At the first break in play the local hacks at Kingspan Breffni Park grinned at one another at our perceived paranoia.
“Duffy, you’re useless hi, ” was yelled from someone in the stand underneath the pressbox after Rory Kavanagh was penalised for nudging David Givney roughly a millisecond after Marty Duffy first threw the ball into grey sky.
With 39 Ulster titles and five All-Irelands, the most recent of which came in 1952, Cavan’s black and white past is more colourful than their present. There will be no surprise 40th any time soon, but they had at least won the fastest free-kick in Ulster championship history.
The overheard and irate Donegal supporter might’ve had a case. Although no official records are at hand, Duffy, or maybe somebody really like him, seems to have been present at as many Donegal games of late as Charlie Collins and Martin McHugh.
With the qualifying system long since out of the nappies of infancy, the romanticism of those uncharted journeys of the likes of Sligo, Fermanagh and Wexford have since counter-balanced to eliminate much of the sting from the provincial championships.
And whatever optimism the Cavan followers had following their Ulster U-21 championship success and subsequent All-Ireland final, well, hammering at Galway’s hands, soon evaporated in the rising damp.
On eight minutes, Ray Cullivan rose for a ball and managed to catch both it and Kevin Cassidy, the former cleanly with his hands and the latter rather dirtily with an outstretched foot. Straight red. Whatever notions people had about shooting their grannies in the first 10 minutes of an Ulster championship game and only getting a warning, were soon revised.
The umbrellas that speckled the terraces muted the Breffni roar and the contest opened untidily. Michael Murphy, predictably pinpointed as Donegal’s main threat, was involved in a couple of early altercations, like you’d see in a school yard. Fifteen minutes in, Murphy bumped Damien Reilly in front of linesman Martin Sludden. Remember him?
The debate about Hawkeye and Television Match Officials rages on, but Sludden, who permitted Joe Sheridan’s winner in the Leinster final last year and almost caused civil unrest between the neighbouring counties of Meath and Louth, missed another incident. This time; one that was no more than three yards from him. And Duffy, as many feared he would, evened up the numbers. If Callivan’s red was required, Murphy’s was requited. Physical contact has officially been outlawed.
Colm McFadden eagerly filled the void, while the so-called gamble of throwing 17-year-old Patrick McBrearty in soon eased the level of tension. It was the Kilcar teenager who scored the opening goal when he nut-megged James Reilly in the Cavan goal following a booming sideline ball from Mark McHugh.
Donegal led 1-6 to 0-3 at the break, with their 14 men comfortably outplaying Cavan’s. The only thing more disconcerting to a home support than watching backward and lateral passes, as well as careless squanders of possession, is standing in the rain having been overcharged for the privilege of doing so.
Donegal’s positive conclusion to the first half spilled into the second and Kevin Rafferty, making his first championship start at 30, pointed before Kavanagh’s goal, as early as the 44th minute, essentially tied up the victory. The St Eunan’s midfielder played a finely weighed ball into McFadden, whose handling was excellent again, before the give-and-go.
Kavanagh haired into the empty space, flanked only by Ryan Bradley, who could was squealing for a pop-off. For a second it looked like Bradley would even tackle his own man for possession, knowing a goal might give him a deserving man-of-the-match award after The Sunday Game claimed they were forced to award one against Antrim. However, Kavanagh gave Reilly the eyes before steering home at the near post.
McBrearty and McFadden emphasised Donegal’s dominance, or Cavan’s lack of it, before Dermot Molloy scored a couple of points and Leo McLoone made a welcome reintroduction having broken an ankle just over three months ago.
The sight of Cavan’s best forward, Seanie Johnston, having to roam back to the position of last man, 26 men and 130 yards from Donegal’s goal, to get his hands on clean ball told a story in itself. Still, at least he managed to keep Karl Lacey scoreless. The Four Masters defender was the victim of a Eugene Keating tackle that looked at first instance it was straight out of Twickenham, but that would be doing a disservice to the noble oval-balled sport.
Half the Cavan support heard their goal, when Michael Brennan netted from a rebounded penalty following Paul Durcan’s initial save from Johnston, on Northern Sound FM presumably, starting bleakly through steamed-up car windscreens as a pending traffic-jam took a more rigid shape than their defence.
Hopefully the suspension Murphy now finds himself tangled in is overturned with Tyrone lying in wait. Donegal, though, managed without him and there was as much steam coming from Jim McGuinness in the tunnel afterwards as there was from the showers.
McGuinness wouldn’t have known it then but that night Pat Spillane, who constantly bemoans Donegal’s negativity, would accentuate Cavan’s weaknesses and the fact that only two of Donegal’s starting forwards scored from play, rather than take the positive slant himself after the 2-14 to 1-8 win.
And while Donegal will find it hard to judge themselves against such timid opposition, the championship is starting to take shape, especially when looking forward to meeting the three-time All-Ireland champions in Clones. Sunday wasn’t so much fun in the sun, but Donegal still left Breffni singing in the rain.