Cavan and Tipperary brought back down to earth after 2020 heroics

Last year’s Ulster and Munster champions have both faced rude awakenings in 2021

Everyone knew there would be a comedown for Cavan and Tipperary. Those golden hours on November 22nd last year when they gave the 2020 championship its best stories were never going to be the new reality. Nobody looked at the newly-minted Ulster and Munster champions and saw the next wave of challengers to the Dubs.

But equally, nobody imagined it would go this bad this quickly. Sliding back down the snake is one thing. Tumbling all the way to the bottom row of the board is another. They both went from an All-Ireland semi-final to Division Four football in the time it takes to let up a decent growth of beard.

They have set records in doing so. The league has been split into four graduated divisions for 14 seasons at this stage. In the first 13 of them, while it wasn’t unheard-of for reigning provincial champions to make a mess of the league the following spring, it was still pretty rare for things to go so badly that they’d fall through the trapdoor to the division below them.

It happened to Sligo in 2008 when they went from Division Three to Four on the back of their 2007 Connacht success. Both Tyrone in 2010 and Donegal in 2013 followed up an Ulster title - and in Donegal’s case, an All-Ireland - with an immediate visit to Division Two. But those were the exceptions.


Of the 52 provincial champions through those years, 49 either stayed in their existing division in the subsequent league or used it as a springboard for immediate promotion. This is the first year that two reigning provincial champions have been relegated.

If either of them lose today, it will be the first time provincial champions have been relegated and lost their championship opener in 16 years. Back then Westmeath dropped out of the old Division 1A just a few weeks before being beaten by Kildare in Leinster. They at least had a few weeks of qualifiers to salve the wound - for Cavan and Tipperary, the road ends here unless one of them pulls off an upset.

Unpretty pass

This is a Kris Kristofferson comedown. No way to hold their heads that doesn’t hurt. So how did things get to such an unpretty pass?

Well, the first thing that should be pointed out is that the 2021 league was unique onto itself. Three group games and a do-or-die play-off is a completely different animal to the normal seven-game schedule. In Cavan’s case especially, it’s highly unlikely they would have been relegated from a regular eight-team Division Three.

With everything squeezed and compacted, the margins between success and failure were wafer thin this year. Five minutes into injury-time in the last round of games, Longford were beating Fermanagh in Enniskillen by a point. If it had finished that way, both sides would have ended level with Cavan on two points but a superior points difference would have meant Mickey Graham’s side finishing second.

Instead, the flap of a butterfly’s wings - or in this case, the flick of a Sean Quigley fist - grabbed Fermanagh a draw. So rather than a promotion play-off against Offaly and the carrot of Division Two football next year, Cavan found themselves heading to Navan to play Wicklow to stay out of Division Four. They never got to the pitch of it, Wicklow scored three goals and were much better than them on the day and so here they are.

While it’s true that the Cavan of last year’s Ulster campaign haven’t shown themselves, the league wasn’t all bad. Graham made a conscious effort to expand his squad and so he rarely put out a full-strength team. Even so, they were comfortable winners over Longford, lost to Fermanagh by a point and gave an obviously going-places Derry side their best game of the league.

They have unearthed a promising young corner-back in Cian Reilly and a plausible bolter in attack in Patrick Lynch. The stylish Conor Moynagh has returned from his travels having missed out on last year and will almost certainly take up position at the heart of the defence this afternoon. The big loss has been Ciaran ‘The Holla’ Brady, their stalwart centre-back who did his cruciate against Longford. But otherwise they have a fairly clean bill of health.

Will it be enough this afternoon? You’d have to imagine probably not. Cavan haven’t beaten Tyrone in league or championship since 1983 so even in the best of circumstances they’d be sizeable underdogs in this fixture. Whatever happens though, Cavan will dust themselves down and go again. Football is always the dominant strain in the county. A trip to Division Four won’t vaccinate against it.

Tipperary’s situation is more severe. For a start, they have lost a host of last year’s Munster final heroes. Colin O’Riordan was back in Sydney by Christmas week. Liam Casey had been planning on going travelling in 2020 and only stayed behind because Covid kept him here - once he could get out, he hit the road. Philip Austin has retired, Alan Campbell has moved to New York for work.

Goalkeeper Evan Comerford has picked up an injury, ditto half-back dynamos Bill Maher and Robbie Kiely. Former Dublin All-Ireland winner Philly Ryan showed well in his first few games but got hurt against Longford and is sidelined now as well. In all, they’re missing probably seven starters for the Kerry game tonight.

Dead duck

If Cavan could make arguments - however spurious - for their league, Tipperary’s campaign was a fairly dead duck wherever you looked. Limerick owed them for last year’s championship defeat and clawed out a one-point win in the Gaelic Grounds. They had a goal to spare over Wicklow but Offaly and Longford both beat them pulling up.

Relegation to Division Four is a disaster for David Power’s side in a way it likely won’t be for Cavan. In Tipperary, the need to hang onto footballers is constant, as is the threat of losing the best ones to the hurlers.

John Meagher is a potential captain of the footballers but he has been on the fringes of Liam Sheedy’s panel for the past two seasons. The promising young dual player Conor Bowe could well have a decision to make at some stage in the near future. It’s so much harder to make the argument for staying with the footballers when all you’re holding in your hand is the slog of trying to get out of Division Four.

In so many ways, the planets aligned for both Cavan and Tipperary last year, creating the circumstances for provincial title wins that just wouldn’t have existed in other years. But by the same token, the aftermath has been unique and not particularly helpful.

Both teams have only had access to their respective cups for the past month. They still don’t have their medals. They’ve never had the chance to celebrate properly, to give their achievements the blow-out they deserved and to then draw a line under it all. They got their day of days, followed by a good beating in the All-Ireland semi-final, followed by a winter of plague. It was as if the whole thing had happened in a dream.

Little wonder then that spring has brought such a rude awakening.