Sunday 17 December 2017

History has hardened golden youths into men on a mission

Cavan's under 21s are determined in an understated way, writes Dermot Crowe

THEY knew they had a good team three years ago but Cavan minors found their path blocked by Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final, edged out in a close finish. Their convictions were borne out when Tyrone went on to win Ulster and add the All-Ireland in September. Cavan haven't contested an Ulster minor final since 1988; they haven't won one since 1974. They wanted more from that team than they had to settle for.

The team itself refused to surrender hope and sensed there would be more to their storyline. Some returned to contest an Ulster under 21 final last year. Their conquerors Donegal were unlucky later not to win the All-Ireland. This year's under 21s were the hard-luck minors of 2008. A good deal was expected of them; they expected a good deal of themselves; they haven't disappointed.

Last year Val Andrews was appointed manager of the senior football team after it had been demolished in a qualifier match by Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The rout painted a dismal and regressive picture of Cavan football. If Andrews' arrival was timely, the appointment of Terry Hyland as assistant was also noteworthy.

County chairman Tom Reilly recognised Hyland's progress with the county under 21s. Hyland was allowed a large squad so they could train on their own, separate from the senior panel. During the national football league the under 21s were called on sparingly, a deliberate policy given their promise. It could be argued that the policy cost Cavan promotion but it could also be argued that it helped Cavan win a first Ulster under 21 since Martin McHugh masterminded their last in 1996.

Most of the players on duty in today's All-Ireland final against Galway have been together since the age of 14 on county development squads. This year offered them a last shot at winning a title before the group splinters. Their ethos is illustrated by the decisions taken by three man-of-the-match award winners to donate their prizes to the water boys, the full-back line and a team administrator. The county PRO Declan Woods talks of an "incredible unit" which frowns on creating any individual distinctions within the group.

"I went in last night while they were training and they were having the most low-key and down-to-earth preparation -- the management team are a credit to them. There is excitement around but the town (Cavan) is not decked in blue and white. We are not talking about mass euphoria. People are incredibly proud of what they have achieved. But everybody is keeping their powder dry."

The achievement equals that of McHugh's team in reaching an All-Ireland final but Cavan have never won it. In 1996, they overcame Meath in a replay to reach the final and were neck-and-neck with Kerry until the final ten minutes before succumbing.

Tom Reilly estimated on Friday that they had sold 12,000 tickets and that another 3,000 should be snapped up by Cavan people in Dublin. They haven't won a national final since the last of their All-Ireland senior titles in 1952. This will also be their first national final in Croke Park since then, Reilly points out.

"After '96, maybe we thought success would come a bit handier than it did. We got carried away basically. I think it's a different approach now, a level-headed approach. There is nothing won yet, that is our attitude.

"We will have Donegal or Antrim in Breffni this summer and if we win on Sunday that will bring a big crowd, it will be good for the enthusiasm. We have had a long lean spell but you can see it's getting popular to wear the blue jersey again."

Woods says the physical profile of the team has been altered and Cavan are now producing bigger footballers. "We have always been able to produce small, knacky, fast forwards, we had bundles of them, but we had huge difficulty in producing bigger players. Cavan teams tended to be five foot nines . . . and there is nothing wrong with that but we now have, if you take a look, players who are 6ft 2, 3, 4. They are all capable and talented. The coaching people looked more into developing areas like strength and conditioning.

"It was a clear decision to work with the big lanky players and not just cast them aside. Because that did happen with big guys at 12 and 14 years of age and we never saw them after. That changed."

Cavan has a proud football heritage. But the team that carries the flag today was assembled for the future, not as a nod to the past. All those who have helped them on their journey may take a bow.

Cavan v Galway,

TG4, 2.0

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