The Breffni men are used to ups and downs, but now there's a belief that they're ready to challenge
After Cavan secured promotion to Division 1 the 'Anglo Celt' reprised a mortifying loss from the vaults, a squandered opportunity from 10 years earlier. In 2006, what looked a hugely significant win in Mullingar over Westmeath had Cavan on the brink of promotion to Division 1.
What looked a straightforward final-round win at home to Waterford the following weekend would make it certain. The year before, Cavan had beaten Waterford by 28 points in the league. Waterford arrived in Breffni Park with no form and nothing to play for - and the match programme featured an article claiming anything other than a home win would be catastrophic. Similar, the writer stated, to the sinking of the Titanic. Cavan's hopes of new horizons proved fatally premature - Waterford were inspired in the iceberg role and down she went.
Recent promotion has allowed Cavan make peace with the memory, but it took time to steady themselves. In 2008, when the league was restructured into four tiers, they suffered relegation to Division 3. They remained there for six seasons and, in 2012, almost dropped to Division 4. The year before Waterford ambushed them, Cavan reached the last 12 in the championship. A mix of survivors from the Ulster final win in 1997 and players off an exceptional under-21 team from 2002 offered hope of another breakthrough, but the Waterford loss blew them off course.
Former player Jason O'Reilly, speaking a few months later, said it was the worst experience he'd had in 10 years of playing county football, saying: "You just feel like throwing in the towel."
After the match the Waterford manager came into the home dressing room: "Keep at it," he remarked, O'Reilly recalled, throwing his eyes to heaven. "That put the final nail in it."
Ten years on, promotion has given Cavan serious impetus and the inviting prospect of testing themselves in the top eight next year. In the meantime, they will learn if they are capable of making a convincing bid for an Ulster Championship. The Division 2 final defeat by Tyrone offered a reality check, but also a useful rehearsal for an Ulster semi-final if they can conquer Armagh in Breffni Park this afternoon. Expected to win, they are now two divisions higher than Armagh in the league, if not necessarily two divisions better.
Their huge league win in March, by 17 points, carries the risk of deception - and if Cavan could hardly do much better, then Armagh surely can. The championship provided a stirring win for Cavan over Armagh in 2013, aided by perplexingly open defensive play from their opponents, but a year later, when expectation rested on their shoulders, Cavan were mugged by Armagh at the Athletic Grounds.
Recent experience has made them wary of false dawns.
"Around 2004/05, I really thought we had a good team," says former player Michael Hannon. "That was a group of lads that was coming through to complement the '97 boys. In '04 we had a man sent off after 40 seconds and lost the Ulster semi-final to Armagh by two points."
The under-21 team of 2002 defeated a Donegal side that later backboned Jim McGuinness's All-Ireland winning side. Due to the foot and mouth outbreak, they were missing several players when they lost the delayed Ulster final to Tyrone later that year by three points. That promise was never fully realised.
Historically, Armagh didn't represent serious rivals, even though there is a cutting edge to the fixture now, highlighted by the unsightly row at the pre-match parade two years ago. When they met in 2008 it was only the second championship meeting between the counties in 30 years. Hannon says the loss of then manager Eamon Coleman to illness in '05 led to an unsettled period and constant management rotation that only calmed when Terry Hyland took over from Val Andrews in mid-season 2012. By then, Hannon had retired.
The Waterford loss was a killer blow for him too, and he recalls: "I remember we had a meeting after the game and Dermot McCabe looking at us and saying, 'lads, if we can't beat Waterford we're going nowhere' - the morale was absolutely rock bottom."
Hannon bowed out on another of those bad days too frequently visited upon Cavan over the last 10 years - the dismal showing against Cork in the 2010 qualifiers in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when they scored just four points. The following year they slumped to an 11-point home defeat to Longford in the qualifiers, which felt worse, as Cork at least had been the reigning All-Ireland champions the year before.
Hannon remembers leaving the ground after losing to Cork, and says: "I was sitting on the bus afterwards and you are more or less on the motorway straight away. There were a number of players in the back shouting to stop at an off-licence, and I was in the front hanging my head in shame. And I had this feeling: do these people not care? I remember going out to Cork that day and they were like machines steaming through. I don't know how many frees we conceded - we were chasing players and then pulling jerseys."
Physically, Cork were from a different universe. Hannon recalls seeing a training chart left on a wall in a gym he used to attend, which was also being patronised by the Dublin football team. On it were the recorded times of various 20m time trials. Compared to what Cavan were achieving at that time, it was an eye-opener. "Only a handful of our guys were matching theirs," he says.
Cavan's latest line of improvement has been underpinned by a run of successes at underage - four Ulster under-21 titles in a row from 2011, and an Ulster minor title in the first year of the sequence. Hyland stepped into the senior job with an acquaintance of the under-21 players successful in the province and accustomed to winning.
"They became hard to beat. Hard to love as well, they were not great to look at," says Hannon of the current senior side's progress. "Donegal lite, I suppose was the way to describe them. At that stage I had started writing a column and I have seen them in every game, it has been fascinating to watch the development of the team. They were over-reliant on Cian Mackey in 2013 - if Cian was getting shut down the team was looking a bit rudderless. In 2014, they tried to play a bit more attack-minded but it meant they were leaving things a bit open at the back. Armagh played ultra-defensive and beat them. It has taken a few years for the younger players to mature.
"They had to figure out a better way of attacking by committing less players forward, which is what they did the last two years - committing more men forward. Now they are breaking at speed but it doesn't need to mean committing a huge number of players. They are like a hybrid of Donegal and Tyrone."
Hannon is understandably cautious about today's challenge but feels an Ulster final is within Cavan's compass.
"If they beat Armagh I am 100pc convinced, and the panel is convinced, they can beat Tyrone," he declares. "I don't know whether the panel - when they played Donegal in the McGuinness years - were 100pc convinced they would beat them."
Paul Brady finished his Cavan days in 2010 against Cork and was familiar with swings of fortune, but he believes current optimism is well-founded. Getting to Division 1 has raised expectations after their recent underage success.
"They are definitely coming on," he says of Cavan, "but the earlier win in the league effectively relegated Armagh, so there'll be a backlash. Hopefully, Cavan will have enough quality to get over the line.
"This will be a test of character. With Armagh, you would expect some sort of reaction to that defeat in the league, and we need to see if Cavan can cut it with the weight of expectation. Whether they are mature enough to deal with it - that is what we are waiting to see. They will have seen what Tyrone did in setting up defensively in the league final and I'd expect something similar. People would be wary of Armagh."
With Seanie Johnston back, and Eugene Keating and David Givney also returned after dropping off the panel last year, Cavan now have a full hand.
"The important thing in a county like Cavan, with a small population of 70,000, and a small amount of resources, is that you need a lot of the talent available involved," says Hannon. "For a county like Cavan, to get to Division 1 - and maybe to stay there for a few years, as Monaghan did - is important, and during that cycle you are looking to win a provincial title.
"This could be year one of a four-year cycle. If you look at the age profile, Gearoid McKiernan and those guys are not young lads anymore. We have Division 1 next year and we need to be aiming to get to an Ulster final this year."
Even if they fall short, the interest won't dim and the age profile affords them time. "Little else happens in Cavan except football," Hannon says. "Football is what everybody does."
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