For the first time since 1969, Cavan has reached back to back Ulster Finals. They have not gone about it the easy way but have earned the title of ‘Comeback Kings’ as a result of some herculean performances. The most recent of those coming last Sunday against Down in the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Gowna’s Conor Madden was sprung from the bench at half time with his side 8 points down and was instrumental in helping to steer the ship from treacherous waters, picking up the Man of the Match award in the process.
On the other side of the coin, Cavan has also suffered back to back relegations in the league and as a result, faced a lot of criticism from inside and outside the county. So what has changed in such a short space of time? “We know the league was a huge disappointment, the criticism is part and parcel of playing inter-county football and some of it was probably warranted” Conor stated. “The Monaghan game landed at the right time in that we had an immediate opportunity to right those wrongs and see what we are really capable of as a team.” Cavan produced one of the results and moments of this year's championship by knocking out the heavily fancied Farney men with a last gasp free from goalkeeper Raymond Galligan, and in turn, kick-started their year.
Their quarter-final tie against Antrim produced its own challenges, coming into the game with a huge favourites tag attached to them. “That’s a situation we hadn’t been used to all year, and taking in to account we had just come through 90 minutes of a taxing match against Monaghan just 7 days previous, it was always going to be a tough game”, the Gowna man insisted. “They were full value for their lead at half time but we were confident of coming through that game once we began to apply ourselves, and thankfully we did just that”.
Having sat out those 2 fixtures due to injury Conor found himself in unfamiliar territory watching them from home due to the Covid-19 restrictions on panel sizes. “It’s funny” he smirks, “Other years if you were injured, you’d still be around the panel on game day and supporting them on the sideline, but I was watching these games on the telly with my family on the couch!”. As a result, of his injuries and the team getting results without his presence, Conor was unsure he would even be in the panel for the Down game. “There were so many lads pushing for a place in the 26 that I wasn’t sure if I’d be there or not, thankfully Mickey and the management team took the gamble on me, picking up Man of the Match was nice of course, but getting the win was the most important thing and getting to the Ulster Final”.
Over these 3 games, the warrior mentality has got Cavan over the line and the team spirit has been evident at crucial stages. Cavan’s difficulty in maintaining a recurring squad through the years is well documented, having lost key players through injury or more commonly not making themselves available for selection. “There has been a high drop off rate, but there are different situations at play there, the likes of Dara McVeety and Conor Moynagh have gone travelling this year and they have played a huge part in Cavan football over the last few years and will again in the future, although they aren’t with us this year you have huge respect for them. What we have at the moment is a group of lads that want to give it their all and in training, everybody drives each other on” Conor declares.
A lot of praise has to be given to team manager Mickey Graham, who in his 2 years at the helm has produced more victories in championship football than all his predecessors since 2006 combined. “Mickey and the management team have instilled a good mentality in us, and that has been building for the last 18 to 24 months” he explains. “This year's championship is unique in that you only have one bite at it, knockout football is where the real grit and determination comes to the fore and a lot of credit has to go to the management team for preparing us for that”.
Cavan’s last Ulster title came 23 years ago in 1997 and the opportunity of immortality has presented itself to this current crop of Breffni men, but just how much would it mean to win the Anglo Celt Cup? “When I was driving through Butlersbridge yesterday after the game I saw a crowd of young lads out kicking a ball on the pitch there” he describes, “and it’s not something you’d normally see at this time of the year. I was thinking after that they had probably been watching our game and they were spurred on by what they had seen, and that’s something that a lot us on the team now would have seen and done growing up watching the team in 1997. They’re all considered heroes and they inspired the next generation, it would be unbelievable to get the win on Sunday and inspire the future crop of Cavan players. If you asked any of the lads, I’m sure they would tell you that they want to leave the Cavan jersey in a better place than where they got it”.
The task facing Conor and his teammates now, to some, is mammoth. They face a Donegal side that most people believe already won Ulster when they defeated Tyrone in the first round. Beyond that, there are many in the country that believe they are one of the only teams equipped to challenge a Dublin team going for a 6th All-Ireland title in a row. “Look there’s no doubting Donegal are a high-quality team and their bench has played a huge part in getting them to this point” Conor admits, “with the quick turnaround I don’t think we have enough time to read too much into what Donegal are going to do, but what we can do is focus on our own game plan and getting ourselves ready to perform. As much as we have to pay Donegal respect, we have to respect ourselves and in knockout football, you just never know what will happen. Hopefully, the dream becomes a reality on Sunday”.
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