A Wednesday night a few weeks back and no sooner had the lights dimmed in Breffni Park than a tweet popped up from a wizened Cavan fan.
The Blues, fresh from a first win over Tyrone in 17 years which they followed up with victory over Donegal, had just walked into a haymaker thrown by the students of Jordanstown and were out of the McKenna Cup. No big deal, right?
“Shows where we are, can’t beat a bunch of kids, waste of time,” snarled the disgruntled tweeter. Never did 61 characters illustrate so clearly the condition of the Breffni follower — reared on tales of glory yet starved of success, they are equal parts fickle, loyal and ferociously demanding.
Fans have had unrealistic targets for the longest time but, off the back of four U21 titles and one minor Ulster title won from 2011-2014, Cavan’s followers expected senior success and have grown restless when it has been slow to arrive. Those in the know, though, reckon it was always going to take time.
Michael Hannon, who played for the county at all levels and is currently a selector with the U21s, is one.
“The year the U21s won their first title , the minors won as well and I remember arguing that there was more quality on the minor team in terms of senior inter-county potential than there was on the U21 panel.
“Supporters were expecting success to come straight away but the players that were really going to rise were all 17 or 18 rather than those 21-year-olds. You had a couple that age but the majority of the lads I felt were going to make a difference at senior level were playing on that minor team, guys like Killian Clare, Dara McVeety, Gerry Smith. That bunch backboned the next three U21 wins. There were sprinklings of quality here and there but most of it was concentrated on 17, 18-year-olds.”
The stats back up Hannon’s point. Most of the 2011 U21 side were in their final year of eligibility and are 26 or 27 by now but only two featured against Dublin last week. Yet nine of the corresponding minor side are on the senior panel at present, with five starting against Dublin and another — Nevin O’Donnell — lining out for Leitrim.
So, it’s been a slow process – and it’s always darkest before the dawn. The senior team bottomed out in 2011 and 2012, barely surviving in Division 3 and enduring qualifier hidings against Longford and Kildare but when Terry Hyland led them to an All- Ireland quarter-final in 2013, the hum of expectation began to grow louder.
In hindsight, says Hannon — a columnist with The Anglo-Celt and one of those effectively discarded by Val Andrews in a 2012 clear-out — that run to the last eight was something of a false dawn. “It probably raised expectations too high because it came ahead of schedule. Then when they bombed the following year, momentum was lost and morale was sapped.”
Under Hyland, the county made tremendous progress in the league, culminating in elevation to Division 1, but his six-year tenure was pockmarked by changing personnel, a trend which continued this winter with David Givney, Feargal Flanagan and Cian Mackey (since returned) opting out. Players committed for a year then dropped off and a trickle became a flow to the point where new manager Mattie McGleenan handed out six debuts last Sunday, a strange stat considering Cavan’s reputation as a ‘coming team’ rather than one that needed shaking up.
The result is supporters don’t really know where the team is at.
The line that Cavan were a young team was spun consistently in recent seasons and their creeping fear is they missed their chance, especially in 2013 and 2015 when they were twice beaten by a point by tomorrow’s opponents Monaghan, who went on to win Ulster both years.
Were Cavan so caught up with the future being blue — as their social media maxim preached — that their present passed them by?
“There has been a lot of flux in the panel which isn’t ideal but I think their age profile is still good. They’ll have to learn quickly. It’s very hard to say if they will win an Ulster title because the tide is rising in Ulster again now and it’s so difficult but there’s no doubt that they have the talent.”
Their long-suffering fans would surely agree.
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