Cavan and Donegal meet on Sunday in the Ulster Final as one of the most memorable Ulster Senior Football Championships in recent years comes to a conclusion.
Holders Donegal are a familiar face in the final, competing in their eighth final in nine seasons. Cavan, in contrast, are competing in their first final in 18 years, and aiming to win their first title in 22.
For the Breffni men the wait for a final appearance was not meant to take this long. Winners of all four Ulster Under 21 Championships from 2011 to 2014, the expectation had been that this wave of young talent would break onto the inter-county stage and propel Cavan back towards the summit of Ulster football.
Five years after the last of those Under 21 titles they are finally back in a provincial final and are backboned by players who featured on those sides.
While the Breffni men are newcomers to the Ulster final stage, a large percentage of the Donegal team are chasing their fifth title in from 2011. Led by captain Michael Murphy, veterans like Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn and Leo McLoone are well used to competing for Ulster titles.
At the recent press launch for the Ulster final both Donegal manager Declan Bonner and player Ryan McHugh were keen to stress that there was a significant element of the Tír Conaill side that were also inexperienced.
Jamie Brennan, Michael Langan, Stephen McMenamin, Jason McGee, Daire Ó Baoill, Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Michael Carroll all featured on the Donegal side that won the 2017 Ulster Under 21 Championship, while Niall O’Donnell and 18 year-old Oisin Gallen are two of the most exciting young players in the country.
Cavan will need to contain the threat offered by the Donegal attack and in Padraig Faulkner and Jason McLoughlin they have able man-markers. Faulkner’s presence for the Breffni men has been reliable and consistent on their championship run to date. Killian Clarke has marshalled the defence well from centre half back this season, but Cavan will need to tighten things up at the back from the Armagh game if they hope to contain the Donegal attack.
If Cavan can succeed in limiting the Donegal forward line, then they have the forwards themselves to do damage at the other end. Dara McVeety and Niall Murray have the quality to threaten the Donegal defence, while Martin Reilly’s vision and creativity will be invaluable in trying to create the openings. Add in captain and goalkeeper Raymond Galligan’s long range free-taking accuracy and you can see why Cavan feel they have the tools necessary to claim the Anglo Celt.
That said, Donegal have proven match winners all over the field. Patrick McBrearty will be keen to banish the memories of last year’s Ulster Final, where he picked up a season ending knee injury. It has been a long road to recovery for the Kilcar man but if he can hit top form, and be assisted in the scoring charts by Brennan and Murphy, it could propel Donegal towards back-to-back Ulster titles and deny Cavan that elusive title.