After their magic moments in 2020, Cavan and Tipperary suffer big early season setbacks

IT IS 29 weeks since the two sides produced storylines that caught the national sporting imagination and lit up the football championship.

The rise of Tipperary and Cavan occured on the same remarkable Sunday afternoon last November. Tipperary enjoyed a breakthrough after 85 years in Munster, Cavan ending a 23-year wait to reign in Ulster again.

They both disregarded the tag of underdogs, stunning the favoured duo of Cork and Donegal. If the journeys ended a fortnight later in Croke Park at the hands of more experienced, more powerful and more proficient opponents in Dublin and Mayo, there was still no shortage of acclaim for the pair after their efforts in 2020.

Amidst the grimness of lockdown, they provided their supporters with a welcome reason to rejoice.

But now the outlook has shifted dramatically.

Provincial champions in November 2020, relegated to the bottom division of the football league in June 2021.

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It is a remarkable contrast in fortunes, Cavan’s descent confirmed in Navan on Saturday at the hands of Wicklow as they lost 3-11 to 0-18. Then Tipperary joined them after their reversal in Longford’s back yard yesterday, behind 1-13 to 0-9 by full-time.

Tipperary manager David Power.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Both were heavily favoured to win their Division 3 relegation play-offs, yet both succumbed in high-stakes encounters.

It’s only a month since the 2021 inter-county season finally got up and running. The long lay-off is a reasonable excuse for some early signs of rust in the make-up of both teams.

Yet over the course of this packed campaign, the form of both has nosedived remarkably. They played a combined eight games in the third tier of football but could only muster two wins between them.

There are parallels that can be drawn between their run of games. An away loss first day out, a win in the second game on home soil and a defeat in the third outing to teams chasing promotion, Derry and Offaly respectively confirming their superiority in that regard over the weekend.

Given the compressed format of the 2021 football league, it can be argued that the rewards were too generous and punishments too severe. Having only three games in the round-robin series represented a small sample size on which to judge teams.

But it did mean there was a cut-throat atmosphere to the matches, with both Cavan and Tipperary finding themselves on the backfoot straight away. The margins were wafer-thin in those openers. Cavan lost by a point to Fermanagh, in a game which was deadlocked for the majority of the second half. Tipperary lost by two to Limerick, forced to rue the concession of 1-4 without reply after half-time, a phase which pushed them to chase their opponents to the end.

There is also an element of success generating added expectation. Fermanagh and Limerick would have watched the exploits in 2020, and after the release of this year’s fixtures calendar, those first games were an enticing challenge as they sought to claim a scalp. Limerick had added cause for motivation after the frustration of not defeating Tipperary in last year’s Munster semi-final, pegged back by that miraculous sideline kick from Conor Sweeney deep in injury-time.

The regrets continued at the weekend. Cavan kicked 18 points but still lost. They only trailed by one at the interval yet crucially shipped two goals in the third quarter, Seanie Furlong inflicting the damage for Wicklow, and that deficit proved too great to erase.

Tipperary were level at 0-8 apiece by the 46th minute in the second half but failed to possess any kick down the home straight. Longford outscored them 1-5 to 0-1 for the remainder of the game. There was a similar theme at the heart of their previous defeat to Offaly, level at the second-half water break before they lost the remainder of the game by 0-6 to 0-1 on the scoreboard.

Some heroes from last winter were missing for both sides and those absences proved telling. Cavan began at Páirc Tailteann on Saturday with nine players who started in that Ulster success. They have suffered a major casualty with Ciaran Brady, one of the driving forces last season from defence, out for the year after tearing his cruciate last month against Longford. Jason McLoughlin and Gerard Smith were other key figures in the rearguard that did not play on Saturday.

Tipperary played from the off yesterday, with only seven of the team that began that Munster final victory in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. During the game they saw full-back Alan Campbell go off injured and their attacking figurehead Michael Quinlivan spent time in the sin bin, in what was his maiden appearance of the year after an injury setback.

Robbie Kiely’s hamstring will sideline him for the rest of the summer, Liam Casey is gone travelling and Colin O’Riordan is back in Sydney immersed in AFL life. Bill Maher was another significant absentee yesterday. Tipperary’s squad has had a sizeable chunk of experience removed from it and the league has illustrated the difficulty in having sufficient depth to cope with that.

Dejected Cavan players after they lost to Derry.

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Tipperary player suffered the disappointment of league relegation.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The road to recovery begins now but with the short gap between the league end and championship start, they don’t have much time to dwell on this despair.

Those challenges are daunting as well, both are in action in the knockout structure on Saturday 10 July. Tipperary meet the winners of Kerry and Clare in Munster while Cavan head to Omagh to take on Tyrone in Ulster.

It’s a tough situation to grapple with and even more so when they consider it’s only three years since their league existence was notably different.

In March 2018, Cavan hosted Tipperary at Kingspan Breffni. It was a game that carried a huge prize with promotion to Division 1 on offer for the winner. Cavan seized that opportunity, a storming finish saw them overtake Tipperary to win by 0-17 to 2-10.

That day was a glimpse of the standard both outfits desperately wanted to reach but since then it has been a tale of regression on the league stage. Cavan have been relegated for the third successive season, Tipperary dropping down for the second time in three campaigns.

Cavan manager Mickey Graham.

Source: John McVitty/INPHO

After recent setbacks, those rousing championship final wins last year were a wonderful boost to both counties.

But the positivity of late 2020 seems quite a distance from the harshness of their current reality.

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