Mickey Harte didn’t see this coming.
Not so much the presence of his own Tyrone side in tomorrow’s Division 2 final, but rather that of Cavan, whom they defeated in Omagh back on the last day of January and a side bettered by Derry in Breffni Park a week later.
“The start that they had, it is amazing that they have actually come to qualify for this final and get promotion,” said Harte this week. “If I had been in the position where we had lost our first two games, I would have been saying ‘that’s promotion gone’. Cavan didn’t do that.
“They were unfortunate. They lost by two points to ourselves and could have won the game. They lost to Derry by only a point and could have won that as well. That could have deflated them and had them thinking it wasn’t their season, so they deserve a lot of credit.
“They are in a very good place at the minute.”
No-one is arguing with that. The turnaround since Cavan trailed Meath in Navan by seven points in round three has been astonishing. Meath were seen off by seven in the end and Armagh by 17. Fermanagh fell half-a-dozen short, Laois by five and Galway by four.
Eleven different players got on the scoresheet against Meath and similar numbers have contributed most other weeks. No other team in the four divisions has scored as much and they possess a physicality that many a Cavan team before them have lacked.
Their stock, clearly, is only going up. Division 1 football has been secured just three years after they were languishing mid-table in the third tier as the legacy of four Ulster U21 titles, a provincial minor in 2011 and Leinster and All-Ireland junior-winning campaigns fuel their progress.
Cavan committed to the long game by appointing Terry Hyland to a four-year term in 2012 and they have kept faith despite an underwhelming run of championships in which progress in Ulster has been non-existent and only Westmeath and London have been dealt with in the qualifiers.
Hyland spoke this week about how his predecessor Val Andrews suffered when the U21s he himself managed were given first call on those players eligible for both grades and he hinted that elevation up the league ladder had maybe assumed a role of primary importance.
The surrounding skirmishes have been mostly won — though another breaks out tomorrow in Croke Park. The time for summer sustenance is fast approaching, though Hyland is keen to point out that his crop has some seasons still in which to reap a richer harvest.
“There’ll be six guys under 22 probably togging out (tomorrow). The next six will be under 26 and then there’s probably three lads over that. From an age profile, you know, good footballers get injured and they don’t always necessarily hit their potential as sports people.
“So there is always that urgency when you are involved in sport because that opportunity is there in front of you and you want to go and grab it,” he continued. “That’s probably where we are at this point in time.” There is a finite timespan to all this.
Many has been the county to travel this path and across the bridge from underage success to senior expectancy. Not all have achieved the latter, but the one common denominator is the inevitability that, sooner or later, the grassroots structures that started it all are neglected and die.
Cavan need look no further than one of their opponents earlier this spring for proof. Laois were the envy of the country for their talent stream from the mid-nineties to mid-noughties, but they finally fell to the third tier earlier this month after years spent scrambling to avoid that very fate.
Cavan’s production line is already slowing down. The U21s were evicted from Ulster at the first hurdle this last two years — though both were in dramatic circumstances — and one minor final has been their lot at the U18 grade since 2011.
Hyland takes the point. He has seen it happen at enough clubs in his time: managers sticking with one graduation class, maybe winning a senior or two, and then experiencing the inevitable decline down to intermediate or perhaps even junior for want of new blood.
“It’s how you integrate the young fellas coming in. You don’t come along and say ‘he’s not as good as that guy’ because you have to bring him in and give him a chance and hold him there. We’ve been blessed probably with a county board that have allowed us to keep the panel sizes big.
“We’ve kept integrating (players) into it and that puts pressure on the older fellas.”
It’s no small task to balance the needs of today with tomorrow while all the time striving to match the great feats of yesterday, but Hyland and Cavan have been bold in eschewing the quick-fix approach endemic to the game and to sport in general.
They deserve to fare well.
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