Graham targets another fairytale victory with all eyes on Ulster

Cavan’s clash with Donegal takes centre stage as Munster and Leinster fail to enthuse

Careful what you wish for. After a month and a half of bellyaching about there being no big ball championship to watch on the telly, football followers will get their fill of it and more this weekend. To say the least, none of it comes with satisfaction guaranteed.

It has come to something when the Ulster final, that unloved beast to the north so readily scorned for years by the snooty types, is suddenly where a nation turns its lonely eyes. Feels awfully like a game that is being set up to fail as a result, to the point where if Donegal and Cavan don't produce a belter tomorrow in Clones, a disproportionate anger will be sent its way.

Should that happen, the Ulster Championship owes apologies to nobody. Without question, it has done its bit for the 2019 summer. Eight games, three upsets, two going to extra-time, one replay. An average winning margin across the championship so far of 5.1 points.

The others, for context – Munster, 8.75; Leinster, 8.8; Connacht 9.5. Exactly half the games in Leinster and Connacht have been double-digit beatings. The only close one in Munster was Clare’s 0-9 to 0-8 win over Waterford.


So no, Donegal and Cavan don't need to blow the roof off the Gerry Arthurs stand tomorrow to make it all worthwhile. That said, it couldn't hurt obviously. Cavan haven't been to an Ulster final since 2001, an 18-year spell in which every other county in the province has played in the showpiece at least once. Should they prevail here, it would clear the decks of everything else.

It would be some achievement for Mickey Graham, the manager who took them over at the tail end of 2018. At the time he said yes, he had a few rounds of the Longford county championship still to play out with Mullinalaghta. Having ridden that fairytale to the anything but obvious conclusion of a Leinster club title, logic says it's too much of a reach to follow it up with Cavan's first Ulster title since 1997.

He said as much himself back in January. Interviewed in The Irish Times the week before the start of the league, Graham painted a grim enough picture of the road ahead for his charges as they headed into a Division One campaign.

“I said to them the first day I spoke to them – there’s no quick fix here. Things aren’t going to happen within six months or 12 months. This is a journey that could take two, three, four years. To create the environment I want, to put the stamp on their set-up that I want, none of it is going to happen overnight.

“It’s a matter of the boys buying into it and seeing the bigger picture. For new lads in to develop as players physically and mentally, it could take a few years so everyone has to realise that. It’s going to be a tough year or two to begin. I firmly believe things will get worse before they get better, unfortunately.”

If Graham was a Kerry man, this would be a yerra going boldly where no yerra had gone before. Exactly six months after he said things weren’t going to happen within six months, they’re in an Ulster final. Whatever happens, Cavan football people have the day out they deserve after all these years.

Decidedly slim

It will have to be enjoyed because the prospects of anything compelling emerging from either the Leinster or Munster finals are decidedly slim. In Kerry this week, it has been difficult to find takers for the trip to Cork tonight. Last year, they went out of curiosity to see the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. This time around, finding the motivation has been a tougher job.

There will be a constituency who go along to back Peter Keane as he looks to win his first cup as Kerry manager. But generally, the fact that it's on RTÉ and the prospect of trying to get out of Cork sometime after nine at night to point the car for home has made the trip a write-off for many.

On the field, Kerry have made four changes to the side that made heavy weather of the Clare game. Out go James O'Donoghue, Adrian Spillane, Gavin Crowley and Shane Enright; in come Dara Moynihan, Jack Barry, Paul Murphy and Gavin White. Cork have made three changes to the team that was announced on Tuesday night – out go Eoghan McSweeney, Thomas Clancy and John O'Rourke; in come Stephen Sherlock, Seán White and Kevin O'Driscoll.

So immune has the Cork v Kerry rivalry become to excitement that few expect the changes to change very much of anything. We can say the same for tomorrow in Croke Park, where Dublin will beat Meath in another Leinster final/turkey shoot.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times