Preview: Cavan have more than a puncher’s chance

Ulster SFC
Cavan v Tyrone
Sunday, Breffni Park, 4pm

By Niall Gartland

IN recent years Tyrone have been akin to a box of chocolates, so there’s an exciting sense of unpredictability about Sunday’s Ulster Senior Championship quarter-final clash against Cavan.

The Red Hands were nothing if not unpredictable during the league; swashbuckling one weekend, dead average the next, and downright tepid in their shellacking at the hands of the Dubs in their seventh and final league encounter (a dead rubber clash from their perspective, granted).

One thing they do have on their side heading into Sunday’s match is history. They haven’t lost a championship encounter to Cavan since 1983, claiming eight wins and two draws in the mean-time. There is another stat, less pertinent in our eyes – they’ve never actually beaten Cavan in Cavan in championship football, but that’s more of a historical quirk than anything else.

Cast your mind back to September 11, 2021 and Tyrone reached the Promised Land with a 2-14 to 0-15 victory over Mayo in the All-Ireland final.

The Red Hands were imperious that day and were in cruise control by the final whistle, and few would’ve envisioned their subsequent slide down the pecking order.

A loss of personnel certainly didn’t help matters; a swathe of supporting cast members opted out the following season, perhaps satiated by their All-Ireland triumph, and the mercurial Conor McKenna later headed back to Australia, a significant enough loss given his ability to conjure a goal out of nothing.

The championship hasn’t been fruitful terrain and last year’s last-eight defeat to Kerry was chastening to stay the least, but there’s still that sense with Tyrone that if they get all their ducks in a row they could still give anyone a rattle on their day.

Maintaining their Division One status was an achievement, particularly with a lengthy injury list – Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane have returned to the field of play, Conor Meyler, Frank Burns and Michael O’Neill are yet to see a minute of action all year while Conn Kilpatrick, Peter Harte and Michael McKernan sat out their final two league matches.

Asked about the state of their walking wounded at a recent press event, Brian Dooher didn’t give too much away but whatever the story is, expect at least a few newcomers to make their championship bow against Cavan this Sunday.

Confidence will be sky-high in the Breffni camp after their thoroughly deserved preliminary round victory over Monaghan nearly a fortnight ago (they’ve now won their three most recent championship clashes against their old foes, an impressive run of results).

Cavan did nearly everything right that day; they stayed in touch in the first half while playing into a stiff breeze, they went for broke in the second half, taking their three goals with aplomb, they got their match-ups right (Killian Brady negated Jack McCarron and Brian O’Connell kept a close eye on Conor McManus, limiting the Monaghan legend to a single point from play).

They lived dangerously at times – manager Raymond Galligan constantly exhorted his players to get themselves forward – but their sense of urgency certainly paid off as they booked a spot in the first-round proper on a final scoreline of 3-12 to 1-12.

It was one of those days where nearly everyone gave a good account of themselves – Cian Reilly won a mammoth amount of dirty ball in defence, Oisin Brady was lively in attack, Padraig Faulkner was simply imperious in every facet, but perhaps one area of concern is an over-reliance on Paddy Lynch for scores. He scored 1-9, nailing eight frees from eight attempts, but if he has an off-day this weekend, it could be curtains for Cavan.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Jason McLoughlin returns to the starting 15. He’s on the road back from injury and has been one of the most underrated defenders in the province in recent years, but every single one of Cavan’s defence delivered the goods against Monaghan so it leaves Raymond Galligan with a potentially difficult decision to make.

One of his priorities this week will be ensuring Cavan have the right mindset for battle. For whatever reason they generally struggle against Tyrone, and when they came to Omagh as defending Ulster champions in 2021, they went down by eight points in a fairly flat display.

In a way, however, there’s more pressure on Tyrone here. They’ve only won a solitary Ulster Championship match since 2021, that being an away victory over Fermanagh, and they won’t need reminding of what happened this time last year, when they were hit by a late Ryan O’Toole suckerpunch in a one-point defeat to Monaghan.

They have two of the best attacking players in the country in Darragh Canavan and Darren McCurry (the former has won a rake of Man of the Match awards already this year) but the manner of their defeat to Dublin less than a month ago was certainly worrisome from a Tyrone perspective.

There were a few perfectly plausible excuses – a few key players were rested, a few other key players were unavailable due to injury and Tyrone had nothing tangible to play for – but the porous-ness in defence is something that really needs to be looked at if Tyrone are to have any designs on getting back to the top table.

Tyrone have been both lauded and lamented for their sheer belligerence since arriving as a footballing force back in the noughties; something that has been strangely absent in recent years and if they’re not at the pitch of the battle on Sunday, Cavan have more than a puncher’s chance of inflicting their first defeat at this level over the Red Hands in 41 years.

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