Watching the Wicklow under-20 footballers train in Ballinakill last Thursday night ahead of their crunch meeting with Dublin this Saturday in the Leinster championship in Aughrim and you couldn't help but be struck by a number of things.
The first was the hunger and desire of the 30-odd strong panel as they went through their paces under the guidance of their management team of Kevin O'Brien, Gary Duffy, Mickey Daly, JB Carthy, Karl Brauner, and Jimmy Whittle. There's no guff, no nonsense, just pure hunger.
The second thing you notice is the togetherness of the group. The unity. During the kickaround at the start it's all jovial and friendly, training itself is rigorous and intelligent and then afterwards it returns to an easy sense of fun. There are three birthdays on the night and Kevin O'Brien has invested heavily in some fairly tasty looking fresh cream cakes - no sugar icing for Wicklow's only All Star - for the young bucks celebrating a milestone now only a distant memory for the Baltinglass and Wicklow legend.
Kevin lights the candles and gets two players to carry in the cakes and a rousing 'Happy Birthday' is sung and a feeling of real closeness exists. This team are a band of brothers and it is a testament to Kevin O'Brien's managerial style that he can foster and create such an atmosphere that helps to provide a boost to the county teams he has presided over thus far.
Nobody needs to tell Kevin O'Brien about the challenge that awaits his charges this Saturday afternoon when they run out into a hopefully packed Aughrim against a county whose team reached the All-Ireland decider last year in this same competition.
The glass-half-full supporters from the Garden County will reflect on the magical victory over the Dubs in Parnell Park two years ago by O'Brien's Minor team that came so close to reaching a Leinster decider. The glass-half-empty crew will recall last year's defeat to the Dubs in Aughrim when a slick team from the big smoke proved too sharp all over the field.
It's quite possible that Saturday could produce something in the middle that will hopefully result in a seismic Wicklow victory which would send O'Brien's charges on to face Longford in the next round. It's not ridiculous to suggest that an attack featuring the likes of Eoin Darcy, Matthew Ging, Johnny Keogh and Oisin McGraynor can seriously hurt a tight Dublin defence or that a competent and capable Wicklow rearguard featuring the likes of Patrick O'Keane, Conall Ó Gallochobhair, Tom Moran and Craig Maguire with team captain Cillian McDonald floating around can curtail a free-flowing Dublin attack. Throw in a feisty atmosphere in Aughrim, good playing conditions and a bounce of the ball or two and there's nothing to say that Wicklow can't get over this hurdle. Judging by the body language and attitude of the Wicklow players at this training session, the players most certainly believe they can do it.
It's been a relatively short but dramatic lead in period for O'Brien and his team. A run of three games in the Liam Connor Cup against Offaly, Limerick and Clare proved useful but two of those games were played without some of the pillars of the squad who were held for Senior duty.
Kevin O'Brien says that his side gave a good account of themselves in that tournament and while it would have been great to have had his full squad to pick from, they were forced to ask questions of other players and they all answered impressively.
'We gave a good account of ourselves in the league,' said Kevin. 'There were little things going on but every manager, you know, when you're preparing a team, there's always little hiccups and stuff you have to deal with. It's no difference here than any other place. Look, it would have been lovely to have Clare or Offaly last Sunday in Aughrim (in the Connor Cup final), it would have been great for the players and the county but you wouldn't swap it for taking Dublin's scalp or any scalp.
'Our preparation has been very, very good. Whether it's Dublin or Carlow the preparation has to be first class. Other than that, everyone is looking forward to it. We've no injuries which is very good. They guys have been great but it's all about them now.
'Offaly had a full side and you're going to come up against teams like that and we're not going to make excuses. We'd love to have a rev at Offaly again. We were caught on aggregate and it ended up with Offaly hammering Limerick to make sure that they got there. We hadn't got the boys (Eoin Darcy, Andy Maher, Patrick O'Keane and Zach Cullen) against Clare.
'It was disappointing but the bottom line is we got on with and we challenged other guys and they were very positive, and they put in a huge performance and it was made of grit and determination and bravery and everything we wanted. They guys want to be here. They want to play for Wicklow.
'The big buy-in is that they're here to represent their families and clubs and that's a serious buy-in. We keep mentioning that. Then when they come in here, they're inter-county players, and they're hand-picked. They're not club players but they're representing their clubs and there's a huge buy-in to that. It's all about them and it never changes,' he added.
Since Kevin O'Brien began coaching the Wicklow Minor team he has insisted on an holistic approach in terms of how his players behave and how they carry themselves on and off the pitch. That philosophy remains in place with this current squad.
'Absolutely. Matthew Ging got an award for the under-20s (club championship with Kilaveney) and when he came back in, we presented him with the brush to clean up the dressing room. No better man to do it.
'Mattie went to that do and he asked could he go and all that and there was never a problem and he knows that he was representing us all here and no better gentleman to win the award and carry himself and he got the brush when he came back. Nobody gets big heads around here.
'Look, you have to have the craic. We have two cakes to give out tonight, and it's cost me a fortune tonight for cakes again, but I don't mind. It's all about the lads, it's never changed, and we'll fight tooth and nail for the lads. We're not here to get credit, we'll come and go but we've put a lovely management team together here with JB (Carthy, former Dublin goalkeeper), Mickey Daly (Donard-the Glen), Gary Duffy (St Pat's). Gary mightn't realise this, but I've watched him very closely on the line with Pat's and I looked for him to come in and he's enjoying it. I was hugely impressed by what he has done with Pat's, and others, because Pat's juvenile scene is not setting the world on fire and still they're producing championships. His defensive stuff (impresed Kevin). We all have a role to play.
'We brought in Karl (Brauner) to do the goalkeeping coaching and it's amazing that some of the goalkeepers never had one-to-one coaching and we're seeing an immediate improvement,' added Kevin.
'Dublin are a good side. We watched them closely. Dublin are Dublin. We were expecting that they were going to be huge. They're very athletic to say that they play Archer and Swan up front. They rotate around. They've serious energy in the middle third. They'll bring aggression in the tackle, exactly what we expect.
'We're looking forward to it. It's a great challenge. It's a great opportunity. It doesn't matter whether it's Dublin or whoever. It's going to be a tough competition and we have to take it match after match. I really hope for these guys who have put the work in that they are super competitive, that's the most important thing. Of course, we want to win. If we're super competitive we won't be far off.
'I always tell the guys that there's a team in Wicklow that people want to follow. There are a lot of people out there who want to follow a team and why not these guys here. It happened in the Minor. I want the players to feel that. That makes them want it more and want it more. We just want the people to come out and support the guys. It would be a nice position to be in coming back from a swimming pool after rehab and preparing for Longford and to go and support the lads playing Sligo.
'They don't fear Dublin. They've had a couple of assignments against them over the years and more times you play that kind of a team the more you're going to be prepared for it,' he added.
Leading the Wicklow side out into battle will be Tinahely's Cillian McDonald, a teak-tough, workaholic footballer who drifts back down the field when the ball is thrown in and who can have a major say in the fortunes of his teams.
The role of captain is one that Cillian wears lightly. He's been following Wicklow football teams since he was a very young child and he's seen good days and bad and while the captaincy is a huge honour it's only a title in his mind given the leaders on the field of play alongside him.
'It's good but it's only a title. I only go up and do the toss. Plenty of leaders out there. It's obviously a huge honour, I'm not putting it down or anything, but it's just going up for the toss,' said Cillian.
Cillian's father was the main driving force in his footballing life, says the Leaving Cert student who plans on studying to become a secondary school teacher.
'Da probably (his main infleunce). The first blitz I came out of, I was probably about eight, I sulked a bit and he got me into the car, and I didn't do it again. He made sure I knew where I stood. I wouldn't even be a massively skillful player but you just have to keep driving at it.
'It's just to keep going until the end no matter what the score is. We have to work harder than any other county. Yeah, we have brilliant footballers but we're not going to get anywhere without hard work,' he said.
Playing for Wicklow is a huge honour for Cillian who as a young child travelled the length and breadth of Ireland during the Mick O'Dwyer era.
'Obviously, definitely (a huge honour). When I first started watching matches it was with Micko and I went all over the country to watch them and I have pictures of me with James Stafford in hotels in Armagh and places like that. They were serious men playing it then. Obviously, it's not what it was then but it's getting back there. There's a good man over it at the minute. Davy Burke is a good manager. He's going in the right direction. There are plenty of good footballers coming. I see a bright future with the work that's going on at the minute,' he said.
His under-20 boss is a legend across the county. Cillian says that Kevin O'Brien is a very good man manager.
'He's good, very good man manager. Doesn't drop his standards. He's not going to make any apologies. I've been with him since he first took over the Minors. He's been there, done it. You're not going to not listen to a man who has an All Star. He knows what he's talking about. He wants the best for Wicklow,' he said.
Ahead of them is the Dubs and it's abundantly clear that Cillian Mcdonald and his colleagues are by no means overawed by the sight of the blue jersey. Those days are long gone.
'To be honest, two years ago now was it, we went up to Parnell Park and bet them. Last year they obviously got us in Aughrim and they were probably better than us on the day to be fair. There's certainly no fear factor but we're not underestimating them. They're one of the best teams in the country but we're certainly not going in there thinking we're no-hopers.
'They were in an All-Ireland final last year, you don't get there too easy, no mean feat. You don't run down blind alleys against them, they get many lads around the ball but we're not dealing with the Dublin Senior team either,' he said.
'We have good backs; Andy Maher, Paddy O'Keane, Tom Moran, brilliant defenders. Obviously, it's going to be a hard, hard game but we are going to try our very best and what an achievement it would be to get one over on them. When we came in in the Minor it was completely out of the blue, nobody knew what to expect, whereas now there's a bit more behind it and people around the county are expecting that bit more and you have to live up to that.
'It would be brilliant. To go out in Aughrim and beat Dublin and obviously then Longford after that and that wouldn't be an easy game but we have our sights firmly set on them (Dubs) and we won't be holding back when the day comes,' he said.
One of the unsung workers of this talented Wicklow side is Baltinglass attacker Johnny Keogh who is currently studying to become a vet in UCD.
Coming from Baltinglass it's not surprising that football is a massive part of your life. Johnny has fond memories of his early days training in Baltinglass and travelling with his father Noel when he was managing the Donard-the Glen team.
'It's up there with one of the top things you do (football),' said Johnny. 'It's something I've always done. The club is key. I've grown up watching it, watching the father manage, he managed Donard when I was younger, and I was up there, and I was in Baltinglass training when I was six or seven. When you're growing up in Baltinglass you're grown to win, you have to win. Even if you lose a county final you don't be happy just to get to a county final, you have to win.
'My father managed Donard years ago, Noel Keogh. He was there for four years, I remember it, standing there when I was a little lad. I remember me and Shane (Daly) used to be up there together years ago,' he added.
Playing for Wicklow is changing in recent years. Following the highs of the Micko era and the promotion under Harry Murphy things took a turn for the worst but under Davy Burke and with Kevin O'Brien and Paddy Dalton working hard at the under-20 and Minor grades the jersey has become something to cherish yet again.
'It is a big honour. You hear people going 'it's only Wicklow, it's only Wicklow'. You'd like to come out and beat the likes of Dublin. When you come out everyone is thinking Wicklow are going to lose. You always want to win, no matter what county you're from you want to win,' said Johnny.
'You wouldn't go out thinking you were going to lose. We're here, we're all young players. What Wicklow did before doesn't affect us. We're different players. Different players shouldn't be done by history. The chances are there, you have to take them. Everyone gets their chance. If you work hard, you'll get your chance,' he added.
So what does he expect from the Dubs?
'They'll bring size and pace. You wouldn't know, they could come a bit naive. You see everyone thinks it's just Wicklow, you're coming down to play no-one, coming down to Aughrim and think you'll kick a few points and go home. Vincent's did it against Rathnew, that's the biggest one (upset).
'If we start well in the first 10 minutes the game will take its own way and the better team will win from there,' he added.