Wednesday 21 August 2019

Former skipper King revels in revitalised Cavan's style and substance

Martin Reilly has been excellent for Cavan. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Reilly has been excellent for Cavan. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Cavan people never need to remind the rest of the country how much football means to them, but they did it anyway following the great win over Monaghan.

Supporters lingered on Kingspan Breffni Park for a long time after what was only the county's second Ulster SFC win in six seasons. The talk wasn't of the past, but of the future after an excellent performance that had prevented Monaghan reaching the semi-final for an eighth successive year.

Outside observers saw it as a surprise - maybe not a major one, but an upset nonetheless - an assessment that Cavan supporters found difficult to understand.

"It was no surprise to Cavan people, who had been keeping a close eye on what was going on. The league wasn't anything like as bad as it seemed," said Stephen King.

He commands a revered place in Cavan football as the man who, in his 16th season, captained them to their last Ulster title in 1997. That was Cavan's first provincial win since 1969, which means they are now chasing only their third title in 50 years.

They haven't even reached the final since 2001. In the interim, the other eight Ulster counties have played in the final, many of them several times. Even Antrim, who have spent much of their time in Division 4, got there in 2009.

"It's a long wait. It's disappointing for a county which takes such pride in its football and which has such big support. It needs to change," said King.

Question is - will it? Armagh, who have also had a bad run in Ulster since last winning the title in 2008, are blocking the way after reaching the semi-final for the first time since 2014.

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"We'd be confident enough. I've heard comments that Armagh will be too strong physically, but that's just not true. Our lads are well able to take care of themselves - I don't see that as an issue at all," said King.

Cavan's only league win came against Roscommon, but they did well in some other games too, without getting any reward.

"They were relegated, but they only struggled on the table. A lot of the performances were very good, even if they got no points from them. They should have beaten Galway and did very well against Kerry for a long time. You could see what they were trying to achieve. Maybe Division 1 was just beyond them this year, but they learned a lot from it," said King.

He is delighted with the style of play Cavan are using under Mickey Graham.

"It's offensive football, good to play and good to watch. They're using the full width of the pitch and that makes them hard to defend against. Mickey is allowing lads to express themselves and they did that very well against Monaghan.

"In fairness to Monaghan, being without Darren Hughes was a big loss, but that's the way things go. You take whatever advantage that's there.

"There's no doubt Hughes' absence was a help to Cavan, but they had to help themselves too and they did that. They worked to a plan, but lads were also free to do their own thing depending on the circumstances. What pleased Cavan supporters most of all was that not only did they win, they won playing good football," said King.

That's a big issue for him at a time when much of the game is weighed down by a sterile approach, where adherence to pre-packaged tactics often supersedes everything else.

"I was reading in the Irish Independent during the week where Larry Tompkins proposed banning the handpass back to the goalkeeper and making it a rule that all kick-outs must pass the '45'. I couldn't agree more. They are small changes that would make a big difference. A lot of football is hard to watch nowadays. It's turning people off," said King.

With Ulster favourites Tyrone and Donegal on the opposite side of the draw, and Monaghan eliminated, Cavan see this as a huge opportunity to reach the final, which guarantees a place in the last 12 in the All-Ireland race.

"The important thing now is to get to the final. When this sort of chance comes up, it needs to be taken. The win over Monaghan was huge for them and will have worked wonders for their confidence," said King.

Just as Cavan are eyeing a rare final appearance, Kieran McGeeney is taking his Armagh side into interesting territory too after a barren run when they failed to win any Ulster game.

They were operating a level below Cavan in this season's league and then beat Down, who were in Division 3, so this is a step up against opposition who have had eight games against Division 1 teams this year.

However, Armagh have done well against higher-ranked opposition in recent qualifiers and will fancy themselves tomorrow (4.0).

King believes that the important thing for Cavan is to play the game on their terms, as they did for much of the way against Monaghan.

"They have the players who can make that happen. The likes of Martin Reilly and Padraig Faulkner have been brilliant. There are plenty of others too, who have the right leadership skills, Mickey is giving them the freedom to play and they're thriving on it," said King.

Hopes of a senior revival soared after winning four successive U-21 titles in 2011-2014, but it turned out to be a false dawn.

"Nothing much came of it, to be honest. It's very much in the past now. Cavan weren't the first to find out that good underage teams don't necessarily progress into good seniors. It took Cavan people a while to accept that, but it's the way things are," said King.

He can sense excitement rising in the county at the prospect of booking a place in the Ulster final, but has no fears that it will get through to the players.

"They know how hard it is to win any championship game. Mickey will have them fully focused for this one. The supporters are certainly enjoying it and I'd be confident enough that there's more to come," he said.

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