The hashtag (#thefutureisblue) caught the imagination as Cavan reeled off four successive Ulster U21 titles from 2011 through to 2014. Four years on from the last of that run, though, and the standing army of famously-fervent Breffni supporters is still waiting to be mobilised for an Ulster senior final, let alone a last four game in the All-Ireland series.
A common theory as to why a senior breakthrough has not yet arrived hinges around the lack of ‘marquee’ forwards on those successful U21 sides – and there is merit in it, too.
In last month’s Division 2 league final, 10 Ulster U21 medallists featured but only two of those — 60th-minute sub, Conor Madden — and Enda Flanagan, now a defender, played up front on any of those four successful sides.
Those U21 teams, managed firstly by Terry Hyland and later Peter Reilly, played a defensive style of football and their scoring tallies in the four provincial finals and five All-Ireland series matches paint a striking picture: 1-10, 1-10, 0-13, 2-6, 1-10, 1-9, 2-2, 1-11, 0-10.
Judged through the prism of hindsight, it seems that either winning those four titles with a dearth of quality forwards represented a magnificent managerial feat — or, the defensive straitjacket employed hindered the development of attacking players which is now bearing fruit at senior level.
However, former Cavan captain Anthony Forde, who lined out as part of the U21 side who lost the 1996 All-Ireland final to a star-studded Kerry and served as a selector in 2011 and 2012, feels that it’s not as simple as that.
A change of approach was sorely needed back then, insists the Cavan Gaels man.
When you look back to where Cavan football was in 2010, when we made the Ulster U21 final [losing to a Michael Murphy-inspired Donegal], we had a reasonable crop of players but we were staring down the barrel of Division 4 at senior level and something had to change — the culture, the mentality.
“We had consistently good underage teams coming through and underperforming, not winning close games. We had brilliant forwards in those years but we weren’t getting across the line, we weren’t winning games. You can have marquee forwards but if you’re not playing in a good system then you have nothing. We needed to tighten up at the back.”
The stats bear Forde’s argument out. Coming into the 2013 SFC, Cavan had won just four of their previous 18 championship games at senior level, with an average margin of defeat running at seven points.
Under Hyland, with Forde riding shotgun, they shored it up at the back — resulting in Joe Brolly’s unfair ‘Black Death’ sobriquet — and ended up in the last eight.
“Our scoring wasn’t high at U21 level in those years by any means but when you look at it, Tyrone won it the following year with 1-11, Monaghan won it in 2016 with 0-13, . I played on a team in ’96 that won an Ulster title scoring 1-11 and we had a team stacked with brilliant forwards like Larry Reilly, Mickey Graham, Jason [O’Reilly]...
“We lost by a point in the All-Ireland semi-final to Cork in 2013 and by a point to Dublin in controversial circumstances in 2014, a Dublin team with Fenton, Jack McCaffrey, Eric Lowndes, Niall Scully, Conor McHugh, Davy Byrne, John Small...
They went on to win the final against a really good Roscommon team by 20 points so we weren’t far away.
The real reason for the failure of those U21 forwards to come through has been the turnover in personnel, says Forde, who points out that including injuries, up to 13 of those who saw game time in the 2016 Ulster semi-final against Tyrone (when Cavan scored 2-17 in defeat) will not feature tomorrow.
“Looking at the forward line from each of those years, I can count nine, maybe 10 players from those teams who should be involved with Cavan seniors at the minute but aren’t for a variety of reasons.
“Jack Brady, for example, was just out of minor in 2011 and scored four points from play in the Ulster final against Tyrone.
“Those players should now be in their prime and whether it’s the management’s decision or the players themselves, they’re not involved and that’s a huge loss to Cavan football.
“When you take the 2011 Tyrone team who we beat in the Ulster final. They had Niall Morgan, Ronan McNamee, Niall Sludden, Peter Harte, Richard Donnelly, Mattie Donnelly, Ronan O’Neill still playing... we have two from that team involved tomorrow.
“Too many players are not making themselves available for the county set up or are not being picked. People will say that we didn’t create forwards, that we were just about getting over the line at U21 level. I disagree with that.
“In 2016, Cavan were the highest scoring team in the country in the National League and that was a difficult division with Galway and Tyrone and dogfights against Fermanagh and Armagh.
“But, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to hold on to these players at senior level.”
That, more than anything, might just be why Cavan the present is still not blue for the long-suffering Breffni faithful.