Monday 23 April 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Forward-thinking mindset points Cavan in the right direction

Cavan forward Gearoid McKiernan is a big man but he has a light touch. Photo: Sportsfile
Cavan forward Gearoid McKiernan is a big man but he has a light touch. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

It is only fitting to begin with a tribute to two great men of the GAA who died recently, Jack Boothman and Joe McDonagh. I have always had a healthy suspicion of top officials because I feel there are often too many compromises needed to get to the top of the greasy pole and too many pay-offs afterwards. Just like all politics.

Yet it was not like that with Jack. He had many fine qualities and was a great players' man when chairman of the Leinster Council. He wanted to win the Railway Cup and cajoled every player to take part and ultimately win it. When my daughter was born, the first bouquet of flowers to arrive in the hospital was from Jack and Nuala Boothman. When Meath were most unpopular in the late 1980s Jack remained a supportive voice in court. Like an old elephant, I never forgot these things and neither did all the Meath players who remained great friends with Jack until he went fishing in another lake.

Joe McDonagh was also a marvellous man with a razor-sharp intellect. Like Jack he was wonderful company. He could sing, tell stories and laugh heartily. During his time as president he gave me the job of managing the Ireland International Rules team. It was the start of the new series in 1999 and the quality of the players available was such that almost all you had to do was give them the jerseys and let them out. As a result we won the first two series home and away.

Joe loved it all and was a great PR man for the Association. He did not succeed in getting rid of the rule banning police officers in Northern Ireland from being members of the GAA. He was far-sighted enough to know that without GAA members being part of the police, as they are south of the border, there could be no community policing. He was a great leader.

May they both rest easily and my sincere sympathies to both the Boothman and McDonagh families.

The championship has only started but there are enough things to get annoyed about already. So much for positivity. Better to be crabby and happy.

Anyway, to the new trends: some have been going on for a while and I have been waiting impatiently to address them. First, the new match-day trends. Obviously some guru has come up with a warm-up and everyone else copies. The main one now is for everyone to gather in a circle, do a routine of rapid quick-steps on the spot, jump in the air and then turn around and run out about 20 metres. I wonder if this is to impress the fans, or what its supposed value is. Anyone for hopscotch?

Then the subs go for their warm-up and have to put on bibs. A pure copy of the Champions League. Are the GAA worried that someone is going to sit on the subs' bench who is not a sub? Generally team managements know their own players, so maybe someone who is a lot brighter than me can let me know why subs have to put on bibs to warm up on the sideline. Surely their county jersey with a number on it should be enough to distinguish who they are?

And lastly, for this week at least, is the practice of team managers gathering all the panel around them on the pitch after a win for an impromptu team talk. Maybe there is some vital piece of information to relay, like what time they are all going to meet in the nightclub, but why can't it be given out in the dressing room? The losers are gone off the pitch fairly quickly. The winners' group hug should take place out of sight too.

Back to football. The modern sons of old Breffni are beginning to give the natives hope that former glories could come back again. It won't be anything like the domination of the '30s and '40s but perhaps an occasional Ulster title at least. They have reason to think the sun will shine again. Their five wins in Division 2 were the last five games after losing the first two to Tyrone and Derry. In fact Cavan seemed set for a third defeat in a row in Navan against Meath but made an incredible comeback and won easily. In horse racing terms, a report would have read: came under pressure early, responded, won going away.

That game brought a mighty change to Cavan, who then beat Armagh by 17 points, and it was the scale of this defeat which ultimately relegated Armagh to the third division on points difference.

More important than the wins has been the shift in mentality, by management and players. Last year the style of play was both ugly and of a losing variety. The groans of old men from Mullahoran, Cornafean, Drumalee and Redhills were audible as they saw the ball being passed backwards and sideways . Kick the f***in' thing was often shouted in exasperation. Now things have moved on a bit. Handpassing has been curbed to an extent and there are not too many frees going backwards . Perhaps it is just a sign of a team who are more comfortable in their system. Age and experience are also a help. Of course there are big men up front too and some combination of Michael Argue, Gearoid McKiernan and David Givney will be in the forward line. Those three would eat a drill of potatoes between them every day but they have a light touch too: McKiernan was one of the top scorers in Division 2.

As expressed before I am also impressed with Killian Clarke, who is nominally full-back but seems to play from the end-line to midfield and can have the odd rush of blood by going further upfield. He is a talented, rangy sort of player who is suited to the mobility of the modern game. So also is Dara McVeety, who runs a lot, and as with so many Cavan players this year, it is to effect.

So Cavan are on the move, maybe not up to Tyrone's standard but looking like they are about two years behind. The danger of course for Cavan is that while they may be improving, Tyrone could be doing the same at a faster rate. Certainly Cavan do not have the same range of scorers but the work in progress is certainly going the right way. It will be enough to keep the supporters digging deep in the hope that they see the team in blue by the Canal in early August.

Armagh should be on the same road. A narrow quarter-final defeat two years ago was progress but the wheels on the bus were not going round earlier this year and the poor league campaign led to the big drop. Teams don't win Ulsters or All-Irelands from Division 3. So the Kieran McGeaney experiment is not gaining any appreciable traction. McGeaney was always accused of putting brawn before brain, with players bulging out of their jerseys but lacking in a lot of basic skills. He hardly had really talented players to work with in Kildare and it seems less so in Armagh. Yet their best form in the league was at the end and there seemed to be some progress. The last match against Derry saw an easy win but Derry's display last week does not frank that form. In their first match against Meath they were stink, so they need to find inspiration or desperation somewhere quick.

Armagh will depend on players like Ethan Rafferty, Rory Grugan, Charlie Vernon, Aidan Mallon and Stefan Campbell. They are as good as Cavan's top men but the danger is that they fray at the edges fairly quick and don't have a strong panel.

Cavan look a pretty decent side who could get a lot better; they should win but only if they are able handle the expectation created by the league run. Good teams deal with championship pressure and grow with it. Cavan have only that to prove.

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