Saturday 25 January 2020

Peter Canavan: Time running out for Cavan to deliver on U-21 triumphs

This should be Breffni men's time but they are in danger of blowing the talent they developed

It was a tight affair when Monaghan and Cavan met in the league and their Ulster SFC clash this weekend is likely to be similarly hard-fought. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
It was a tight affair when Monaghan and Cavan met in the league and their Ulster SFC clash this weekend is likely to be similarly hard-fought. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

They should be at their peak around now. Looking at those Cavan teams that won four Ulster U-21 titles on the bounce, this should really be their time.

If you were 21 when they won their first provincial crown in 2011, you'd be 27 this year. And if you were just out of minor when they won the fourth one in succession, you'd be 22.

I know first hand how hard it is to win one Ulster crown - so winning four is something remarkable. So plenty of these Cavan players have come from winning teams and are in their natural peak years for football.

And still, they have yet to land a blow in Ulster.

In the last few seasons they have come close. Last year, they brought Tyrone to a replay; 12 months before that they went down to Monaghan by just a point.

But they'll know it's time they took the extra step and actually beat some of the top teams in the province, because the chances to turn underage success into senior silverware slip away like sand through your fingers.

And they are in danger of blowing the talent they worked so hard to bring through across those four winning sides.

They have been unfortunate in some ways. Cavan have come along at a time when Monaghan, Donegal and Tyrone are all considered strong not just in Ulster but on the national stage.

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They also missed out on some of Seanie Johnston's best years. There's no point in revisiting that whole episode, but having a player of his calibre could have meant so much to a team trying to find its feet at senior level over the last few seasons.

They have plenty of good players alright, but I'm not sure they ever had someone to replace what he could have given them. He's back with them now, however, and I'm expecting them to go close against Monaghan on Sunday afternoon.

People will point to Cavan's relegation from Division 1 and say Monaghan looked comfortable in the top tier as a guide as to how Sunday will go, but the Breffni men still delivered some good performances.

Drawing with Kerry shows how competitive they can be in Kingspan Breffni Park. Getting over Mayo in Castlebar shows they can deliver big results when things fall right for them. So there's encouragement there for manager Mattie McGleenan.

When these two sides met in the League, it turned into an arm-wrestle. They scored only 14 points between them in Castleblayney that day, and I think Sunday will be similarly claustrophobic.

Cavan got some joy that day and largely frustrated Monaghan. And they'll know that if they turn it into a shootout, they won't be able to live with Conor McManus, Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron. So it's just not in Cavan's interest to play an expansive game.

That said, they have some players who can hurt Monaghan. Dara McVeety looks much improved this year. Cian Mackey's return to the squad is important too as he is an elusive player who can unlock defences.

Monaghan have issues of their own. There might have been a time where an Ulster title was their horizon but I think that has changed for the county now.

I think they realise that the likes of a Conor McManus doesn't come around every generation and when you have that sort of talent you have to make hay.

They are as good as anyone when it comes to Ulster football but when Donegal and Tyrone get to Croke Park, they play like they expect to win, but for some reason the place has tripped Monaghan up over the last few years.

I'd have them right up there in terms of the best teams in the country. Perhaps they are slightly behind the likes of Kerry and Dublin but they are still a side that no-one will want to meet come August.

Getting past the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, where they have failed a few times now, must be their goal.

I expect Monaghan to take another step towards a long summer this weekend but I still think Cavan will give them their fill. The Farney men can expect to encounter a very united Cavan side after tragedy visited their dressing-room last week.

When McGleenan was given the Cavan job, he took some of the best of Tyrone with him to make up his backroom team. Among them was Dominic Earley, who sadly died in a road accident last weekend.

I knew Dominic well, having worked with him with the Tyrone U-21s last year. He was charming and enthusiastic and worked tirelessly in his chosen field of performance analysis. He had spent time with West Brom, Fulham and the Tyrone seniors to help him master his craft.

He remained devoted to his club Tattyreagh and was a massive Real Madrid fan. A few hours after Dominic died, they won the Champions League final.

His was a terrible loss to his family and girlfriend Maria. And it is in times like this you see the best of the GAA. The Cavan team landed en masse up to his removal last Monday in their gear.

It was clear that Dominic had a great influence on them in the few months he got to spend with them. That spoke volumes about the person he was and I'm sure he'll be at the forefront of their minds when they run out on Sunday.

In Tyrone we've had too much experience of dealing with grief and how football can be both a welcome distraction and utterly irrelevant all at once. All I can say is how you manage it is very much a personal thing, everyone will deal with differently but it can get on top of you if you let it.

Cavan will have to try manage that and honour Dominic with a big performance.

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