Dublin success based on players insists Moyna but appliance of science at DCU brought their preparation to new levels, writes Colm Keys
Published 24/09/2011 | 05:00
On Wednesday morning, the first- year students at DCU's School of Health and Human Performance gathered in the Helix for an introduction to their new environment.
When the signposts were pointed out and the formalities were completed, a few surprise visitors arrived on stage, visitors well accustomed to the surroundings the new students were being invited to embrace.
Paul Flynn, James McCarthy, team captain Bryan Cullen and coach Mickey Whelan had dropped in on a courtesy visit with the Sam Maguire Cup.
The quartet were tipping their cap to the campus where their education had been furthered (Cullen and Whelan are PhD students) but they may also have been acknowledging the strong link between the northside university and the newly crowned All-Ireland champions over the last three years.
If Parnell Park and latterly Croke Park were Dublin's Cape Canaveral, the public launch pads for the ascension to that status, then DCU was surely the equivalent of Houston. Mission Control. The hub of the operation.
The first thing Professor Niall Moyna, the head of DCU's sports academy, wants to stress is that his own input was "minimal".
The next point he wants to make is that the very best of sport science will only take you so far and improve you so much.
Essentially, what he assures you is that with everything that Dublin's players did to make their preparations such an exact science, they were first and last "damn good footballers". Bottom line.
"You can talk about strength and conditioning all you want. I always say that will get you to the last eight," says Moyna. "You might get a good start to the season, you are fitter than everyone else, it gets you to the last eight. From there on, you have to have the football nous."
Pat Gilroy didn't have to go far to begin assembling his team when he became the preferred candidate of the committee tasked with finding a successor to Paul Caffrey.
Whelan had been his St Vincent's manager only six months earlier when they landed the All-Ireland club football title.
In Whelan's back-room team was Moyna taking care of fitness and conditioning. The two shared much in common: an educational background in the US and a fascination with the science of sport. Whelan was completing a doctorate in DCU at the same time as Vincent's were scaling the club ladder again after a long absence.
Gilroy saw their work first-hand and when he was appointed as manager, Moyna, a Monaghan native, contemporary of Pat Spillane and Tony Ward at Thomond College of Physical Education in the 1970s and one of the most eminent voices in his field, was on the ticket.
He insists his role was little more than advisory to Whelan, who undertook training and coaching duties almost exclusively.
But with the keys to 'mission control' Dublin were able to take their preparations to different places than they had ever been before. Having the knowledge and facilities of a third- level institution with such a strong sports orientation provided a distinct edge.
Moyna laughs at the notion that Dublin will now be held up as a shining example of what a team should be doing to win an All-Ireland title.
"At the end of every year when the All-Ireland is over, this is par for the course, you look to see what the winning team does and everyone implements it the next year.
"If Dublin had taken cocoa every morning every team would be doing that! It's not about that. It's about developing a plan over a three to four-year period, built on sound science and adhering to that.
"I wouldn't like it to come from this that Dublin are doing something so unique. At the end of the day, the most important thing is having the players. Science is wonderful if used properly."
He cites an example to underline how sports science must be more specific to Gaelic games. A study conducted of all football championship games this year established that the ball was 'in play' for 36 minutes.
"It's 36 minutes in a game, you're not running a marathon. You don't need all this hydration and nutrition that has been used for running a marathon or a triathlon. That's why we have to be specific.
"We don't have an ethos where you start as a minor and there is a progressive track like there is in rugby."
Still, the recurring theme from opponents of Dublin all season was to stay going for longer and harder than anyone else.
"I read a comment in the paper the other day from Jack O'Connor, who said we were probably the fittest team of all time. I'm not sure if I would buy into that either," says Moyna.
"To be fair to Kerry, their defence was an ageing one. From the huge standards they have set over the last 10 years I'm sure they found that game very, very tough, not because they were any less fit, they were just older and they were coming up against younger players."
Whelan and Moyna would speak daily through the campaigns. Once or twice a week they would sit down and plan. DCU was where every player adhered to a tailored weights programme under the supervision of Sammy Dowling, an employee of Leinster RFU.
It was where an electronic diary was devised, user friendly for players who would simply tick boxes as to how they felt before and after training sessions and what their weekly activities away from the squad were. If they had played a match too many, if they admitted to being tired, an alarm bell would ring with Moyna and a different approach would be advised.
It was where they gathered, ate breakfast and conducted team meetings on the mornings of matches before making the short trip down to Croke Park.
And it was where they developed a permanent training base, turning the vast swathes of land at the St Clare's complex, the property of DCU just off Griffith Avenue, into home.
Early in his management, with the financial support of a number of benefactors he gathered on a personal basis, Gilroy was able to oversee the construction of an extension to incorporate changing-rooms complete with jacuzzi and ice baths and a meeting room with whiteboards and screens.
Moyna felt it was a "masterstroke" from day one, giving the squad a communal feel that might not come naturally to a city team.
"It brought the team tighter together, it was our little spot. This was ours. That's what made it very unique. You'd hardly know it was there," he says.
"But was it any different from any other county squad?"
Whelan was at all times the conductor on the training field, a remarkable redemption for the man who was hounded out of the management position almost 14 years earlier.
Moyna believes that Whelan, who will receive his parchment in November for completing his PhD on a topic that has essentially led to the evolution of the GAA's 'Go Games' model, was "20 years ahead of his time" when he hooked up with Dublin in late 1995.
"His thirst for knowledge beggars belief. He amazed me at times. He's a perfectionist. I grew up in the computer era. Mickey is old school. It's a piece of paper, everything written down. If he was one number out after six hours he would go back and do the whole thing again. That one number had to be accounted for. He's meticulous."
At first hand Moyna witnessed Gilroy's fast growth from rookie manager blinded by the light in his first year to the ruthless man of conviction over the next two. It was a fascinating conversion to see.
"Pat knew how he wanted the game to be played and you either bought into his system or it was 'goodbye'. He had to be more ruthless," says Moyna. "You can't be everyone's best friend. Those guys, if Pat asked them to run up Mount Everest in the morning they would do it. They believe in him now."
He cited the example of Bernard Brogan being left on the bench for the first three league games in 2010. The message?
"If he can sit on the line, anyone can sit on the line. He was ruthless. If you want them all to be your best friend, don't go into management.
"He is just assiduous in his preparation. He is absolutely amazing, every small detail. He forgets about nothing. The players saw that. They could see he was leaving no stone unturned. He didn't deviate from it. He has a phenomenal belief in himself and he imparts that to the players.
"After the first year he became more of his own man. But to have someone like Mickey Whelan who you know you could trust with your life... Mickey tells you the truth. Mickey doesn't tell you what you want to hear. That was very important for Pat.
"There was a unique bond. Mickey would have known Pat's dad very well. More than anything else, and you can't put a price on this, there was trust."
Ripping up the blueprint after the Kerry defeat in 2009 demanded serious changes in personnel. If they were going to demand 6.30am training sessions and a return to the training field later that evening for the first month of a new regime, the dressing-room could not be populated with the same core group of players.
"Pat went out and looked for a certain type of player. Quite obviously the first thing was mental. You had to have the mental fortitude. That's the big thing. Skill and athleticism. Most of the players on our team now are over six foot. Very few under six foot. The defenders are all over 6ft 1in.
"They now realise what it takes because they see what the current crop was doing. To win an All-Ireland takes a lot of personal sacrifice."
They knew they were ready shortly after the Leinster final win over Wexford when they underwent the Bangsbo test for intermittent sports, a variation of the common bleep test. The results staggered the management, according to Moyna.
After achieving high results in the initial test they asked the players to go through it all again 10 minutes later. Some 98pc of them got the same result again.
"That told me these guys were exactly where we wanted them," recalls Moyna. "We put a heart monitor rate on them as well, so we were able to look at their physiological response. It was phenomenal. Their heart rate didn't start to increase until near the end."
Controlling that for the remaining six weeks of the championship required the steady hand of Whelan.
But of all the performance indicators the squad adhered to, it was a statistic, prepared by Ray Boyne and his team, that Gilroy imparted to them on the morning of the All-Ireland final that registered deepest with everyone.
In his post-match press conference Gilroy had referenced a trip to Monaghan in November 2009 for a development game that marked a significant fork in the road for the squad.
Defence was now the priority and that night they made a point of counting 'tackles made' and came away from Corduff feeling good about themselves.
Last Sunday morning Gilroy reminded them of their tackle count from the previous game and compared it to the beginning of the new journey almost two years earlier.
Moyna smiles at the difference. The count had been doubled. "We thought we were great in Monaghan that night, patting ourselves on the back. This was a multiple higher. It showed the journey travelled."