Breffni boys already in bonus territory

As David — and we’re not just talking about Clifford — v Goliath contests go, it’s hard to beat the meeting of Cavan and Kerry in tomorrow’s All-Ireland MFC semi-final.

The Kingdom are unbeaten in 22 matches, with their aforementioned inside forward bagging an astonishing 3-27 in four games this year, 3-20 of that coming from play.

Kerry haven’t lost a match in Munster since the 2012 final against Tipperary and are gunning for an unprecedented fourth All-Ireland in succession; Cavan will be appearing in their first semi-final since 1974.

The Breffni men’s record at minor has been dreadful for the longest time. Even when the county was dominant at senior level in Ulster, they didn’t really count in the U18 grade, having won just six minor titles compared to 39 at senior.

Back in ‘74, they defeated a London side including future Republic of Ireland international Tony Grealish in the quarter-final before succumbing to Mayo. But 37 years would pass until they were again Ulster champions.

And yet, the Blues have always been able to mine strong senior sides from the minors who have enjoyed success; seven of that 2011 side started for the senior team in the 2017 league or championship.

Cavan’s decline at all levels began around that time and accelerated afterwards. It was a different, pre-internet world; rural Ireland was more insular. Cavan were slow to embrace new trends.

Gerry Brady, midfielder on the 1974 side and current county board chairman, recalled this week how many of the players met for the first time when they were called into Breffni Park for trials. Far-off parishes were almost exotic.

“People weren’t travelling as far to socialise even at the time,” he said.

Then secretary of the Cavan Minor Board, Eamon Sheridan — grandfather of future Meath footballer Joe – owned a battered old van, into the back of which he had placed an unwanted settee. For players in certain parts of the county, that was the team bus.

All has changed utterly now yet some things remain constant. Despite development squads and the presence of full-time coaching staff in the county, Cavan still struggle at minor level.

Against that backdrop, Ulster final appearances in 2015 and this year bucked the trend. This year’s side have been underdogs in each match. The difference has been the class of the Breffni forward line.

Against an athletic, well-fancied Monaghan, they conceded eight points in succession yet turned it around to win by 3-14 to 1-15.

Against Down, Cavan were two goals down and won pulling up by 0-15 to 2-7, with midfielder James Smith making 12 marks.

A powerful Derry side were comfortable seven-point winners in the Ulster final but Cavan still posted a healthy 2-12.

Against Galway, who had cruised through Connacht, Cavan looked finished when trailing by 0-10 to 0-6 after 45 minutes but with outstanding centre-forward Cian Madden and trigger man Oisin Pierson — a lefty who has bagged 1-18 this season — helped them win by a goal.

But while there’s a slight air of caution around the Kingdom since their U17s, with the same management as the minors, suffered an unexpected reversal against Roscommon last weekend, the Kingdom will come into this one as hot favourites.

Where Cavan’s tradition is sepia-tinted, Kerry’s minor success is very much post-modern. After winning their three games in the All-Ireland series by a combined 40 points last year, they sauntered to a 2-17 to 1-1 win over Cork in Munster this year and followed up with a 2-21 to 0-3 final win over Clare (who later ran Dublin to seven points) and a 1-22 to 2-9 victory against Louth last time.

Riding shotgun to captain Clifford in plundering all before them has been hard-working namesake Fiachra Clifford, with Chris O’Donoghue and Niall Donohoe catching the eye at the back and Diarmuid O’Connor and Barry Mahony rock-sold at midfield.

Nine of their side have played in Croker while Cavan journeyed to the capital to acquaint themselves with the stadium just last Monday evening. That, and the brilliance of Clifford, should tip the scales.

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