Cavan football desperately needs to evolve

Saturday, June 24, 2017

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**This article by Alan O’Mara, Real Talks Founder, first appeared in the Anglo Celt newspaper on June 22**

‘We don’t have the forwards’ has become the most commonly used phrase within Cavan football circles these days.

I found myself nodding in agreement last week, desperately frustrated that we had once again lost a close game to our noisy neighbours in the Ulster Championship. However, the more I tried to digest that excuse for failure, the more it started to get under my skin.

My mind wandered back to the winter of 2016 when Mattie McGleenan sailed into Cavan on a wave of optimism. He seemed the right man at the right time and spoke directly to the players about changing tact. His plan was no secret either.

“I want forwards who want to score and tackle high up the pitch. I don’t like the idea of players turning and running down the field with their back to the ball to set up a defensive cordon. I want to stay up the field and play football – that’s the game that I enjoy going to watch and coach and that’s the game I’m going to coach in Cavan,” McGleenan told the Irish News.

It was music to the ears off all involved.

For years under Terry Hyland, the group worked incredibly hard to climb the rungs of the National Football League. As a young team, with so many players emerging from u21 teams, it made sense for the management to make us harder to beat in order to make up for the athletic development those players still had to do.

While that approach helped make Cavan competitive, its lifespan was always going to be limited. The simple reality is that it is not all that enjoyable to play in, or indeed watch, and because of that, things began to stagnate and the necessity to evolve became clear for all to see. There was a significant change to the Cavan style of play in 2016 compared to previous seasons.

The physical conditioning that the likes of Killian Clarke, Padraig Faulkner, Jason McLoughlin, Ciaran Brady, Conor Moynagh and James McEnroe possess thanks to the stellar work of Peter Donnelly and Eoin Maguire means they no longer need an extra wave of five or six bodies protecting them. A designated sweeper with one or two others naturally coming back during phases of play is more than enough if the defensive unit is coached properly.

Years of graft and dedication had been leading to the 2017 campaign in the top tier and although there is still plenty to play for this season, there is already an overriding sensation of frustration and regret around the county.

As the pressure for results in Division 1 took hold, there was a significant shift from the vision the Cavan faithful were sold last winter. Instead of stepping out from behind the safety of defensive numbers, we shrivelled back within ourselves – probably deeper than ever before.

A very clear tactic being used was that for prolonged spells of matches, Cavan were deliberately bringing 14 men back inside their own 45m line, leaving a lone wolf up the field to plough a lonely furrow.

I genuinely felt sorry for our forwards. They had been promised they were going to be driven like a Ferrari, yet once again, were treated like a Fiat with the handbrake on.

The reason everyone thinks we don’t have the forwards is because we don’t let our attack minded players play. We constrain and limit them because the fear of losing has consistently overruled the hope of winning. We are lost in a negative mentality and if we are not careful, many players that have been intensely developed during an unheralded spell of underage success are going to be left with a deep inferiority complex that will haunt the county for years to come.

Over the last five campaigns, the confidence and enthusiasm has slowly been drained from the large majority of good forwards that have been on the Cavan panel. For club and college teams, Niall McDermott, Joe Dillon, Gearoid McKiernan, Seanie Johnston, Martin Reilly, Niall Murray, Cian Mackey and others have all done things that the best of the best would be proud of. Martin Dunne, Michael Argue, David Givney, Eugene Keating, Paul O’Connor, Kevin Tierney, Barry Reilly and Jack Brady are all capable of brilliance too.

The problem is that we are constantly searching for a silver bullet, desperately hoping to pluck a miracle man from an u21 team that can immediately do the job of five forwards. We don’t have a Conor McManus but sure who does? He is one of the best players of his generation.

Of course, sport is about being competitive but it should also be about being part of a team that appreciates and encourages a variety of different strengths and skills. If I wanted to watch a bunch of clones all move, run and fight the same way then I should have to watch Star Wars, not go to Kingspan Breffni Park.

Work-rate and an astute system are crucial for any team to be successful but they should be the base for creativity to thrive, not the be all and end all. Is it a coincidence that so many forwards have come and gone in the Cavan jersey in recent years?

Our defensive mentality has taken us as far as we will get. Sometimes to reap the rewards, you have to play with a bit of risk. With the qualifiers just around the corner, it is time to loosen the shackles and believe in our forwards.

The choice is simple; evolve or squander what is left of a golden generation of underage talent.

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