Ulster the priority for Mickey Graham and his Cavan champions

‘We do take the league seriously but the championship is where it is at’

As the Cavan manager who delivered a stunning coup last winter and brought home the Anglo Celt trophy for the first in 23 years, what Mickey Graham has to say about the league probably won’t surprise anyone.

His county’s impact in the past two championships has been impressive. Two years ago they reached the Ulster final for the first time since 2001 and then in the bleakness of last winter’s championship they overcame champions Donegal after a campaign of barely credible cliff-hangers.

While these signal achievements were taking place the county slid from Division One to Division Four in successive seasons landing with thud in the basement last month after a mortifying defeat in Wicklow.

In case his priorities need clarifying, Graham spells it out.


“I suppose I said from day one the Ulster championship and championship football is what it is all about. The league is important; of course it is. It is important to be playing against better teams on a regular basis because that is where you will learn more about yourself but Cavan traditionally have always been an Ulster championship team.

“Their league titles tell the story of how Cavan approached the league for decades. We do take the league seriously but the championship is where it is at and that is where you will get judged on in terms of big performances against top teams. The league does have its importance but championship would be Cavan’s big aim.”

The historical point is well made. Cavan have won the league title just once - in 1948. Maybe it was significant for coming in between two All-Ireland titles and so emphasising their dominion but for a county which effectively ruled football for 20 years, winning five Sam Maguires between 1933 and 52, their take-up of available leagues was paltry.

Honouring that legacy is all very well but tumbling all the way down the divisions was surely taking it too far.

“What’s done is done now. There’s no point in looking back and feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to park it up. We would have reviewed it, seen what worked, what didn’t and then draw a line under it and see where we need to get to for the next challenge, which is the championship.

“As I said, you can’t change the past now and we have to look forward.”

This week, looking forward can stretch no farther than Saturday when they head to Omagh to take on Tyrone. This has been an unforgiving fixture for Cavan, who last won it nearly 40 years ago in 1983 - since when the counties have met eight times.

Tyrone’s league ended badly as well down in Killarney where Kerry put six goals past them. Coming into this weekend that defeat is what they see in their rear-view mirror. Graham isn’t however inclined to see that misfortune as something that his team can exploit.

“No I don’t think so. It was one of those games that anything that could go wrong for Tyrone did. Kerry are very good. They’re like Dublin; they’ll punish you for any little mistake you make and that’s exactly what happened. But before that, Tyrone were really impressive in all their games.”

Having been short players during the league, the Cavan manager has a relatively clean bill of health for Saturday. Ciarán Brady, who was very close to an All Star last year at wing back, is the one long-term injury whereas James Smith is touch-and-go.

“Ciarán has probably been one of our most consistent players over the last two years. He had been a real driving force for us. He is a huge loss. He was playing really well and just his presence around the place was huge.”

For a second year there are no football qualifiers. Championship is like Russian roulette with a bullet for somebody every day. They thrived in the format last year, winning matches in improbable situations - eight down at half-time against Down and yet this looks daunting.

Graham is sufficiently cold-minded to know that his team don’t need the prompt of a disastrous league campaign to want to win in Omagh.

“More so for ourselves,” he says, “after the disappointment. We need to look at ourselves and what went wrong and what we need to do to improve. You always take more ‘learnings’ from a defeat than you do from a win. While winning brings confidence, defeats bring lessons.

“We have to learn very quickly because we have to get ready to play Tyrone and we’re under no illusions about the task in hand up in Omagh. Our record there is very poor so we have to focus on us and try to fix our game before starting to focus on Tyrone because we’ve a lot of things we need to get right before we even head up there.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times