Saturday 17 August 2019

'I'll be the happiest person in Cavan if I lose tag of being last man to captain the county to an Ulster title'

Cavan manager Mickey Graham. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Cavan manager Mickey Graham. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Cavan are so far ahead of the rest of Ulster counties on the provincial football roll of honour that even if they never won another title, it would take decades to overtake them.

A win tomorrow would secure the title for the 39th time, a lead of 16 over second-placed Monaghan. In purely numerical terms, it's a totally dominant position, but the figures certainly don't tell the full story.

Only two (1969 and 1997) of the titles have been won in the last 50 years, a largely barren half-century that left Cavan people wondering why their fortunes dipped so dramatically since the start of the 1970s.

They have abandoned such gloomy thoughts for now amid the excitement of a first Ulster final appearance for 18 years, but it does make them realise the importance of taking chances when they come along.

When Cavan won the Ulster title for the first time in 28 years in 1997, nobody thought that 22 years later, they would still be waiting to get their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup again. What's more, their only appearance in a final since then was in 2001 when they lost to Tyrone.

It explains why the mood in Cavan since the semi-final replay win over Armagh has been so giddy.

"Unbelievable really. There's a pep in everyone's step. It's amazing what a bit of success can do for a county. It lifts the mood everywhere, whether you're big into football or not," said Stephen King, the last man to captain Cavan to an Ulster title.

Detected In the week before the semi-final clash with Armagh, which ended level, King told the Irish Independent that he detected something different about Cavan this year.

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He insisted it wasn't based on misguided loyalty, but rather on a measured analysis of what he had spotted throughout the season. Cavan saw off Armagh at the second attempt and King now believes they are ready to take the next step.

It's a much tougher assignment against Donegal, who are regarded as one of the few teams capable of seriously challenging Dublin for All-Ireland honours.

They already have an ultra-consistent record in the Ulster Championship, having won four of the last eight titles and reached three other finals.

It's an impressive return, but will be ignored by most Cavan supporters as they march up the Clones hill towards St Tiernach's Park tomorrow, opting instead to be carried on a blue wave of euphoria.

They see it as their day and won't allow anything to interfere with the tingling glow they are experiencing right now.

For King and his likes, who bring a sharper insight, there's a realisation that this is a massive test for Cavan, one which requires a lot more than hope and enthusiasm if it's to be passed.

"Donegal were my choice to win Ulster before the championship started. Naturally, I was hoping Cavan would make a push, but of the three favourites at the time - Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan - Donegal were my choice.

"A lot of people fancied Tyrone, but I felt that Donegal would come through from that side of the draw. I know that losing Peter Harte (black-carded in the 11th minute) was a big loss for Tyrone in the semi-final, but I don't think he would have made the difference.

"Donegal were excellent. Shaun Patton's accurate kick-outs and the various match-ups put Tyrone under fierce pressure. Declan Bonner and the rest of the lads got the planning just right and the players carried it out brilliantly, so we know what Cavan are up against. This is a serious Donegal outfit," said King.

Therein rests the dilemma for Mickey Graham and his co-plotters. Does their game-plan major in countering Donegal or should it be based on setting the agenda?

Getting the right balance will be very important against opposition that have lost only four their last 28 Ulster games over nine seasons.

"You can never disregard the opposition's strengths. You're not going to ignore the likes of Michael Murphy and the influence he can have, but you can't build everything around stopping him and a few others without damaging your own game. Mickey (Graham) certainly won't be doing that.

"He has a lot to get right about Donegal, but if Cavan start moving, they will pose problems. They are very good at using the full width of the pitch, keeping the attacks spread as wide as possible and getting the timing right to make the break when the chance arises. Cavan will be offensive as much as they can. And that's the way to go.

"We had enough of the defensive stuff over the last few years. We weren't winning and we weren't being entertained by it, so we had the worst of both worlds. People stopped going to games because of it. It's a lot different under Mickey this year. There was always a natural flair to Cavan football and it's good to see it back again.

"The scores are coming from all over the place (11 players were on target against Armagh in the semi-final replay) so it shows the type of game Cavan are playing. There have plenty leaders in the squad too, lads who will stand up when the going is at its toughest," said King.

A big challenge for Cavan will be how they cope with the gulf in experience, not just in football terms, but also in dealing with the other demands of an Ulster final.

It's all very familiar to Donegal, while being brand new to Cavan, which carries the risk that the occasion might get to them. King disagrees.

"I wouldn't pay any heed to that. They're well used to playing before big crowds this year. Okay, so this will be a full house in Clones, but the basics are the same. I would have no concerns whatsoever on that front. These lads know what they're at," he said.

Draining Perhaps a wider issue is whether the hype in Cavan over recent weeks was emotionally draining for the squad while away from the training environment. They will have done their best to ignore it, but with the entire county on a high, that could not have been easy.

Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone have all won the Ulster title - some of them several times - since Cavan were last successful, so there's a longing in Breffni-land that has touched the entire community.

That won't beat Donegal, but the squad will be making every effort to harness it into something really positive.

As for King, who was on the last Cavan squad that played Donegal in the Ulster final in 1983, he hopes he loses something tomorrow.

"I'll be the happiest person in Cavan if I lose the tag of being the last man to captain the county to an Ulster title. I've had it for far too long. I hope it goes this time."

Irish Independent

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