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Cavan bring energy and chaos to Croker

Comeback kings of Breffni to cause Dublin problems but Christmas fairytale will end


Cavan manager Mickey Graham and players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the Ulster SFC final against Donegal at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh

Cavan manager Mickey Graham and players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the Ulster SFC final against Donegal at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh

Cavan manager Mickey Graham and players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the Ulster SFC final against Donegal at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh

Tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final is a David and Goliath clash from the Book of Sam, 2020 Edition.

While Cavan will bring their slingshots with them they will need something extra special to slay the Dubs.

However, upsetting the odds is nothing new to Mickey Graham's men and they will arrive in Croke Park buoyed with self-belief following their first Ulster title success in 23 years, having defeated a hotly-fancied Donegal.

In advance of the Ulster decider the general narrative was that not only were Donegal going to win, but that they were the team shaping up best to topple the Dubs.

So Cavan are probably a bit bemused, and no doubt it's something of a motivational force, that they have not been bequeathed that title of 'best of rest', despite their fully deserved provincial success.

While capturing the Anglo Celt Cup came as a shock, it did not come from nowhere - a lot of great work has gone on in the county over the last decade at underage and they were rewarded for that.

Having only won two previous Ulster U21 titles (1988 and 1996) the Breffni Blues won four titles in a row from 2011 to 2014 as well as an Ulster minor title in 2011. They also won three Gerry Reilly U16 Tournaments from 2014 to 2016.

Also in 2018, Down native Andre Quinn returned from England, where he had spent 11 years working as a strength and conditioning coach in professional rugby, nine and a half seasons with London Irish and the rest with Harlequins, to take the job as Cavan GAA's Head of Athletic Performance. It was a signal of growing intent and ambition.

Several things emerged about this Cavan team over the course of the Ulster Championship, one that began for them in the preliminary round when they defeated Monaghan after extra-time.

Firstly, they seem a very united squad and are willing to work themselves to exhaustion for each other - that is not always the case with teams and if you have any weak links there are none better than the current Dublin players to expose and exploit any shortcomings in that department.

Mickey Graham, has made some shrewd decisions in terms of selections, tactics and changes in personnel during games and there is great trust between manager and players.

Graham is also known for his 'giant-killing' acts having led Longford's Mullinalaghta to Leinster club glory in 2018 - beating then Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes in the final.

It was the first occasion a Longford side had contested a senior provincial decider - so landmark victories are nothing new for the Cavan Gaels clubman.

Against Donegal, Graham deployed Jason McLoughlin on Ryan McHugh as well as different markers on security duties around Michael Murphy at various stages of the contest. It worked very well as it disrupted the axis of this pairing that usually play such a central role for their county.

Cavan also created frantic energy and chaos. Their intensity, work-rate and physicality in the tackle didn't let Donegal settle in the early passages of the game as Cavan moved into a 0-5 to 0-2 lead inside just ten minutes.

Against Donegal, Graham's men forced their opponents into numerous turnovers which led directly to seven Cavan scores - a very impressive statistic by any measure.

They'll look to take those levels of energy and chaos up a notch against the Dubs in Croke Park tomorrow to try to pose questions which no team has managed in this year's Championship.

Another trait of this Cavan unit is the comeback heroics they have performed in all their games.

In all their encounters - against Monaghan, Antrim, Down and Donegal - they trailed at half-time, but their will to win coupled with impressive conditioning has got them over the line.

Against Monaghan they were seven points in arrears at the interval, down 0-6 to 0-5 to Antrim, trailed Down 1-4 to 0-0 inside 12 minutes and were ten points behind at one stage, while against Donegal despite leading 0-5 to 0-2 early on were then outscored 0-7 to 0-1 during the 10-minute spell of Killian Brady's black card and entered the half-time break 0-9 to 0-7 behind.

They have an ability to kick long-range points and this will be needed against the Dubs while they have also got great momentum and scoring contributions from their bench.

Their physicality and intensity can also have its downside, however. They have picked up eight black cards during their Ulster campaign and the loss of any players against a team of Dublin's ruthlessness and scoring efficiency could prove fatal.

They certainly have the ability and personnel to cause problems for Dublin.

In goalkeeper Raymond Galligan, who kicked the winner from a 55-metre free against Monaghan, they have a man who has contributed saves at crucial junctures, against Antrim and Down especially.

Cavan also have variety in how they play. They are not afraid to go with the long ball if it's on and no doubt Thomas Galligan will spend time parked in front of Stephen Cluxton tomorrow evening. But they can play the patient, possession game also with Gearóid McKiernan the key man when they opt for this tactic.

They will also try to force Cluxton to kick long and make the middle third something of a war zone. While Donegal won good possession in this area, Cavan bottled them up successfully at times and will hope to frustrate Dublin equally.

In his two years in charge of Cavan, Graham has brought greater flexibility to their defensive play also with nominal forward Chris Conroy capable of operating as an extra defender to try to give greater stability to the spine of their defence.

For all that there have been inconsistencies in Cavan's displays and they will have to step it up even more from the best aspects of their performance against Donegal - and still that mightn't be enough.

I think Cavan will pose problems for Dublin but then this Dublin team always seem to find a route to victory - so I expect Cavan's fairytale season will not continue on to Christmas week.