‘I don’t want 14 men in their own half. Cavan won’t be playing that way’
Blanket defence will play no part in Cavan's set-up under new manager Mattie McGleenan, who outlines his positive plans to Martin Breheny
Mattie McGleenan often sat in the stands on big days and wondered: 'What would it be like down on the sideline, running a team amid the intense atmosphere of a championship game.'
He had experienced the incredible buzz as a Tyrone player, with 1995 the highlight when they reached the All-Ireland final, losing to Dublin by a point.
Even in his playing days, he always had a fascination with the coaching side of Gaelic football so a move in that direction was inevitable when his career ended.
It has taken him through the college and club scene before finally steering him to the county market, starting tomorrow when he leads Cavan into their first game of the season against Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup.
His debut just had to be against his native Tyrone, didn't it?
"Absolutely. I was sitting behind Mickey Harte when the draw was made and I sensed Cavan would be in the same group as Tyrone. Sure enough, they are," said McGleenan.
A Croke Park computer devises the fixtures for the Allianz League but it too tossed Cavan, who are back in Division 1 for the first time in 13 years, into at the deep end by matching them against Dublin in the first round on February 5.
McGleenan has spent many years studying Harte, Jim Gavin and all the other big-time managers but remains very much his own man, committed to a philosophy in which he fervently believes.
Kingspan Breffni Park will probably host the biggest crowd of all the pre-season openers around the four provinces this weekend as Cavan supporters take a first look at the model McGleenan is fine-tuning for the long journey ahead.
How far Cavan get around the various circuits remains to be seen but one thing is certain: it's going to be an exciting spin.
"I intend to have Cavan playing football. I'm a great believer that forwards are forwards. I want players to push high up the field, make things difficult for defences.
"I certainly don't want 14 men in their own half. Cavan won't be playing that way. I want people to look after their own areas. Players have to be good enough to win their own ball. It might sound naïve... it might not. I want them high up the pitch as much as possible," said McGleenan.
He points to Dublin, who have enjoyed so much success in recent years, and Mayo, who have come so close to winning an All-Ireland, as examples of teams who play a positive game very effectively.
"Dublin have been the best team for a few years. They have transformed the game in terms of skills, fitness levels and scoring capacity. They play a great kicking game, a great running game and mix it all up very effectively. You're not going to beat Dublin with a blanket defence.
"I like Mayo's way too. They kick the ball a lot and move it quickly too. Just because they haven't won the won an All-Ireland doesn't mean they're not doing a lot right," said McGleenan.
He has an aversion to blanket defence, insisting that it can never really work in Croke Park and that it also reduces the entertainment levels for the public.
A manager talking about what about people on the stands and terraces like is as rare as one praising a referee after losing a game but McGleenan believes it's important.
"We're guardians of the game so we do have a responsibility to it. Some of the games I watched last year certainly weren't easy on the eye. At some point we have to say, we need to change this game because the public don't like what they see. Crowds were down last year - there's a reason for that.
"Supporters want their team to win but they like to enjoy the games too. I want to go out and play attacking football (with Cavan) and see where it takes us. Win or lose, we'll learn. We're coaching the guys to enhance their skills. A kicking game is the game that works," he said.
That doesn't mean that Cavan will be so attack-minded that they lose sight of defensive requirements but McGleenan believes that the more pressure a team exerts on the opposition, the easier it is to keep security tight.
"Obviously, we'll adjust tactically according to who we're playing and how the game is going but it will not include blanket defence. I would love to take Cavan to Croke Park before the year is out and you certainly can't put 14 men behind the ball there and run the expanses of that pitch.
"Teams have tried and failed miserably. You have to kick the ball and run the ball in Croke Park. Blanket defence might work elsewhere but Croke Park is different. The likes of Dublin and other good teams will find a way to beat it by spreading the ball and working through the angles."
McGleenan has been coaching for 16 years with colleges (he is head of PE at St Patrick's, Armagh) and clubs and is very keen to put his theories to the test on the inter-county scene.
He coached St Patrick's to their first MacRory Cup (Ulster title) win for 47 years in 2000 with a team that featured future All-Ireland winners, Seán Cavanagh (Tyrone) and Ronan Clarke (Armagh) in attack.
However, it was his successes in Monaghan over recent years that drew Cavan's attention when the manager's role became vacant after Terry Hyland's departure last year.
McGleenan coached Scotstown to win three of the last four Monaghan senior titles, a return which didn't go unnoticed in Cavan.
It's an exciting time for a county that's not only back in Division 1 but also feeling that big things could happen over the next few seasons.
That's based on the legacy of winning four successive Ulster U-21 titles (2011-'14) and a glimpse of how close the seniors were to making a big championship statement last summer when they drew with Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.
Unfortunately for Cavan, they were well beaten in the replay and later lost to Derry in the All-Ireland qualifiers. Still, the season was a success as it had earned them a precious ticket to Division 1.
McGleenan is already looking forward to playing Dublin in Kingspan Breffni Park early next month, followed by six more games against the other top sides.
"We'll find out quite quickly where we're at. We'll all have to learn fast but isn't that an exciting place to be? We'll pick up things as we go in the McKenna Cup before our first league game against Dublin.
"We're really looking forward to that. We'll certainly find out a lot about ourselves that day. We'll take them on and see how it goes," said McGleenan.
Unfortunately, his hand has been weakened by the absence of seven or eight players from last year's championship side. Cian Mackey, David Givney, Fergal Flanagan and Eugene Keating are all unavailable for the foreseeable future while some others are injured and won't be fit for the early rounds of the league.
Cavan are favourites to finish bottom of Division 1 but then Roscommon were rated similarly last year, only to defy the odds by rising to third place.
McGleenan knows it's going to be a demanding spring schedule but insists he is not feeling any pressure.
"It brings big challenges for all of us - players and management alike - but that's what everyone wants. Pressure is a word I pass no heed on.
"All that matters is that we are as well prepared as we possibly can be for what lies ahead. Obviously, I'm still getting to know the players and they're getting to know me but so far I'm delighted with what I have seen.
"I'm going to enjoy myself and I hope the players will do the same," he said.
- How did McGleenan's first game go? Read Martin Breheny's report from Kingspan Breffni Park in Monday's Irish Independent
McGleenan takes over in optimistic times
Mattie McGleenan takes over in Cavan at a time when they are heading into the 20th year since their last Ulster title win. They last reached the final in 2001.
They were in Division 3 as recently as 2014, when they won promotion and secured a place in Division 1 this season by finishing second to Tyrone in Division 2 last year. They lost their first two games to Tyrone and Derry but won their next five against Meath, Armagh, Fermanagh, Laois and Galway.
They won four successive Ulster U-21 titles in 2011-14 'but reached only one All-Ireland final, losing to Galway in 2011. The following is their guaranteed programme for this year.
Dr McKenna Cup
Tomorrow: v Tyrone (home)
Jan 15: v Donegal (away)
Jan 18: v Ulster University (home)
Feb 5: v Dublin (home)
Feb 12: v Monaghan (away)
Feb 26: v Tyrone (away)
Mar 4: v Donegal (home)
Mar 19: v Mayo (away)
Mar 26: v Kerry (home)
Apr 2: v Roscommon (away)
Ulster SFC quater-final
June 11: v Monaghan or Fermanagh
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
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