Kevin McStay: Cavan's win shows the value of focused planning
Graham's side now in a beautiful place - a bubble of contentment and momentum
Cavan’s Conor Brady and Thomas Galligan with Kieran Hughes of Monaghan contesting the ball in Breffni Park, Cavan. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The Ulster Championship delivered two cracking games at the weekend based on the unique opportunity that the first round gives team to execute an ambush that was planned in the depths of winter.
Armagh knew they would play Down from last October when the master Championship fixtures were announced: the destiny of their season became tied up in that game. And Cavan had the same knowledge about Monaghan.
You are never again given such a protracted run – a chance to prepare for and fixate upon your opposition for months and months.
Cavan’s approach to their game interested me because it seemed like a situation that was crucial to the evolution of this generation of players. I could see the parallels with Roscommon in 2017, when we were relegated from Division One and knew we would almost certainly play either Mayo or Galway in a Connacht final.
Relegation can leave a squad and management feeling disoriented and just low. Certainly I know we felt terribly lonely and questioned ourselves having had such a drubbing of a league experience.
The way we grounded ourselves was by focusing, from months out, on that one game. And this made me think about how Cavan and Mickey Graham would have planned for what was a splendid, one-off, isolated opportunity to take out Monaghan in Breffni Park.
When Graham and his team sat down to think about this, the first thing they would have looked at is what might be termed the known-knowns.
So: Cavan know they have been relegated, in eighth place, out of Division One. They know also that Monaghan have survived by the skin of their teeth in that same league, And they also know they have lost to Monaghan in that league. But they are content that the margin between the two squads is tight: the score difference in their last four championship games is 1.33 points.
This is the opposite of a mismatch – this is a rivalry defined by inches and minute differences. They hit the post in one of those championship matches that could have won that game. So they know, from the second that the draw is made, that they have a fighter’s chance of coming out on top here. And they know Monaghan know that. So that gives them a focus and a place to work towards from months out.
The league has ended. The dates are made. And now Cavan know they have home advantage and that there is public goodwill behind this team – provided they perform on the day. It’s an occasion to look forward to because they are still outsiders – Monaghan have been an extraordinary force for the past six years.
The underdog has to have a voracious appetite for knowledge and to seek out an edge. That is what gives them an on-the-day-shot at victory. This is not the same as the Sligo-Galway equation, where the gap is just too big.
Also, Cavan’s squad is hearing of Monaghan’s mounting injury crisis. They are happy with their match-ups – they know Padraig Faulkner will take Conor McManus, for instance. They know they can’t foul because of the accuracy of Rory Beggan and McManus from 55 metres in.
They know their fitness has improved dramatically. One of the big things they clearly decided to do was to take the game to Monaghan by exploiting pace and space. The golden rule was to keep the ball out of contact. They would shift the ball over and back until they got a good shooting opportunity either side of the D. So they begin to work on this in practice, night after night.
Mayo came up with an almighty full-field press for the first 20 minutes of the replay, and dismantled us and scored heavily in that period
Midfield would have been identified as a huge challenge for them. But now it looks like they might a serious advantage because Monaghan are down Darren Hughes, who has broken his ankle. This is huge: he is a high octane line-breaker, a force to be reckoned with. Monaghan can ill afford to lose him. Kieran Hughes and Niall Kearns have played zero minutes in the league, but Cavan know that Malachy O’Rourke, Monaghan’s manager, will have to go with one of them.
Neil McAdam and Gavin Doogan are fine players, but aren’t in the mix just now. Fintan Kelly is an outstanding wing back but not really a midfielder. So now Cavan feel they can maybe squeeze things here.
The focus turns to the kickout. In theory Monaghan should elect to go short because Gearoid McKiernan is so strong in the air. Cavan will want to go long for that same reason and make Monaghan contest the middle. All of this was planned for, and yet the game showed that plans can run down blind alleys – you have to be versatile.
It’s the old saying. Everyone has a plan until they are hit in the face. In actuality, Monaghan dominated the long kick out in the first half, and Cavan were forced to go short. It just reinforced how excellent and versatile Monaghan are around the breaking ball. So Cavan had to adjust in real time, and they were able to do so because Raymond Galligan is a very smart goalkeeper. Strangely, Monaghan didn’t push up to force the issue, and gave Cavan the short kickout.
So managers and squads can plan all we want. And I would have felt this was a key metric in this particular game – the possession stats from kickouts. But the balance is a difficult one. Go short and, yes, you will get 90 per cent plus – and maybe the odd catastrophic mistake from a turnover. Go long and those percentages dip to maybe 60 per cent.
For instance, we played Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter final in 2017. In the drawn game our kickout was at 90 per cent. But that was because Mayo gave us the short kickout – and then challenged us to travel 140m with the ball.
So the statistics looked good afterwards. And Mayo then came up with an almighty full-field press for the first 20 minutes of the replay, and dismantled us and scored heavily in that period.
So it’s important to drill deeper as to how and where these kickouts are being won. And what materialised in this Cavan-Monaghan game was that it wasn’t the kickouts that ultimately influenced the outcome – it was the efficiency rate.
Cavan got a justifiable, if arguably soft, penalty in the first half. That utterly changed their mentality
The amount of attacks translated to shots translated to scores: which team was more accurate and efficient decided a Championship match of tight margins.
So how did it pan out? What did the punter learn watching in from over the fence and in the stands?
Well. These are the eternal truths. One is: it’s great to have the luxury of picking from a full, healthy squad. It can be a function of luck and also of a good medical team. That was Graham’s happy position this weekend.
ER on tour
But contrast that with Monaghan’s dilemma: ER on tour. They were falling like flies. And without your best football players, football games become very hard to win. Lose two or three of your best players – and Niall Kearns, remember, was a revelation last year – then you are shifting furniture to make the living room look as good as before the dresser fell apart.
Thirdly, key scores and key moments will, forever and ever, change the dynamic of games. Be they inspired or fortuitous, they change things. Cavan got a justifiable, if arguably soft, penalty in the first half. That utterly changed their mentality and approach. They are seven points up – probably not where they bartered on being. That changes the outlook of both teams and the terms of engagement.
And I felt the game was essentially won in the first half. Monaghan only lost two of their 11 kickouts. Cavan lost four. And yet they went in leading by seven at the break. That flew in the face of statistics. But Monaghan had seven wides to three. And critically, they had four scores from 14 shots on goal.
Cavan had 15 shots and 9 scores – 29 per cent to 60 per cent. Their conversion rate was twice as good. Fatally, Monaghan didn’t score from play in that first half. It was a truth from which they could not hide.
You are talking about having the composure to take the score in these situations deserting even the very best. You can even see a top, top player like McManus beginning to snatch because the team is under pressure, he is being double teamed and Cavan are playing with high energy.
And even though Monaghan made a great, honourable fist of coming back in the second half, they left themselves with too much to do.
After games we all look at statistics and metrics. They can tell the story of a game, and they are very informative and interesting. But they don’t always have the significance that is apportioned to them. Sometimes, the intangibles matter and they can’t be statistically recorded.
We can’t know the depth of Cavan’s hurt from previous disappointments against Monaghan, or the internal need to cement the legacy of their under-21 Ulster winning teams with a serious senior scalp.
I was chatting to Jonathan Bradley, the former Derry player who lectures in this area in Carlow IT and is a new part of the RTÉ Sunday Game team. We were chatting about the St Brigid’s group I was involved in at club level in 2012 and 2013. They were getting fed up of statistical feedback. So we decided we would reduce the season to one basic goal-oriented statistic. What we agreed on, after amendments, was: beat your own first-half score. If you score 0-8 in the first half, then better that in the second. And beat your own first-half total of scores conceded. If you concede 0-6, then concede five or less in the second.
Cavan see themselves differently now, and are thinking of a pathway to an Ulster final and all of the excitement that entails
We played 40 games that year with that goal in mind. And we never once achieved it – or so I thought. A player rang me a few days ago, and said “we achieved it in the All-Ireland final, Kevin”.
And when I checked the score I saw that we did, against Ballymun. That was the first time it happened though. And we won by a single point.
So the point is: what looks like a simple task can be very hard to reach. That goal meant that we kept on playing until the very end. That was a very motivating statistic. And it stood to us that day in 2013.
But whatever about Cavan’s aptitude in the statistical breakdown, only they know the absolute want and hunger that went into the game on Saturday night.
And the ambush was successful. What does that change? Everything. Cavan see themselves differently now, and are thinking of a pathway to an Ulster final and all of the excitement that entails.
And if they get there, think of what that will do for the county. The confidence levels among the younger lads will shoot up.
As Sean Cavanagh said, it was a coming-of-age match for them. They are in a beautiful place in the Championship now – a bubble of contentment and momentum which can only be burst through defeat. Training becomes heightened in energy and application and mood. Cavan’s tradition will come to the fore.
All the planning and preparation and waiting will feel like it was worthwhile.