Derry qualifier represents massive opportunity for an improving Cavan
Terry Hyland’s charges enjoying best summer for many years
Killian Clarke (left) will be a key man for cavan in tomorrow’s round three qualifier against Derry. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Cavan and Derry haven’t met in championship for nine years but for Cavan tomorrow’s round three qualifier is a massive opportunity. They are outsiders but with the winners due to face the defeated team in Sunday’s Connacht final, between 500 to 1 on favourites Mayo and London, the road to next month’s All-Ireland quarter-finals opens up for whoever emerges.
Under manager Terry Hyland, Cavan are enjoying their best summer since 2005. This weekend is their fifth match and despite a narrow and controversial defeat to Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final the county has made good progress in a year when an under-21 provincial three-in-a-row was completed.
Playing Derry brings back happy memories for Cavan football, as they were the opponents when the latter last won the Ulster title 16 years ago.
To date the county has given some eye-catching displays, thrashing Armagh in Ulster before beating Fermanagh away and having to repeat the dose albeit at home last week.
Martin Dunne has been one of the highest-profile forwards of the championship to date and the team has gained momentum, according to Peter Reilly, who played in 1997 and is manager of the county under-21s.
“I’ve been very, very happy. The first day against Armagh was a good performance even though people went on about how Armagh weren’t set up properly.
“The last day against Fermanagh was also going to be difficult considering what happened between Derry and Down (Derry overturned a championship defeat in the qualifiers).
“It’s all about winning and a run of wins builds confidence and improves teams, just as losing drives teams in the opposite direction. Irrespective of the result this weekend this has been a good year. For far too long we were easily beaten and got turned over far too easily. Being competitive is progress.
“The biggest surprise for me was how well we beat Armagh even though they left themselves open.
“Fermanagh was an achievable draw and we were always in with a shout of beating Monaghan. It was very tight and they won by a point but it could just as easily have been us winning by a point.”
That in the Ulster semi-final was marked by controversy at the end when goalkeeper Rory Beggan, under pressure from Cavan forwards, clearly fouled the ball but no free was given. Reilly says that the setback was handled impressively.
“In fairness to Terry Hyland he went away and said nothing. Monaghan deserved a penalty earlier in the game so you just get on with it.”
Ulster remains by a distance the most fiercely contested provincial championship, as well as containing the All-Ireland champions. Reilly isn’t impressed by arguments that the standard in the province has deteriorated.
“Compared to the others it’s the only one that’s completely competitive. There are complaints about the quality of the football but sometimes people look back through rose-tinted glasses. There were plenty of games in earlier years that were very ordinary. Whatever the opinions, in most cases you don’t know who’s going to win the game.”
The opening win against Armagh was controversial in that Cavan played the now conventional defensive configuration whereas Armagh set up in more traditional terms. He doesn’t have any sympathy with complaints about the new realities.
“Football is results driven. There’s no point is saying you played well if you got beaten out the gate. An awful lot of teams are set up that way and if you’re not, they’ll hit you on the break the way we did against Armagh.
“People say, ‘Cork and Kerry play differently’; they don’t. Even Dublin will have their 10 and 12 back defending.”
Did he think back in 1997 that Cavan would still be waiting for another Ulster title?
“The simple answer is probably no, but that’s because I didn’t really think much about it at all. It’s irrelevant now – history. The focus now is that whatever we do, in 16 years’ time when we look back we’ll hope to have added a couple of Ulster championships.”
In the meantime the possibilities are there for what could turn out to be the county’s best championship since.