The most striking fixture of this weekend’s Tailteann Cup takes place in Kingspan Breffni on Saturday. Cavan welcome Down for a fixture, whose contestants have 10 Sam Maguires between them, a graphic illustration of falling on bad times.
Whereas Cavan were football aristocracy for a 20-year period from 1933 to ‘52, Down’s triumphs all came later in the years 1960 to ‘94. Right up until 1992, they were the only Ulster counties to achieve national success.
That 1991 win for Down inspired a northern uprising. Donegal and Derry achieved All-Ireland breakthroughs and after 1994, Armagh and Tyrone, four times, trod the same path.
Ross Carr, a member of two of Down’s All-Ireland winning sides, made a prophetic statement earlier this year when Down were still trying to stay out of Division Three and avoid the Tier Two championship.
“You have to go a certain level before you realise that you have to change,” he told The Irish Times. “That moment of clarity when there’s only you and the mirror. The only person you’re talking to is the boy in the mirror and you can’t tell him any lies. I’m not sure Down’s level is Sam Maguire but if relegation happens and they’re out to improve, well go and win the Tailteann Cup.”
The matter was out of Cavan’s hands. Having followed up their Ulster title just two years ago with relegation to Division Four, they had no way of finishing high enough up the league to take part in the Sam Maguire unless they reached the provincial final, which they failed to do despite a refusal to go easily against Donegal.
The 10 All-Ireland titles spread evenly between the counties is a bigger haul than the Ulster finalists this Sunday. Donegal and Derry have three between them.
Down and Cavan have more to their history than simply being Ulster’s most successful counties. Their fortunes crossed in the 1960s. Having won a last All-Ireland in 1952, Cavan went into the next decade as provincial contenders for a while before falling away – they have two titles since 1969.
They did, however, remind Down of who they were in 1962 and ‘69, when they dethroned the then All-Ireland champions in the Ulster final both years – as well as in 1964 and ‘67 when they weren’t defending the title.
The 1962 match was a particular surprise. Down were chasing a fourth successive Ulster, en route to a hoped-for three-in-a-row. In these pages, Paddy Downey reported on the outcome, a 10-point defeat for the champions, 3-6 to 0-5.
“How strange it is, how utterly unbelievable to write this scoreline after more than three glorious years of Down dominance in the world of Gaelic football. But the incredible happened yesterday when the All-Ireland and National League champions crashed to Cavan before a record crowd of more than 40,000 amazed spectators in the Ulster final at Casement Park.”
Credulity won’t be so stretched this weekend either way even though the home side are among the early favourites for the inaugural Tailteann Cup – a step perhaps towards reclaiming the status of 60 summers ago.