Cavan held on, just about, to make the Tailteann Cup final after a nerve-wracking finale against Sligo.
At half-time, Cavan were in charge at 0-11 to 1-3, but had lived dangerously at times and that trend continued in the second half when Oisin Kiernan twice saved Cavan with goal-line clearances while Sligo also hit the upright twice and the crossbar.
Early on, it was all so different as the hot pre-match favourites lived up to their billing, cruising into a 0-6 to 0-0 lead after 14 minutes.
Martin Reilly, who was forced off injured before half-time, opened the scoring with a right-footed effort and further scores from James, who excelled as a target man, Thomas Galligan, Oisin Kiernan, Paddy Lynch and a lovely effort from Conor Brady saw Cavan completely in command.
Extraordinarily, their 11 first-half points were landed by 11 different players – but once Sligo got off the mark through Pat Spillane after 15 minutes, the Yeats men competed strongly. In fact, they should have been closer at the break, having spurned no fewer than eight good scoring opportunities.
A cool penalty from Patrick O’Connor in the 20th minute, after Luke Towey had been felled, dragged them back into contention. Killian Brady landed a rare score – and a quality one – but Pat Hughes and Darragh Cummins both registered to cut the gap to a point on 27 minutes.
O’Connor struck the crossbar, Ray Galligan, with a 45-metre free, and the brilliant Gerry Smith were next to raise white flags, but Sligo almost got in again, with Kiernan stopping Mikey Gordon’s effort, again after a smart pass from Reilly.
Smith set Gearoid McKiernan up for the next and the outstanding Jason McLoughlin teed sub Cian Madden up for his first as Cavan went in five ahead.
The second-half was all change. Sligo introduced the outstanding Niall Murphy, who scored four points from play, and Cavan were left hanging on by their fingernails when they cut the gap to two points late on, with Gerry Smith landing the crucial insurance point in injury time.
Cavan had pulled four clear through Killian Clarke (their 12th scorer) and James Smith, but couldn’t shake Tony McEntee’s side off. Both teams missed chances, with Cavan spurning three good goalscoring opportunities.
“We expected a tough task, we did a lot work on them and we felt they matched up well to our players, they have quality players all over the field,” stated Cavan boss Mickey Graham.
“They had nothing to lose, they were huge underdogs today and we are just delighted to get over the line.”
Cavan will now face Westmeath in the July 9 final at Croker Park after they got the better of Midlands’ rivals Offaly 3-22 to 2-16.
CAVAN: R Galligan (0-1f), J McLoughlin, P Faulkner, Killian Brady (0-1), Ciaran Brady, K Clarke (0-1), Conor Brady (0-1), T Galligan (0-1), J Smith (0-2), O Kiernan (0-1), G McKiernan (0-4, 3f), G Smith (0-4), M Reilly (0-1), P Lynch (0-1), S Smith
Subs: Cian Madden (0-2) for Reilly (31 mins), O Brady for S Smith (58), C Moynagh for K Brady (67), L Fortune for C Brady (68), C Conroy for Lynch (75)
SLIGO: A Devaney, N Mullen, E Lyons, P McNamara, L Towey, D Cummins (0-1), P Kilcoyne, P Laffey, P Spillane (0-2), M Gordon, A Reilly (0-1), K Cawley, S Carrabine (0-3, 2f), P Hughes (0-1), P O’Connor (1-2, 1-0 pen, 1m)
Subs: N Murphy (0-4) for Hughes (ht), M Walsh for K Cawley (53 mins), D Quinn for D Cummins (62), C Griffin for Laffey (63), D Conlon for Spillane (70)
Referee: F Kelly (Longford)