JACK MADDEN: The Tailteann race is hotting up

TWO years ago, Rod Stewart was invited to partake in the Scottish Cup fifth-round draw. Stewart himself claims to be an avid Celtic supporter. Avid Celtic supporters don’t overly claim Stewart. The 11th January 2021 was one of several indicators as to why.

There aren’t too many members of the Green Brigade that are invited onto live television. In the unlikely scenario that it were to happen, you could be fairly safe in the assumption they wouldn’t don a leopard print scarf.

Celtic Football Club is the blood of the working class community of Glasgow’s east end. Rod Stewart lives a life of fame and luxury. The more he tries, the more he pushes himself away. There is no connection here. You are not one of us.

Maybe realisation is what drove him to the drink that morning. Maybe it was an attempt at redrawing the boundaries of an irreparable relationship. Whatever the rationale, it was theatrical. It was egotistical and manic. Above all it was funny, and it drew unfathomable attention to the measly, dour, old Scottish Cup draw.

It’s a shame he wasn’t around for the Tailteann draw on Monday morning, but maybe Morning Ireland are saving himself and Donal Óg for the semis. Even in his intoxicated state of devilment, he couldn’t have pulled a more mischievous draw for Cavan and Down. It was painfully inevitable.

Cavan, unsurprisingly, remain favourites for the tournament. The last 18 months and the introduction of this competition has strengthened Mickey Graham’s hand. No matter what the standard, it is impossible to top winning games. The Cavan squad is undoubtedly a happy place to be right now. The likes of Dara McVeety wouldn’t have returned to the panel otherwise.

In the league last year, they won seven of their eight fixtures. This year operating at a higher level, they won six out of eight, taking home another title in the process. Since the beginning of 2022, in league and championship, Cavan have played 26 games. They have won 20 of them. For the maths gurus, that’s a win rate of almost 77 per cent.

In the same time frame, Armagh for example have won 11 of their 24 competitive matches, or just shy of 46 per cent. Yes, many of those matches were at a higher level, but the past 18 months includes a run to an Ulster final, as well as a much-lauded Division One campaign in 2022.

Armagh don’t require the same development as Cavan do, but if Graham’s men were to follow through on the bookies’ verdict, next year would be a truly make-or-break year for the man at the helm. Another medal in the bag, a guaranteed spot in the race for Sam, a seasoned campaign in Division Two, and the gap closing on their Ulster rivals.

All of which virtually makes this Tailteann Cup success a necessity. Failure to win and Cavan have failed to make real, significant progress. The second tier next year will be insanely competitive as it always is. Sligo’s Connacht run was enough to demote Meath to the secondary competition. Kildare and Cork, two capable teams, were lucky.

Failure to secure a top half finish in Division Two leaves you sweating, as you face into an Ulster Championship campaign where you may well need to make the decider to join the race for Sam. But that may be the case too for any of Fermanagh, Down, Antrim, possibly even Armagh and Donegal. It’s a minefield.

Which brings us back to this weekend. Down will come to Kingspan Breffni as underdogs, and they will be quite content with that. Conor Laverty’s charges are in not too dissimilar a position to Cavan last year. They have grown into this campaign, they can see the reward. They have bought into the competition, and they will believe with every fibre of their being that they can win this thing.

The 16 wides against Meath were unforgivable, moreover when the Mournemen only registered 10 scores. The much-heralded Odhrán Murdock will look to pose problems, especially after being held scoreless, including a penalty miss, against Longford last weekend.

Enda McGinley made his appreciation of Ross Carr clear on The Sunday Game highlights show, while Pat Havern has been quietly racking up a tidy return in each of his appearances to date.

It is at the other end Down will face their biggest test of the season. Paddy Lynch has yet to fully catch fire this campaign, but there is no doubting his supreme talent. Crosserlough clubmate Brandon Boylan accounted for 2-2 from play the last day out against Offaly, and the 2020 Ulster champions have had an extra week’s rest.

Paul Fitzpatrick of the Anglo-Celt has realised a recent trend however, one which Laverty’s men will be keen to exploit. The comprehensive victory over the Faithful County was the fifth time in ten matches that Cavan have conceded a goal in the opening 10 minutes, leaking five goals in their three Tailteann Cup group matches.

Killian Clarke made the move from corner-back to midfield against Offaly, and it will be interesting to see if he reverts back to his more orthodox position. Jason McLoughlin, a stalwart in the Breffni full-back line, has yet to play a minute in the 2023 Tailteann Cup, having impressed in the league final win over Fermanagh in particular.

Down have scored goals in all of their Tailteann matches this year, and if they can take a scalp here, they may well carry the burden of that favourites’ tag. Both sides have shown faith in their panels, and that may well be what it boils down to.

It promises to be a fairly open game, but Cavan should be better equipped to control it at the key stages. Graham’s men are a little further down the line, and that should be enough to squeak it.

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