Changing culture to turn half-hearted full-timers into proper professionals
Graham Byrne has a lot to say about League of Ireland football, but one of his most striking sayings is that "there have been plenty of full-time footballers in Ireland, but no professional footballers". From his background in the game, he set out to change that - and now, after four years as strength and conditioning coach with Dundalk, his hope is that "we have some way changed the culture in Ireland".
With his boyish looks and healthy complexion, Byrne could pass for someone who has just celebrated his 21st birthday - but he is 30, and has packed a lot into the last 12 years, when he has gone from League of Ireland hopeful at Shelbourne, Dublin City and Bohemians to health and fitness manager at DCU.
"I played with a lot of the lads who are playing League of Ireland now," he recalled. "When I realised I wasn't good enough to play professionally, I looked for the next best thing - which was working as a strength and conditioning coach.
"I had started working in the gym in DCU at 18, and I learned from the likes of Derval O'Rourke and the Dublin players. They were eating so clean and training so hard, and I thought 'this is brilliant', because it was not like that in soccer."
Working in the off-season with some Bohs players led to Pat Fenlon asking him to take over as fitness coach in 2008, and he worked there for three years. While he acknowledges that this was "a very good second-best to playing", it was not all plain sailing.
"The frustrating thing for me was putting up a circuit for the lads, and half of them didn't know what a squat was, whereas amateur GAA players were in the gym every day and working a day job. I couldn't believe that the Bohs players were being paid maybe a thousand or so a week and they weren't protecting their assets, which was their fitness.
"When I left Bohs, I thought that the League of Ireland wasn't ready for a strength and conditioning coach - it's hard to teach old dogs new tricks. I went to St Vincents and spent a year there, and then went back studying."
Just how bruised he was by the Bohs experience was shown when Stephen Kenny phoned him in 2012, when he had taken over at Shamrock Rovers.
"I turned him down, because I thought it wasn't the right environment for my message," he explained. "He had lads who had won everything for the previous two years, so I didn't take him up on that offer."
On Christmas Eve that year, Byrne was driving out of DCU after work when the phone rang and he heard "it's Stephen Kenny here". He thought it was a wind-up at first, then he was offered a job at Dundalk.
"Stephen had just taken over, and he wanted to have a chat about the project," he recalls. "For the first time, I realised he was as passionate as I am, and we met three or four days later in Dundalk. He had only two players signed, but said he had a few young lads in mind who want to improve and would benefit from having me around.
"Financially, it was bananas, but it was a challenge, so I drew up a pre-season plan. I was in control of the training sessions and their intensity, and how long they should be. Stephen gave me that trust. 'If you can convince me, we'll go with it,' he said.
"So the second week of January, I turned up in Oriel Park. It was below freezing and I had a fitness kit to test all the lads. Apart from Mark Rossiter and Stephen O'Donnell, who I had worked with at Bohs, they were all complete strangers. Richie Towell was on a mission, and latched on to me straight away.
"The big thing was to change the culture. They had to buy into eating healthy and going to the gym three or four times a week. The importance of training correctly, training twice a day, saw them slowly progress every month.
"The big thing is that there have been plenty of full-time footballers in Ireland, but no professional footballers." With this pre-season, that was about to change.
"They were great lads - so receptive," Byrne recalls. "We did a really tough pre-season and, when we came through it injury-free, they were sold on my ideas, and that's how the culture started in Dundalk. They bought in straight away, and if they didn't they were left behind and were gone after a year."
From relegation fodder to runners-up, and Dundalk then added quality players like Daryl Horgan and Ronan Finn to their roster - and now, after successive League titles and an FAI Cup triumph, there are new sights on their horizon.
"The big challenge now is different," explains Byrne. "In Europe, players are well-tuned machines, and everything is done with a team of sports scientists around them, so we can't be patting ourselves on the back for being fitter than other League of Ireland clubs - now why can't we be as fit as the top European teams?
"There is nothing to stop us achieving that, and that's what this season is all about. It's been a four-year plan: Year One, buying into it; Year Two, getting bigger, stronger, faster; Year Three, maintaining that; Year Four, maintaining that to top European level.
"Our pre-season started on Saturday, January 9, and our last game will be on December 8 - nearly a full calendar year of training. It's a balancing act, and that's where training has to have a purpose, and players can enjoy their time off without staying up all hours or getting drunk. It's most physically demanding on the players just coming in - Patrick McEleney and Robbie Benson - and McEleney was the only one to suffer a muscle injury.
"At this stage of the season, my key job is injury prevention. My biggest challenge is keeping the players who are not playing as fit and sharp as possible, and ensuring that the players in the team are getting enough rest and recovery, the proper nutrition and sleep. The third game in seven or eight days is the problem."
That is exactly the problem facing Dundalk, as they have to pack nine high-profile games into the next 27 days. However, Byrne is confident they will pull through.
"The scary thing is there is still more to get out of the players - we ask for more and more, and they keep responding," he adds.
Sunday Indo Sport