I think that both Cavan and Tipperary need to bring the spirit of Billy Miske to Croke Park this weekend. Billy Miske was a 1920s-era American boxer whose only knock down came against world champion Jack Dempsey - who threw a punch so hard in their title fight that Miske's chest turned purple for reasons that would be become clear later.
He was a tough Minnesotan who would have probably faded into obscurity but for the unforgettable closing act of his boxing - and actual - life. He was at the peak of his career when he was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, which breaks down the kidneys. But he kept accepting fights even when he was terminally ill and in no fit state to train.
His last fight was against Billy Brennan for the significant sum of $2,400. It would clear off his debts and provide security for his young family. So he came into the ring cold and, miraculously, delivered a knockout punch in the fourth round. He died just two months after that bout, aged 29, on New Year's Day, 1924 but he left this legacy of love and a rare courage to fight.
I feel that the courage to fight has been incredibly evident in this Cavan team all winter. They came into the championship having been relegated to Division Three. And nobody expected anything from them this winter. They were in a precarious position and like Billy Miske they refused to accept the reality of their situation.
Belief is not a continuum. Even Mother Theresa in the end doubted her own religion and her belief system
They were raging underdogs against Monaghan, Down and against Donegal. So their attitude has been underpinned by that mentality. Now, on the football front they have also been very admirable. They have been composed and varied in attack - against Donegal they ran the ball, played it into the corners, played it in front, played it on the diagonal and consistently in on top of the fullback line and hit it in on the goalkeeper.
In defence, they hunted in packs. They ignored the set back of two black cards. There has been quality to their play.
But for me, the key to their success so far has been the psychological mindset they brought. Thomas Galligan epitomised that. He was heroic in the Ulster final. He gave a performance for the ages. I was watching it as a Donegal person but couldn't fail to be drawn to the story that was unfolding - the hits, the high fielding, his relentlessness and courage.
He magnified those qualities that were coursing through the team. That capacity to go somewhere deep inside yourself is often the difference between success and failure - in life and sport. It is not easy to reach that state. But Thomas Galligan did. It was a special thing to witness and I think that is why the Cavan win appealed to so many people around Ireland.
Even now I can recall big turnovers on Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh and a despairing block on Jamie Brennan just before half time when five Cavan men surrounded him. Imagine how they felt leaving the field for the break. Even the goal they scored at the end was down to commitment to the game plan because they kept asking that question with the long ball. And eventually it was punched and fell favourably to Conor Madden and they got their goal.
So that cocktail of pride and identity and will to win and sense of place; the end result will be the overflow of emotion that we saw in the interviews afterwards. That pent up frustration and maybe even anger were exorcised on Ulster final day and that was truly liberating for Cavan.
It showed us why the ‘why’ is so important. You know: why are we here? Why are we doing this? I think having a clear answer to this is important. Cavan knew why they were in that Ulster final. And the years of being written off, including this winter, became a huge impetus. And like Billy Miske, he knew why he was in that ring in a hugely grave and life changing scenario.
That will be difficult for Cavan to replicate this weekend. But I still believe they will go into this challenge in the same frame of mind. Mickey Graham has been sensational in this campaign because he has relieved the team of all pressures.
The Croke Park issue underlined that. His message was: playing there is no problem. There are no excuses. Watch how he marshalled the line and his behaviour during the water breaks. He is in the middle of the group and the first thing he does is say something funny and he is laughing with his players. He knows this is huge but he is focusing on the simplicity and enjoyment: we are going to go after this and see where it takes us.
It would be easy to be star struck facing this Dublin team in an All-Ireland semi-final but I would be very surprised if they don’t bring that same bloody minded approach that has served them so well. Mickey Graham is smart and intelligent. He knows how to press and will ask questions. They are good in possession and won’t give the ball away cheaply. And the more they do that the more they eat into the clock.
The variety of attacks is important. They don’t have a marquee player like Seanie Johnston now so they must have variety. And that’s a strength. If a team is predictable against Dublin, it is over after twenty five minutes. Dublin can identify those threats early and shut them down so variety is crucial.
So can they deliver the same pressure on Dublin that they achieved against Donegal? That is a big question. In all their Ulster games, they got hits in and softened opponents up and were able to double and triple team the ball carrier. That laid the foundation for their successes. That is going to be harder to do against Dublin - and in Croke Park. Cavan will be all about energy and positivity.
Don’t forget they were supposed to get beaten by 10 points by Donegal, never mind Dublin. Don’t forget you could get them at 6/1 for the Ulster final. And they didn’t steal it. They won it over 70 hard earned, thought out minutes. They will stick to the script on Saturday evening.
Now: the occasion supersedes their belief system? That is another big question. My gut is telling me no. The lack of crowds has helped and will continue to help the challenging teams. If Donegal had been playing in front of 40,000 fans for a three in a row Ulster championship that is a different scenario. Then it is more difficult for Mickey to say: let’s enjoy this.
Tipperary have also been on a crazy journey. Like Cavan, they have a manager who has instilled a real sense of belief and cause within the squad. David Power says this season was 15 years in the making. They wanted to make their mark at senior level after bringing the minor team to success in 2011. And they went about their business very calmly and purposefully. There is no trick to them. They set up traditionally with six defenders and a zonal set up. Evan Comerford goes long on most of his kick outs and he trusts his midfielders. Their full backs like to defend and the half backs go forward. But the belief system is also the most important thing with them.
Whereas Cavan dragged Donegal into somewhere primal, Tipperary simply played Cork in a game of football and they were good enough to win it. So I feel Tipperary can feel entitled to look Mayo in the eye and take them on and ask those questions.
But to get to the final I think they will have to go to that place Cavan reached in Ulster, particularly against Donegal.
How do you do that? For me, one of the most important things is to be reflective and think about the why. When they take the field against Mayo on Sunday, will they have a clear understanding of why they find themselves there in Croke Park?
That is where the manager comes in because he dictates the team meetings and training environment and the culture within the group and if that is linked to a powerful emotional cause, it can bring a team to new places.
That is why there were tears after both the Ulster and Munster finals . Cavan and Tipperary had crested something they were committed to but they understood why they were committed to it. It was as if winning the game was a by-product. It is about being true to yourself and standing up and putting past wrongs right and silencing people that laughed at you for decades. Connecting with all of that can be very powerful and emotive.
So now, having come so far, both Tipperary and Cavan have to show that illogical courage and keep on going. Tipp have to fight for this opportunity. They must take it now. They have to scrap for every ball and kick out and really confront Mayo. And that is not easy because semi-finals are tantalizing: you are within touching distance but you are also a million miles away. And the nerves are heightened.
Belief is not a continuum. Even Mother Theresa in the end doubted her own religion and her belief system. It is natural to do that. So overcoming those doubts is not easy. Paradoxically, that is what makes winning so special.
It is hard to see Cavan conjuring another lightning strike sufficient to knock down a team that seems to be out on their own. But Tipperary have a strong chance of extending their role in this marvellous championship.
Winning these moments takes heart and guts and that clarity of reasoning that Billy Miske had. When the dust settled he only had two months left with his family but he left them with this incredible value system.
Cavan and Tipp’ have a huge family behind them that are incredibly proud of them. And to think that a team that finished fifth in division three could appear in a Christmas All-Ireland final is all the more amazing for being a real possibility.