaghan won an Ulster crown; Down reached the All-Ireland final; Fermanagh and Derry reached semi-finals.
One qualification for the All-Ireland quarter-finals - helped considerably by a fortuitous fourth-round draw against London - was as far as Cavan got, while their last appearance in the Ulster final was in 2001.
They are 15/8 outsiders against Monaghan tomorrow, but King believes that home advantage, plus Cavan's good record against their neighbours over the years, can be a balancing factor. "Monaghan are a top six side. Physically, they are very powerful, especially up the middle and have some very good score-takers. They have a lot of big time experience and they're a Division 1 side too," he said.
"So you can see why they are warm favourites to reach the Ulster final from their side of the draw. "Having said that, Cavan would always feel confident going in against Monaghan, especially in Breffni Park. You feel that now is the time for this Cavan team to really do something.
"The county is ready to ignite in support behind them if they a run going this summer.
"Winning an Ulster title would be a huge achievement for Cavan. I genuinely believe they have a chance this year, but only if they play a more attacking game. If they go in tomorrow with a very defensive shape, Monaghan will be waiting for them.
"That's what Malachy O'Rourke will be expecting of Cavan, so I'd like to see our lads giving him something different to think about. We have the players to play a more expansive game, so let them at it."
Cavan will be encouraged by their performance against Monaghan in the 2013 Ulster semi-final, when they lost by a point in Clones. Monaghan later went on to win the Ulster title, beating defending All-Ireland champions Donegal in the final.
Monaghan's success left Cavan frustrated but also showed them what can be achieved. Last season didn't turn out anywhere like anticipated but this year's drawn has re-awakened expectations.
Now, the big question is whether Hyland will retain the restrictive game-plan which makes Cavan very difficult to score against but also limits their prospects at the other end.
King is one many Cavan supporters who believe it's time to be more expansive. "We just have to do it some time. Why not against Monaghan?" he said.