Cavan's spectacular U-21 power surge has Ulster rivals on edge
Four years ago Cavan were propping up the table of provincial U-21 champions in Ulster, with just two titles (1988 and 1996) leaving them joint bottom with Monaghan.
But a remarkable sequence of 13 straight wins in the grade, the last of which earned them a fourth successive title in Armagh on Wednesday night, has taken them into fifth on the table, one behind Derry and Donegal, and earned a reputation as potentially the most progressive county in the province over the next few years.
They'll heed the warnings attached to U-21 success in football and hurling in the past of course.
The Limerick teams that won successive All-Ireland hurling titles from 2000-02 disappeared without much trace off the senior radar, while Galway's plundering of four All-Ireland U-21 football titles in 12 years from 2002 to 2013 has yielded no clear dividend yet.
Winning four successive U-21 titles is not uncommon in some of the other provinces. With just three of the 53 Munster titles going elsewhere, quite a few of the 50 equally shared by Kerry and Cork have come in fours (Kerry 1975-78 and 1990-93, Cork 1979-82, 2004-07 and 2011-14).
Kerry are also responsible for the only provincial five-in-a-row in the grade from 1995-99, the bedrock for most of their six All-Ireland titles between 1997 and 2009.
Mayo have turned out three four-in-a-rows and Galway one in Connacht.
But in Ulster and Leinster such levels of dominance are also unprecedented. Prior to Cavan's completion of their four-in-a-row against Donegal, only Tyrone had achieved such a milestone.
Their 2000-03 successes featured many of the luminaries around whom the '03, '05 and '08 All-Ireland senior titles were built.
It is not so much what Cavan have done but how they have gone about it that has been the most striking feature of their reign. Each win and each team has followed a distinct pattern – and they've all been painfully hard to beat.
The average conceded in the 13 games is just over nine points. They have kept seven clean sheets and not once has any Cavan team conceded more than a single goal per game.
The most they have conceded in one game was 1-12 against Monaghan in the 2013 Ulster semi-final. In only four of the games have opponents amassed a points total in double figures.
The 2014 campaign has been their best from a defensive perspective: no goals conceded, just 30 points shipped in four games against arguably the next strongest teams for an average of 7.5 points per game.
Couple that with the 1-67 conceded in the seven league games it took their seniors to top Division 3 (1-97 in 11 games across both competitions) and it paints the clearest picture yet of Cavan football's template.
They have developed a system that has all their teams – minor, U-21s and senior – singing off the same hymnsheet, at times using double sweepers and ensuring there is variety in the identity of the defender who pushes out of defence to link with his attack.
Each Cavan team has developed a number of different carriers comfortable in this role.
It may not be pretty but it is effective and suits the body of players that Cavan have had across the period. The hiring of former Tyrone U-21 captain Peter Donnelly as a dedicated strength and conditioning coach, paid for by the county board, is perhaps still unique in the GAA terms, but Donnelly's influence on the way the teams have played should not be underestimated either. For the last few years he has linked all the teams through his role.
Off the field, a few fundamentals have been put in place to help their remarkable journey. One of the cornerstones that has underpinned the chairmanship of the incumbent Tom Reilly was a desire for distinct separation between U-21 and senior squads.
It could conceivably have cost Cavan promotion to Division 2 before now, but the benefits of player development and refinement of a system have been obvious. There has been no overlap for senior players once the U-21 championship in Ulster got up and running and that has alleviated pressures on some players at the busiest time of the year – a luxury that even Dublin didn't avail of this season.
Consecutive U-21 squads, under the management of first Terry Hyland and now Peter Reilly, have carried big numbers to accommodate the following year's team to acclimatise them to the relevant structures and systems. This year it was 37, last year and previous years it was up to 40.
Such additional layers haven't cost an arm and a leg either. In fact over the course of the four years, according to audited figures from 2010 to 2013, Cavan have reduced their overall debt pile by around €300,000, paid off over €700,000 in loans and interest, and have an audited surplus of €255,000, rising to €416,000 when depreciation and amortisation are excluded.
The spread of players is not restricted to a particular area or a handful of clubs either. County PRO Declan Woods has estimated that over three-quarters of Cavan's 40 clubs have contributed players to at least one of the four squads.
The style of play has not sat easily with everyone, but no one can deny its effectiveness in positioning Cavan as potentially Ulster's powerhouse over the next five years.
* Cavan will play Leinster champions Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-finals of the Cadbury's U21 FC as part of a double-header in Portlaoise on Easter Saturday (April 19). Cork and Roscommon meet first at 3.0, followed by Cavan v Dublin at 4.45. Both games will be live on TG4.
Cavan's 13 games without defeat
Cavan 1-13, Fermanagh 1-8
Cavan 0-12, Donegal 1-4
Cavan 1-10, Tyrone 0-10 (final)
Cavan 1-11, Armagh 1-5
Cavan 2-8, Derry 1-9
Cavan 1-10, Tyrone 0-10 (final)
Cavan 1-12, Down 0-6
Cavan 1-16, Monaghan 1-12
Cavan 0-13, Donegal 1-6 (final)
Cavan 3-10, Derry 0-12
Cavan 1-11, Tyrone 0-6
Cavan 1-7, Monaghan 0-4
Cavan 2-6, Donegal 0-8 (final)