Sunday 18 February 2018

Eugene McGee: Flickers of brilliance fuel Cavan hopes of return to glory days

The tone was set by Seanie Johnston (p), a returned emigrant who single-handedly set breffni park alight with five marvellous points. Photo: Sportsfile
The tone was set by Seanie Johnston (p), a returned emigrant who single-handedly set breffni park alight with five marvellous points. Photo: Sportsfile
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

Cavan football fans, of which there is a multitude, are a bit edgy these days because they are not sure whether they have a really good football team after several years of mediocrity or whether they are just learning their trade after several years of success at U-21 level.

They are all delighted at how 2016 has gone so far with promotion to Division 1, ending a 20-year absence, and now they have beaten one of the great, traditional Ulster counties over the past 15 years or more.

All this means that the fans are seriously thinking about a return to the glory days of Breffni football and their easy disposal of Armagh in Breffni Park in front of more than 15,000 fans was certainly a massive boost. Not just because of the eight-point victory but more because of the huge portions of great, even brilliant, football that they showed in this game. There were times and incidents in this game played in blazing sunshine when comparisons with several of the great county sides that have won All-Irelands in the past 20 years were actually quite valid.

They moved the ball with incredible swiftness, often leaving Armagh players clutching at straws in their wake. Their combination play was outrageous at times and their score-taking was exceptional.

The tone was set by Seanie Johnston, a returned emigrant who set Breffni Park alight single-handedly with five marvellous points, from play and frees, in the opening 30 minutes. Throw in a few wonder points from Gearoid McKiernan in the same period and Cavan were on their way to play Tyrone even at that early stage.

But while the scorers are the glamour boys of the game there are always grafters who supply the raw material for these exciting scores and Cavan had many of those. Centre-back Conor Moynagh from Drumgoon did a masterly job of stabilising the fluid Cavan defence and made sure that when they went up the field he was there to mind the house and he also directly set up several scores.

Martin Reilly was the human dynamo that all good teams need, with a bottomless reservoir of energy and the ball control to escape from a crowded defensive position and go up to start numerous attacks. Dara McVeety played a similar role from half-forward and it was the efforts of these and others that created the situations that allowed Cavan to quickly move the ball from defence to attack with lightning speed.

This process, as we are now told by the 'experts' who run football, should be called transition and while the word has hardly ever been mentioned where football is played in Cavan, we did get the perfect example of it yesterday.

Of course, Cavan are far from perfect at playing the modern game and in the second quarter yesterday, with a lead of six points, they temporarily reverted to their horror cameos of the recent past. The whole team almost went back into their backline and in the minutes before half-time it allowed Armagh to grab three points with only one in response for Cavan. A timely warning surely that they will have to make hard decisions about their plans for defending en masse for future games.

Armagh looked a ragged enough team for long periods but their innate pride in their county enabled them to stand proud at the finish.

They failed to score a penalty when Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan made a good save and then the ball was swept upfield in a flash, landing in front of Johnston, and his score drew the biggest applause of the day when he lofted over a brilliant point and he was entitled to wave his fist in the air because that marked the end of the contest.

Stefan Campbell deserves special praise for his scoring achievement, landing eight points, from play and placed balls, out of Armagh's total of 14, a truly remarkable achievement in an Ulster Championship game.

Cavan advance to face Tyrone, the favourites, in the Ulster semi-final, and it could turn out to be one of the best games in this year's Championship, which admittedly is not saying a lot so far. But both sides are laden with young, talented footballers with few inhibitions and should play that game with a fair bit of flair and abandon even if it is an Ulster semi-final.

Their recent Division 2 final in Croke Park was a decisive win for Tyrone but that game will surely have helped Cavan to set their sights somewhat differently for the upcoming encounter. With the skill levels of both teams, and with no baggage in recent times to burden them, each county will be raring to go.

For Cavan, of course, the stakes are higher as their appearances in Ulster finals are as rare as hen's teeth, their last appearance coming in 2001 when they lost to Tyrone. So, beware of Cavan this time!

Irish Independent

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