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Greatest day of shocks in football history? How Tipperary and Cavan upset odds to taste provincial glory

A season that started with a spate of players dropping off both squads, has seen the counties advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Updated Nov 23rd 2020, 8:30 AM

THINK ABOUT IT, only for a man eating a bat in a Wuhan fish market in late 2019, Cavan and Tipperary probably wouldn’t be waking up this morning as provincial champions. 

michael-quinlivan-emotional-after-the-game Michael Quinlivan comes to terms with Tipperary's Munster title win after the game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A magical day of GAA started with Tipperary landing their first Munster football crown in 85 years and concluded with Cavan ending a 23-year drought in Ulster against the might of Donegal.

The Tipperary win was an upset but not unexpected. Cavan’s four point winning margin over Donegal was very much in the latter category. 

Tipperary had recent experience of beating Cork. They dumped them out in the 2016 Munster semi-final and have regularly met the Rebels over recent years in the league. Cork only beat them by a point in the spring encounter.

Even Meath, who were subjected to a 22-point beat down by a machine-like Dublin the night before, were more talked up than Cavan coming into this weekend. 

Cavan are backboned by the four in-a-row Ulster U21 winning teams. The excitement around Meath was down to the seven goals they put past Division 4 side Wicklow and the 35 minutes when they scored five goals against a weak Kildare defence.

As if 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, Tipperary and Cavan are two of the last four teams left in the race for the Sam Maguire.

But back to how the pandemic benefited David Power and Mickey Graham. 

david-power-at-the-final-whistle Tipperary manager David Power at the final whistle. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Cast your mind back to early January, before the madness of Covid-19 had properly entered our lives. The big talking point in those innocent times was about the high number of GAA players opting out of inter-county set-ups.

By 8 January, it was estimated that at least 63 players were known to have dropped off county panels for 2020. In truth, the figure was probably higher than that. 

Among the two worst affected by the drop-outs were Tipperary (7) and Cavan (6).

Michael Quinlivan and Liam Casey were among the Premier players who decided to jet off and see a bit of the world. Killian Clarke, Dara McVeety and Conor Moynagh were the high-profile Cavan departures.

Meanwhile had the Munster final taken place as expected in the summer, Colin O’Riordan would have been still in the grind of an AFL season with Sydney Swans. Instead, O’Riordan was back home for the AFL off-season. He was involved with the Premier panel since they reconvened for the final two rounds of the league. 

He travelled to challenge games and trained with the squad, but, concerned by the risk of injury, O’Riordan’s club were reluctant to allow him tog out for a game.

You wouldn’t blame them for wrapping him in cotton wool either. Back in 2016 he broke a bone in his back and punctured a lung during a game for the club’s reserves. His 2020 season with the seniors was disrupted by a hip injury.

Watching Mark Keane strike a late winning goal for Cork against Kerry was the straw that broke the camel’s back for O’Riordan. His requests to Sydney had repeatedly been rejected so he changed tack. 

He contacted Sydney Swans leadership group of Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and Dane Rampe, explaining the significance of the game and asking them to make a case to head coach John Longmire.

colin-oriordan-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Colin O’Riordan celebrates at the final whistle. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It did him no harm that Keane’s stunning winner had reverberated on social media all the way Down Under and into the AFL bubble.

After giving a powerful display in his first game for his native county since 2015, an emotional O’Riordan thanked the Swans for releasing him for the remainder of the 2020 season. 

“I just want to say I’m extremely thankful to Sydney for allowing me to play this game,” he told The Sunday Game. 

“They were exactly 100% in their rights to say no to me and to refuse me permission to play. But they had no problem. It was John Longmire and all these lads over there at the Sydney Swans.

“They’re an incredible organisation and without them giving me the permission I wouldn’t have been able to play so on a side note I just want to give them a massive thanks.”

The travel plans of Quinlivan and Casey were scuppered and they found themselves back at home with little else to be at when the delayed championship rolled around. By that time they’d already rediscovered their grá for the game after giving their undivided attention to the club campaign.

When the call came from Power, the fitness levels were good and a condensed season of knock-out football didn’t seem so bad.

Clarke left the Cavan squad to get off the inter-county hamster wheel but likewise fancied a return after the club season. 

Could anyone say with any conviction that Tipperary would have beaten Cork without Quinlivan, Casey and O’Riordan? Or Cavan upset Donegal without Clarke restricting Donegal talisman Michael Murphy to a single point?

Cavan’s win was more impressive considering Cian Mackey retired last winter and both Moynagh and McVeety stayed in the southern hemisphere.

The pandemic did them no harm at all. After seven championship wins between them in 23 days, it’s evident that momentum counts for a lot when the games come thick and fast.

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cavan-celebrate-after-the-game Cavan celebrate after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The nature of their come-from-behind and extra-time win over the heavily fancied Monaghan turned their season on its head. Just a week earlier, they had suffered relegation from Division 2 after losing to league winners Roscommon.

Cavan played six games in six weeks, beating the Farney, Antrim, Down and Donegal in the championship. They trailed Monaghan by seven and Down by eight at half-time. Four weeks after dropping to the third tier of the league, Cavan were crowned Ulster champions.

In the final game before the shutdown, Longford beat Tipperary by five points. They’ve gone 5-0 since the resumption. Power pointed to narrow league wins over Offaly and Leitrim that sealed their survival in Division 3 as the catalyst for their winning run. 

They made things hard on themselves too. The Premier came from seven behind to force extra-time with Limerick thanks to a wonder free from the sideline by Conor Sweeney. They prevailed in extra-time and a fortnight later Sweeney lifted the Munster title.

Cavan’s winning margins across the four championship games was one, four, one and four. Tipperary’s over four games was three, one and three. Every game went right down to the wire.

For both counties to wind up as provincial champions in the same season is remarkable. 

mickety-graham-and-killian-clarke-celebrate Mickey Graham and Killian Clarke celebrate the defeat of Donegal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It also ensured that the All-Ireland semi-final line-up is the exact same as it was for the  1920 version, confirmed on the weekend of the 100th year anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

100 years and a day after Michael Hogan and 13 supporters were killed in Croke Park, a Tipperary side wearing commemorative jerseys did their former player and county proud.

You genuinely couldn’t make it up. It’s a promotional tap-in for the GAA’s marketing department. Expect a few more references to the 1920 All-Ireland SFC in the two weeks leading up to the semi-finals.

For what it’s worth, the 1920 All-Ireland final wasn’t played until June 1922 due to the War of Independence. Tipperary sealed their fourth title after beating Dublin by 1-6 to 1-2. After leading by two at half-time, Dublin were held scoreless for the entire second-half game.

It was the first day the teams had met on the field since Bloody Sunday less than two years earlier. 17 days after Tipperary’s victory, the Irish Civil War started.

And it’s another fairytale victory for Mickey Graham, who was a player the last time Cavan lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup.

In 2018 he led Longford half-parish Mullinalaghta to a shock Leinster club title win over Dublin superclub Kilmacud Crokes.

Graham stressed to his players that they were finishing games strong. If they were still in the game with 15 minutes to go they were going to be right in the mix come the final whistle. 

Their come-from-behind wins over Monaghan and Down helped invigorate this group and instill confidence that their time had come. It was thought that Cavan’s golden generation that delivered those four Ulster titles had missed their chance of collecting Ulster silverware at senior level.

But Graham knows a thing or two about upsetting the odds. Cavan’s achievement in winning despite playing with 14 men for 20 minutes against the second favourites for the All-Ireland was exceptional.

Conor Madden arrived on the field three times as a blood sub in the opening half and then shipped a harsh looking black card midway through the second.

It was Cavan’s second black card of the game. A Donegal power play took full advantage of Killian Brady’s first-half black card and outscored them by 0-7 to 0-1 in those 10 minutes.

conor-smith-celebrates Conor Smith celebrates after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

When Madden was ordered off the field, Cavan knuckled down. They had Graham’s words from the second-half water break assuring them they legs to win the game still ringing in their ears.

By the time he returned, they had turned a one point deficit into a 0-13 to 0-12 lead.

Madden then struck for the game’s decisive moment. He capitalised on Shaun Patton’s failure to gather Gearoid McKiernan’s free that dropped short and smashed the ball into the back of the net.

Cavan’s Padraig Faulkner said after the game he listened to the radio coverage of Tipperary’s victory on his drive over to the Athletic Grounds, and that it added to the collective belief than an upset was possible. 

So Tipperary and Cavan advance into the All-Ireland semi-finals after what might have been the greatest day of shocks in the football championship.

It’s certainly been the strangest All-Ireland football championship since 2010, when the last four consisted of Cork, Down, Kildare and Dublin. 

But watching two Division 3 sides deliver provincial success after such long waits puts 2020 ahead in the pecking order.

Knock-out football, bloody hell. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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