LAST season, Mick O'Dwyer publicly acclaimed Noel Garvan as Gaelic football's best midfielder, but as the gentle giant sauntered sadly towards the bench during their All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Armagh, that praise had a hollow ring to it.
With time just up and Laois on the wrong end of a 2-17 to 1-11 mauling, Garvan finally reached the sanctuary of the sideline with a broken heart and shattered dreams. He had a broken finger too, but that scarcely registered. Instead, he accepted that he'd been outwitted and outfought by his opponents, Philip Loughran and Paul McGrane. In obvious disagreement with O'Dwyer's theory, they didn't let Garvan catch a ball all afternoon and won the tactical battle as well. That is what cut deepest.
Many felt the Laois man should still have got the All-Star award ahead of McGrane, but once the Armagh player won their head-to-head, that settled the issue. It didn't matter that from the lowly plains of the O'Byrne Cup, through the rough terrain of the league right up to that clash, Garvan was the top midfielder around, because McGrane was the one left standing on the big stage.
There was solace though for the Laois man. Until then, he had established a reputation for slugging it out all year long with heavyweights like Ciarán McManus, Killian Brennan, Ciarán Whelan, Pasty Bradley and Fergal Doherty. Not only did he dominate the aerial battles against Offaly, Kildare, Dublin and Derry, but he also weighed in with 0-5 from play in those games, a hark-back to the player who won a 1997 All-Ireland minor medal as a scoring midfielder. All that counted for nothing, though, when against Armagh, Garvan's street credibility disappeared quicker than Wayne Rooney's money in the bookies.
Looking back, Garvan was confident before that quarter-final. Most southern footballers bow at the altar of the Ulster game, but he is not in that mould. A deep thinker, he has always tried to get an extra edge to his game, so their ultra-professional approach didn't over-impress him.
Garvan's interest in preparation and fitness for sport is so strong, he recently opened a gym and health studio where he operates as a personal trainer and sells training equipment. He designs the nutritional and dietary programmes for the Laois team and sources reading material to help them carve a competitive advantage.
On the pitch, he has learned to apply the same intensity and in 30 championship games since his 1998 debut, he has only been taken off twice. He sees this afternoon's battle against Kerry as a chance to stride into the lions' den again and though he has missed much of the league with a hamstring injury, he's mentally and physically ready to do battle with Darragh Ó Sé.
A win in Killarney is important. He feels this season is make or break for Laois and that talk of their 2003 Leinster triumph is now tiresome. He wants the bar raised much higher and a league final appearance would help. As the year unfolds, the aim is another Leinster title and then a crack at the Ulster boys again, a chance for redemption. Last year's northern exposure clearly remains a huge motivating factor.
'Rather than waiting with mouths open for breaks like us, their guy would come across, hit you and his teammate would get the ball. It's very subtle and very quick but they get an extra two foot to jump. Cuteness. We should be doing it'
"I got a bit of an eye opener," he said. "They used serious tactics. Pádraig Clancy and I were never left in a one-on-one scenario for kick-outs. They would crowd me out, screen and block me. You either learn quickly on the day, which I didn't, or store it for the next game. It's brilliant what they do. When you're going for a ball, a wing-back or forward comes across and screens you. Rather than waiting with mouths open for breaks like us, their guy would come across, hit you and his teammate would get the ball. It's very subtle and very quick but they get an extra two foot to jump. Cuteness. Fair play to them, we should be doing it."
More lessons learned and even at 27, Garvan is gathering information all the time. His teammates admire his dedication to excellence, but he says it's essential. For too long, he just sat back and helped in defence, only scoring 0-5 in his first 25 games, a tally he matched in just four outings last season.
Goalkeeper Fergal Byron says the jury was out for a while on whether he'd make it as a key player, but he feels last year was the turning point in Garvan's career. "Noel knows himself he could disappear sometimes," Byron says, "but that's changed and he should have got the All-Star last year. He was by far and away the most consistent player during the league and championship. Both Clancy and himself receive plenty of criticism, much of it unwarranted, but when they get going, there are few partnerships to match them."
Byron himself sought out nutritional advice from his friend and, trimmer than ever, the Courtwood man has since produced some of the best saves of his career, including a miracle stop against Meath early in the league that would have had Gordon Banks misty around the eyes. He acknowledges the link between his displays and Garvan's programme.
"Noel realised he wasn't the finished article and saw ways to improve," Byron continues. "He is our hardest working player but sometimes the harder he tried, the less progress he made. He's a big strong bloke, extremely fit, but a nice easygoing fellow whose nature probably didn't allow him to use that strength to his advantage.
"We all know that nice, quiet fellows don't win championships, that's why we have a more ruthless atmosphere now and players like Noel are responsible for that. Our work ethic hasn't been so strong since the 2003 Leinster final and we all have our own goals. Ultimately Noel will want to prove himself against the benchmark midfielders of Tyrone and Armagh, that's his goal."
First up, though, are Kerry and a chance for Billy Sheehan and Micko to return home for the fatted calf. Garvan is approaching the match in championship mode and although the hamstring took two months to loosen, his individual preparation was otherwise flawless. Such groundwork was enhanced by a move from Dublin back home to Ballyadams and straight into the business of fitness and leisure. Garvan saves 15 hours a week in travel and gained a new lease of life as a result. Although qualified as a graphic designer, his heart was always elsewhere and after initially taking a few courses to enhance his own game, he went the whole hog and opened the studio.
"I'm doing something I love and getting out of Dublin has been a blessing," he says. "The city was great, but Dublin is just one big traffic jam these days and the lifestyle is suffering. It now takes 20 minutes to get to training instead of two hours. I used to get back to Bushy Park in Terenure at 10.45pm but now I'm home at 9.30. The difference is amazing. And the studio has really taken off; we sell equipment, offer programmes for clubs and cater for individuals. Everyone wants to get fit; so many are unhealthy, overweight and lacking energy. If you can solve such things for people, it's a great perk."
'I suppose the question is: Are we nearly men? We're going to have to answer that. I don't agree with the theory that we're too nice but we're maybe a bit naive'
One punter approached Garvan at the start of the year and in six weeks shed three and a half inches off his waist. Thankfully, and unlike the past, the Laois players weren't in such a drastic state of decline. In fact, competition for places is the most competitive it's been. In training, players are openly talking about winning an All-Ireland and reaching three Leinster finals isn't sufficient anymore. Ten years ago, it would have done just fine. The St Joseph's man recalls those days of ill-discipline when another championship exit hailed the start of an almighty drinking session but he insists that the current team has matured through the backdoor system. The mentality of old is gone.
"There were always stories about us. A few lads would go off, do whatever and then tell everyone about it, that's why we got bad publicity. We've been the new Laois team for three years and I suppose the question is: 'Are we nearly men?' We're going to have to answer that. I don't agree with the theory that we're too nice but we're maybe a bit naive.
"Tactical innovations are part of every sport. In rugby it's line-outs, basketball something else, but they are a big business in Gaelic football so we must have plans ready for opponents and we need to work more in that area. Especially against Ulster sides. People talk them lads up and make them out to be Gods, and sure that only makes them harder to beat. We took them at underage level and we should be able for them again."
This afternoon's challenge is no less intimidating. At least, with the emergence of Garvan's clubmate, Colm Kelly, in the full-forward line, the team now has a target man, a bull's-eye to aim at. Elsewhere, Billy Sheehan's 0-4 against Meath and his excellence throughout this campaign highlights his scoring clout, Ross Munnelly is free-scoring and with Donie Brennan's finishing skills, Laois have as much natural ability in their attack as Kerry.
In the past, Garvan and Clancy were frustrated they couldn't profitably send the ball to their inside forwards because it just came back out again so they warmly welcome Kelly's development. And the midfielders are keen to resume their partnership this afternoon, the first time the duo will start together this season.
"We first played senior together in 2001 and had different roles, I sat back and Pádraig attacked, but we both have to expand now. Last year, I averaged a point a game and why not? As a minor, I wasn't defensive and Micko has encouraged me to get forward. For his sake, winning today would be sweet. With his high standards, if we don't win something this year, I suppose Laois will have been a failure for him more so than a success.
"Many people, in fact, have actually under-rated what he's done here in helping us break the 57-year famine. I know it's time to get over that but if he could go the next step with us, he would be a legend forever in our county."
A victory today will help their fine-tuning. More than most, Laois need that winning habit because they don't have a tradition that intimidates. That's why their goals are set so high now, why they won't stop until they get there.
"You reach the stage where you're involved long enough to say: 'Look, we better win something here. We won at minor level; why not senior?' People talk about not getting an All-Star in 2005 but if I won one, it might have taken an edge off me so I look on the positives. Until last year I was an every-second-game fellow, in and out of matches and that's no use. So I did something about it and four years of heavy weight training and the accumulation of big day experience have helped. But it's all about ambition now. I can't understand people who play because they love the game. I love the game too but the happiest memories come from winning."
They say a guy who is afraid to look back is a guy you can beat every time. Garvan isn't afraid to shine a light into his past and identify his mistakes. That's why he's improved so much.