Tuesday 22 October 2019

'It has taken a while' - Cavan finally delivering on potential after Ulster U21 dominance


Manager Mickey Graham addresses the Cavan players following their Ulster SFC semi-final replay victory over Armagh last Sunday week. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Manager Mickey Graham addresses the Cavan players following their Ulster SFC semi-final replay victory over Armagh last Sunday week. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Midway through the 2014 All-Ireland U-21 semi-final in Portlaoise, Cavan held, what felt like, a commanding four-point lead over a Dublin side stacked with players who would become household names.

It was their fourth successive semi-final and they looked primed for a second final, having lost to Galway three years earlier.

But Dublin were patient and controlled and, even with Ciarán Kilkenny sidelined with a cruciate ligament injury that year, they found a way back into the game. A point ahead, they ran down the clock in a manner that has become much more familiar in the intervening years.

This weekend Brian Fenton, Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, Niall Scully, John Small, Davy Byrne and Eric Lowndes will join Kilkenny as Dublin take the next step, a ninth successive provincial title, on their way to an elusive five successive All-Ireland titles.

Cavan don't have as many survivors from that semi-final as they line up against Donegal in the county's first Ulster final in 18 years in Clones this Sunday.

Looking back now at where they found themselves five years ago, against some of the pillar names in the game, it again prompts the question as to why it has taken so long for Cavan to bridge that gap since their previous provincial final appearance.

Such correlation never works in straight lines but still, this was an exceptional Dublin team, as time would prove and to be that close suggested much more was to come quickly for the Breffni County.

"It has taken a while," concedes former player and coach Anthony Forde, who was part of panels that featured in Cavan's last three Ulster senior final appearances in 1995, '97 and 2001.

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For four years, 2011 to 2014, Cavan teams dominated the Ulster U-21 Championship, winning 13 games. Defence was their speciality. In 13 games, the average concession was nine points. They kept seven clean sheets, no Ulster opponent scored more than one goal against them in any game and the most they shipped in any game was the 1-12 conceded to Monaghan in the 2013 Ulster semi-final.

But the expected kick-on has been slow to materialise and while league performance improved - Division 3 to 1 between 2014 and 2016 - there was frustration as they watched players they had bettered at U-21 level, thriving in the senior grade.

"If you look at the Tyrone team we beat in the 2011 Ulster U-21 final," recalls Forde, "they would have been All-Ireland minor winners with the corresponding team three years earlier. I think I counted seven or eight of their panel had some role in last year's All-Ireland final against Dublin. When I looked at our panel, we weren't bringing as many through."

In their last two Ulster finals, they beat Donegal teams populated by players like Ryan and Eoin McHugh, Patrick McBrearty and Hugh McFadden who will all fill influential opposing roles this weekend.

Most challenging has been the lack of quality forwards making the step up, though Forde is quick to point out that when they were promoted in 2016, they were the highest scoring team in the top three divisions.

Forde draws on his own experience as a young player to appreciate that if a senior breakthrough doesn't happen quickly, after underage success, it can become a drain on players.

"There is a lot of expectation in Cavan and it sometimes does weigh heavily on a young group if you don't make that breakthrough quickly afterwards. We were probably lucky enough in 1995 to get to an Ulster U-21 and senior final, win an Ulster U-21 in '96 and an Ulster title the year after.

"If you don't have good success immediately afterwards, things can go stale. There has been a few changeovers in management and it's no coincidence that you have Mickey Graham and Dermot McCabe involved. They have put a lot of these players through their hands which is of huge benefit in general."

From the team that featured against Armagh the last day, Killian Clarke, Pádraig Faulkner, Jason McLoughlin, Niall Murray, Conor Moynagh, Dara McVeety, Gearóid McKiernan, Conor Madden and Jack Brady all played some part in the four-in-a-row, while Chris Conroy, Gerry Smith, Paul Graham and Ciarán Brady are on the panel.

Madden and Brady are out-and-out forwards, but the versatile McVeety has been tailored for a very effective role in the full-forward line, leading to some rich compliments from Forde.

"He would be in the top-five footballers in the country at the moment in my view. He's a great example, he wasn't a first-choice minor or U-21 when he came in, but he had an unbelievable willingness to learn and listen. The one thing that struck you about him was his attitude, no matter how many times he suffered setbacks, he came back fighting the next day.

"When the game was at its greatest need the last day, he was the one who stepped up, who made a big score when we really needed it.

"He wasn't the only one, Conor (Moynagh), Killian (Clarke), Gearóid (McKiernan) all did it, but Dara was in the line of fire from Armagh as much as any player on the pitch and yet he was able to do that. It's testament to how Cavan are playing, there is no fear."

For Forde, the enjoyment of this week's build-up has been worth the wait.

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