Breffni breakthrough: A look back at Cavan’s u-21 dominance

It’s a decade since Cavan completed their four-in-a-row of Ulster u-21 titles. Jack Brady looks back on how it impacted the county’s fortunes. Michael McMullan writes…

MICKEY Graham, Dermot McCabe, Peter, Larry and Jason Reilly came within a late rally of the 1996 All-Ireland u-21 title.

Graham’s goal levelled matters in Tom Semple’s field before the Kingdom – with nine future senior winners on board – manoeuvred to a 1-17 to 2-10 win.

Cavan were Ulster senior champions 12 months later. It was the Breffni blues’ last glimpse of silver until 2011 when an u-21 group ended the famine.

But it was more than that. It was the first of four Ulster titles at the grade in as many seasons with a core of players going on to backbone the 2020 senior team – under Graham – who got their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup.

Jack Brady scored 0-11 across the three u-21 finals he played in. Still in search of another Cavan title with Ramor United, he is currently involved with the county minors having spent a year coaching at u-20 level.

He is well placed to delve back into the Cavan journey. Earlier in his coaching pathway he was also a selector when his father John was minor manager.

It was the sizzling David Clifford’s 1-10 that doused their 2017 All-Ireland hopes before the Kingdom ace ripped Derry apart in the decider.

Ask Jack Brady what changed in the county to get them climbing and he points back to development squads in the ‘noughties.’

Under the watchful eyes of Shaun Doherty and Nicholas Walsh, they experienced strength and conditioning before it was the buzz word that dominates the current landscape.

At club level, Cavan players wouldn’t have lifted a weight. Inside the Breffni camp, they embraced change.

“It was how to apply ourselves and take it to the next level, something we would never really have seen before,” Brady recalls.

For two years under Graham at minor level, the theme continued. There was huge emphasis in treating the Cavan jersey with respect, tinged with a mantra of giving their all.

Success was sparse but the key players would show enough shoots of hope. Mixed with the stars from the other age groups, a core of u-21 players started to form.

Jim McGuinness managed a Donegal team that ousted Cavan in the 2010 u-21 final before being the width of a crossbar away from being All-Ireland champions as Michael Murphy’s injury time penalty rebounded away against Dublin.

Cavan came back the following year. It was Tyrone in the final. The decisive moment was Niall Murray tucking the ball under Niall Morgan for the game’s only goal.

BIG STEP…Cavan’s win over Tyrone in the 2011 u-21 final was pivotal to their run of success

“In the first year we won it, there was Gearóid McKiernan, Niall Murray, big players like that,” Brady said, pointing to their leaders.

“Below that, we had Kevin Tierney, Barry Reilly and Michael Brady, good leaders like that, Packie Leddy and Paddy King from Killashandra.”

In Brady’s final year, 2013, he highlights Fergal Flanagan, Conor Moynagh and Chris Conroy among the core.

The following year, Killian Clarke and Padraig Faulkner stepped up to lead the group. A team was forming with a small enough yearly turnaround leaving it seamless.

“There was a core of six or seven lads at every age and when you put that together at u-21 level, it was a good balance,” Brady said.

Hyland (pictured above) managed the 2011 and 2012 winning teams before stepping into the senior post after Val Andrews resigned with Peter Reilly taking over as u-21 boss.

“Terry had the same sort of take on things as Mickey,” Brady points out.

There was a step up in professionalism. There was an attitude of club form meaning nothing. It was all about what a player could offer Cavan. A club team bond almost and the players lapped it up.

“We didn’t get the goal we wanted. we wanted to win an All-Ireland,” Brady said of the regret at not going the distance.

Cavan reached the 2011 All-Ireland final but didn’t perform.

It was a cracking Galway team but Cavan carry the regret of not leaving everything out on the grass.

Not doing yourself justice always hurts.

The following year, Kevin Tierney’s goal had them on the pig’s back against Roscommon before they missed chances to pull further away.

“We thought we were in for a handy day and took our foot off the pedal,” Brady recalls of the day when they only registered 2-2 in a five-point defeat.

Cavan missed a late chance to take Cork to extra-time in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final before being edged out by Dublin the following year. It was a Dublin team that included Jack McCaffrey, John Small, Cormac Costello, Niall Scully, Paul Mannion and Brian Fenton.

When Cavan were crowned Ulster champions in 2020, eight players came from their all-conquering era at u-21 level.

Killian Clarke, Killian Brady, Ciarán Brady, Jason McLoughlin, Gearóid McKiernan, Niall Murray, Gerry Smith and Padraig Faulkner.

Others, including Jack Brady, went on to represent the county at senior level.

“People often say lads haven’t pushed on or fulfilled the potential in the senior jersey for Cavan,” said Brady.

He admits there be some mileage in the theory but caveats it with coming into a senior team in Division Three and helping the county back to the top flight.

There was a fall to Division Four in 2022 but the county are now nipping at the heels of the top teams in the country.

“It is the lads from the u-21s who have driven the thing on and have been the spine of the team,” said Brady.

He hails the work of the managers who led the charge – Graham, Hyland and Peter Reilly.

“Joe McCarthy, God rest him, did great work with us too and brought a statistical and analytical side we never thought was even necessary,” added Brady.

Kingscourt stalwart McCarthy sadly passed away in 2016, a well respected and knowledgeable football man taken far too soon.

There wasn’t a player in Ireland he didn’t know. He’d arm the Cavan players with all the key opposition mannerisms. From a player’s positioning, to their kicking leg to how they’d turn onto the ball.

Brady scored 0-4 points in the 2011 final against Ryan Pickering who had captained Tyrone to the minor title three years earlier.

McCarthy did his due diligence on Pickering and discovered his pace on the run and offered Brady some advice.

MAJOR INPUT…The late Joe McCarthy, pictured right with Peter Reilly, played a central role with Cavan

“Joe told me if I made two or three runs, he was going to struggle to keep his bearings but if you made one long run, he is quick and tenacious so he will have you gobbled up.

McCarthy was bang on “99 per cent of the time” and it fed into a psyche that Cavan had more than the advantage knowledge would bring. It eased the mind, with a belief they were primed for anything.

“When you couple that with the game plays that Peter Donnelly and Peter Reilly and Terry would have us doing at training, we were so well prepared and training was to relatable to games.

The preparation was ahead of its time. Cavan knew how to beat a blanket defence with the same efficiency as they could employ it at the other end for their own benefit.

The geographical location of opponents would lead to many games fixed for Brewster Park, a second home, offering a familiarity that added another layer of confidence.

“We were a couple of years ahead of other counties because of what Nicholas (Walsh) and Peter were doing,” Brady said of their conditioning work.

“I don’t know if they were filling us with confidence going up to play these teams at minor and u-21 level but there was definitely something to it.

“You were physically well prepared, you were fit and you were strong. You were able to ride tackles and able to get up and down the field.”

Soon, other counties were taking the same approach to preparation. At u-14 level, or even younger, players are given a base to help towards the inter-county senior scene.

Another important word bandied around any sporting circle is ‘belief’. Cavan u-21s, like any breakthrough team, were no different. Beating Tyrone in 2011 was more than lifting silver. It trickled down the three teams to follow in their footsteps.

“Lads who might’ve come up and had not been involved (in the 2011 success) but were playing with lads who had beaten Tyrone and Donegal,” Brady explains.

“It gave them confidence, beating Tyrone in the first final opened the gates for the teams that followed.

“Once that psychological barrier was knocked down, we had a bit of confidence and a small bit of arrogance that you need to go on and win Ulster titles.”

For Brady, it was business as usual. A game would come around, it was a target. There was a method of winning and getting the job before moving on.

Collectively, it gave a glut of players the chance to wear a Cavan jersey with a realistic ambition of success.

BAND OF BROTHERS…Cavan focus ahead of the 2013 Ulster u-21 final win over Donegal

Some could push on towards seniors. Others, for various reasons, didn’t make it all the way but winning four u-21 titles was vital to the senior success that followed.

When Tyrone won the 2022 All-Ireland u-20 title, Cavan were a whisker away from topping them in the Ulster final.

Brady hopes the players from that team – and others – can follow in the footsteps of their four-in-a-row teams.

He name-checks Niall Carolan as someone in the mould of a Ciarán ‘Holla’ Brady or a Gerry Smith, direct and dedicated. Fionntan O’Reilly has suffered niggles and knocks but has what it takes. Darragh Lovett is another exciting attacking prospect.

Evan Crowe snuffed out dangermen as DCU won the All-Ireland Fresher title and it was his move back to pick up Eoin Bradley that saw Ballyhaise book an Ulster final spot.

“There are four or five players who are leaders who are putting it in with their strength and conditioning,” Brady summed up.

“They are playing senior football for their clubs and are leaders there. It’s the same as most counties, you have to be constantly building all the time. There are a few players coming along under the radar which is great.”

Cavan’s current u-20 team travel to Armagh next Wednesday hoping to park their defeat to Donegal and move on. With Raymond Galligan cementing the county’s Division Two status for next season, it gives them something to build on.

But below it all will be the men who conquered Ulster a decade ago. They are now the senior foundation. And so the cycle continues.

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