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Johnson hails elusive x-factor that Cavan's 'Mickey the Master' exudes and instils in his players


ON A ROLL: Cavan boss Mickey Graham. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

ON A ROLL: Cavan boss Mickey Graham. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

ON A ROLL: Cavan boss Mickey Graham. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Coca-Cola may have to change their festive holiday greeting to 'Miracles are Coming' in honour of the magic which Mickey Graham, a long-standing sales rep for the beverage giant, has wielded throughout an extraordinary managerial career.

"Cavan people weren't expecting miracles today but they got one," Graham remarked as he tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back the tears following the Breffni men's first Ulster SFC crown in 23 years after being written off in every quarter.

Combined with the 'Miracle of Mullinalaghta' when he guided the Longford half-parish to 2018 Leinster club SFC glory in the face of Dublin powerhouse Kilmacud Crokes, Graham has made a mockery of the odds to orchestrate two of the biggest shocks in provincial final history.

Such remarkable feats don't surprise those who know the 45-year-old best, though, as he was skipper when Cavan Gaels also ended a 23-year wait for Cavan SFC silverware to usher in a golden era for the club which yielded a further nine county titles.

Impossible is nothing. After all, here is a man who scored a goal for Cavan Gaels in their 2004 Ulster SFC quarter-final defeat of Magheracloone while managing the Butlersbridge junior side to a provincial victory over Antrim's St Brigid's the same day.

The circus-like juggling act continued when his Drumalee side, which he led to Cavan IFC success in 2006, came in direct competition with Cavan Gaels in the League's top tier as he balanced playing and managing in the latter stages of his career.

He double jobbed between Cavan's Division 1 League campaign and Mullinalaghta's All-Ireland club journey in the early stages of 2019 with a panache that others simply couldn't dream of before guiding the Breffni men to last year's Ulster decider.

Relegation to Division 3 threatened to puncture this year's winter championship but he resurrected it from the ashes to join just a handful of counties who have lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup coming from the preliminary round - while playing six weekends in succession to boot.

Water was turned into wine as they rose from the dead against Monaghan to secure a dramatic extra-time victory before a similar Houdini act against Down and a stunning upset defeat of Donegal last Sunday which brought the country to its feet.

The final whistle had barely sounded when fireworks erupted around Cavan town with the squad stationed on a lorry later that night as thousands crammed into cars for a glimpse of their heroes out through their windows on a day like no other.

Former Cavan star Seanie Johnston, who retired quietly before Graham's first season in charge, provides an insight into 'Mickey the Master', as he is known locally (and possibly nationally now), and what separates his "charismatic" club-mate from the rest after his latest coup.

"It's incredible what he has done, he just has that x-factor about him. It's hard to put your finger on it. Some people would say he's a lucky manager but I know that he'd respond to that by saying that 'you can't be lucky all the time'. He definitely has something special," Johnston said.

"He was involved with us when I was minor and you could see then the influence he could really have on our players in terms of belief and making you fully expect you could win.

"We weren't great that year and weren't expected to win but he ingrained that level of who we are, 'We're Cavan Gaels and we should be expecting to win things'. I'd say he's done the exact same thing in that Cavan dressing room and given those players that belief that they can compete with the Monaghans and Donegals and Tyrones of this world, and hopefully the Dublins as well."

Sunday's drama also left John Keegan reminiscing with his Mullinalaghta team-mates about the Leinster club title which Graham steered them to two years ago with Cavan's success "something that the GAA and football needed" in the most unprecedented of times.

Close confidant

With special mention for Graham's right-hand man John 'JD' Denning - a close confidant throughout his managerial career with a flair for statistics and administrative duties - Keegan attempts to unwrap the secrets to his success with belief and simplicity underpinning his methods.

"He has an ability to instil a belief like no other, I've never seen it before. We had no right in Mullinalaghtha to contest a Leinster club final never mind win it and everyone thought Cavan had no right to win Ulster against a strongly fancied Donegal side," Keegan said.

"Mickey capitalises on that pride which lads have in the jersey for individuals to really push themselves more and to turn their back on the hard luck stories. Mullinalaghta were knocking on the door at the time but had always come up short.

"He challenged us to turn our back on that and for this bunch to set a new standard. Cavan are no different, he would have demanded new standards and got that buy in.

"Mickey is also very tactically aware but he doesn't overcomplicate the game. He'd never bombard the players with information overload.

"He'll keep them feeling fresh and hungry and enjoying the game. He absolutely prioritises that while he's also one of those characters that when he speaks, you listen."

Graham, who famously passed his driving test the day after helping Cavan lift the 1997 Ulster title, must conjure another miracle on Saturday week with the six-in-a-row chasing Dubs awaiting in the All-Ireland semi-final, but Johnston believes he will be salivating at that prospect.

"He will be relishing what's happening over the next two weeks, even if they are playing the best team of all time and the best team in the country," he said.

"What they have done is given the youth of Cavan the confidence that this anything is possible."

The familiar tag of underdogs will again rest on Graham's squad but this dog has a history of biting back.