Ignore the noise - Cavan have a huge chance in this final
Who will ever forget 1997? Cavan were level at the end of the 70 minutes in the opening round against their neighbours and, in truth, got a bit of luck to come through that one.
Who could forget Smith from Crosserlough making an impact around the middle and O’Reilly from Mullahoran up front, setting up a goal into the town end in Clones in a one-point win.
In the semi-final, having been down at half-time, Cavan came to life and played out of their skins. The graduates from the outstanding U21 team of nine years earlier blended well with some younger players, particularly up front.
The experience of recently making an Ulster final, after the longest gap in the county’s history, stood to the players and management as they charted a return to the big day, although six were missing from that final.
Mickey Graham and Dermot McCabe, of course, were key figures. In the decider, Cavan were up against a team who were on the shortlist for the All-Ireland, with several Celtic Cross holders and a wave of young talent who had been sensational in the semi-final and were 5/2 shots to win not just Ulster but their second All-Ireland in recent years.
This is the story of 1997. To this point, it’s the story of 2020 too. There are many other similarities. The point is, Cavan are not attempting to do something they have never done before, to break new ground, this Sunday.
Pete McGrath, with apologies to Roger Bannister, said it best: It’s always impossible till somebody goes and does it.
This is an unusual year. The Ulster Championship is being played in November, in empty stadiums. That has to have an effect on the normal order of things.
Of course, Donegal are rightly favourites. This is their ninth Ulster final in 10 years. But Cavan have not even been considered by most of the pundits.
On the Sunday Game at the weekend, Sean Cavanagh was talking about a Dublin footballer and mentioned how the player was trying to make an impression for the Leinster final “or the Donegal game the following week”.
On Twitter, journalists have been heaping praise on the Donegal forwards – and rightly so – while wondering if they have the defence to win the All-Ireland.
The Cavan camp, as we speak, will be pondering if Donegal have the defence to win even Ulster this year. They have got to be thinking like that.
The bookmakers have installed Donegal as 1/14 favourites to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup. Those odds are almost unprecedented in the Ulster Championship showpiece; only Tyrone were that short when they faced Antrim in the 2009 decider.
They are also offering an eight-point spread on the game. Much of this seems to be based on the manner of Donegal’s win over Armagh at Kingspan Breffni last Saturday.
The consensus across the land at present is that they are a team who could beat the Dubs. It is presented almost as fact, unchallenged. Is it true?
There wasn’t much evidence, albeit in tough conditions, of a major leap in Donegal’s progress when they edged past Tyrone in the first round. They were excellent against Armagh, that is undeniable, but any analyst should know to be careful of reading too much into a mismatch which is over after 20 minutes.
Donegal may be the real deal or they may not. If you believe the former, you are taking it on faith because they haven’t yet proven that they can go from winning two games from six in the Super 8s (against Meath and Roscommon) to beating the greatest team of all time in Dublin.
The Cavan camp will be viewing this as being a hell of a lot closer, which in our view it will be. And the main reason is not that Cavan are, pound for pound, better footballers than Donegal. They aren’t - but that’s only part of the story.
What’s key is that this Cavan team are now in their prime, with an average of 60-odd appearances throughout the team. They may not be good enough to win a major title but this is, more or less, as good as they are going to be.
They are united, resilient, battle-hardened and very fit. For years, the Cavan public have been looking to ‘next year’ and that may have seeped into the players, too but the penny has finally dropped that it’s all about this year.
It's true that there isn't much in their back catalogue to suggest they can beat Donegal, bar smatterings of form. In that sense, Cavan will hope to be like Monaghan in 2013, coming of age against Donegal - then All-Ireland champions and 1/7 favourites - with a performance over 70 minutes beyond what they had perviously turned in.
Saying Donegal may not win Sam is a lot different than saying they won't beat Cavan, too. Declan Bonner's men command respect. But they cannot be given too much, either.
Cavan refused to lose against Monaghan and the same against Down. It simply wasn’t an option.
If they bring that same attitude to Sunday’s match and learn the lessons of last year, they will be right there. An eight-point handicap is an insult to this group of Cavan players, who, to outside eyes, have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Maybe we are nuts. But Cavan will be in this match on the home stretch and after that, anything is possible – and even 1997 might be consigned to history.