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Mickey Graham confident Cavan can pull off big surprise

Happy family: Cavan manager Mickey Graham with wife Linda, son Jack and daughter Lauren
Happy family: Cavan manager Mickey Graham with wife Linda, son Jack and daughter Lauren
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

The young, pocket-rocket forward that was Mickey Graham had only been on the Clones turf for a minute before the end of normal time in the 1997 Ulster final.

Back then, games finished more promptly. So when referee Pat McEnaney put the whistle to his lips and blew the three long peeps, Graham, on for the teenage Larry Reilly, hadn't time to even break a sweat.

Cavan had prevailed, 1-14 to 0-16. Jason Reilly's goal was the difference. Their young manager, Martin McHugh, had delivered Cavan's first Ulster title in 28 years.

"I still remember it like it was yesterday. I think I hadn't time to breathe before the place was converged upon," says Graham now, a few days before he attempts to halt the 22-year drought back to Cavan's last provincial triumph when they face Donegal in Clones this Sunday.

"I turned around and I think I was hit by a herd of buffalo. I never seen a pitch fill up as quick. The one memory I have, because I went to grab one of my team-mates beside me, but I couldn't get near him because the crowd was on so quickly.

"It just shows you the tradition and what people think of football in Cavan."

Graham can spot the odd similarity in how 1997 panned out compared with this season.

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"There was a great bond between the senior players and the younger players, and he (McHugh) just brought a great structure to the place, a great belief around it, and we were just even delighted to get the opportunity to compete in that Ulster final, and to win it was even more special," he says.

In some ways it's completely different too.

In the autumn of 1996, Arsène Wenger took over as Arsenal manager and - much to the bemusement of the more traditional English soccer types - insisted on pre-match meals of pasta.

McHugh, forever seeking the cutting edge of sports science, followed suit. Again, the reaction wasn't entirely positive.

"There were a couple of players who, when we had pre-match meals before big games - we'd get spaghetti bolognese - they used to ask 'Where's the low-calorie full Irish?' recalls Graham.

"I'll not mention the names. I wasn't one of them.

"They used to look at this spaghetti as if it was alien, they were more interested in a breakfast roll or something else.

"It was a culture shock at that stage for them - we'd a few farmers on the team and a few country boys who liked their full Irish the morning of a game.

"It would've taken a while to convince them that this was the way the game was going, let me tell ya."

So here he is, in his first year, a Leinster title in the bag with tiny Longford outfit Mullinalaghta last winter prior to a relegation from Division One with Cavan and an appearance in the Ulster final.

It's not unusual. Of the last 12 Ulster finals, including this one, nine managers of the competing counties were in their first year managing that county. You get a bounce in year one that has to be taken advantage of.

"It's a hard one to put a finger on. Sometimes people will tell you it's the new manager syndrome, others say it's just new ideas that the players have bought into, but I definitely wouldn't have seen us getting so far this soon," he says.

And now that he is there, facing a Donegal team in their eighth final in nine years?

"We've earned the right to be there, we've come through three tough games and when you get to the final, the old cliché goes that it's all on the day," he says.

"I don't believe it's all on the day, you have to believe you can win it before you even get there. If you don't believe you can win it, what's the point?

"You might as well sit at home."

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