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Tyrone to loosen Cavan’s grip on Ulster title

By Niall McCoy

RARELY has an Ulster champion started the defence of their crown at such a low ebb, but that’s the situation facing Cavan as they put their Anglo Celt title on the line against Tyrone in Omagh on Saturday.

Eight months have now passed since Mickey Graham’s side pulled off one of the biggest shocks in recent Ulster history as they beat Donegal – and very deservedly so – in the final at the Athletic Grounds. A first All-Ireland semi-final in 23 years followed and although Dublin proved much too strong at Croke Park, it looked like the county finally had a springboard with real substance.

False dawns have been prevalent in the Breffni county in recent times, especially after claiming four Ulster U-21 titles on the trot between 2011 and 2014, and now the clouds have quickly gathered.

Stormy weather has been the theme for the 2021 season too. League defeats to Fermanagh and Derry were disappointing but considering that the combined losing margin was just three points, it was nothing to be too concerned about. However, the relegation play-off loss to Wicklow was a shambles.

The Garden county won by two points but should have had a greater winning margin as they condemned the Ulster champions to Division Four football. Graham’s side were wide open at the back, low on energy and it took them 65-odd minutes to realise that they were in real trouble.

By that stage it was too late and in 2022 they will play in the bottom tier for the first time since 2007 (named 2B back in the days when Dublin were sneaking by Offaly in Leinster).

This is probably the worst draw Cavan could have received too. Away from home against a real heavyweight, they enter as strong underdogs. Some may argue that Donegal would be a stiffer challenge but Cavan’s record against the Red Hands is abysmal and their last championship win over them came in June 1983 when Martin Lynch scored two late points to see them home 0-11 to 0-10 in the provincial quarter-final.

Anglo Celt journalist Paul Fitzpatrick recently stated that Cavan fans adopt a “boom or bust mindset” and there are other reasons why the thought of playing Tyrone should carry a bit of extra fear.

For one, the Red Hands are preparing to impress a new management in Ulster for the first time since 2003, and there should be a freshness to Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher’s side.

Tyrone’s National League campaign was a bit of a mixed bag with a top-two spot earned before Kerry demolished them with a six-goal salvo in the Division One semi-finals.

It’s hard to escape the notion that there was a bit of experimenting going on from the new coaches. Put it this way, if Tyrone were to face Kerry in the championship this year there is absolutely no chance that they would leave their backline as open.

There is better news too with Cathal McShane set to feature as he prepares to make his long-awaited return from injury. The Owen Roes man played a large chunk of a recent challenge match with Roscommon and with Darragh Canavan set to miss out through injury, we can expect to see him at some juncture.

The Red Hands were very open at the back that day with the Connacht side getting in for a number of goals, so it will be interesting to see what sort of screen they put up against Cavan.

Maybe, contrary to expectations, they will just opt to bank on their team beating anyone in a shoot-out – and with McShane, Conor McKenna, Paul Donaghy, Mattie Donnelly, Mark Bradley and Darren McCurry among their many scoring options, there does seem to be some rhyme and reason to it.

Meanwhile, there has been mixed news on the availability front for Cavan heading into this game. Conor Moynagh is back in the panel now and may even see game-time. Ciaran Brady is out long-term, while there are doubts over Conor Smith, Thomas Galligan and Conor Madden.

They need everyone on board if they are to maintain their grip on the Anglo Celt. There has been a sense that Graham doesn’t put too much stock into the league with all focus instead going on championship matters. Unfortunately though, it may be bust time in Omagh.

Verdict: Tyrone

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