McGleenan's positivity lifts Cavan ahead of return to his old stomping ground
Former Tyrone star has made a strong impression in foray into coaching ranks
Tomorrow Mattie McGleenan will disembark the Cavan team bus wearing a Cavan jacket and a Cavan tracksuit, before making his way to the away dressing rooms of Healy Park.
Ulster football is a small world and there is nothing out of the ordinary in former players coming back to manage against their own people. But still, it's bound to feel odd for McGleenan and for Red Hands supporters that recall him for one of the most iconic moments in the pre-Mickey Harte era.
The occasion was the 1995 Ulster final and they were up against - wouldn't you know it - a Cavan side managed by Martin McHugh that refused to slip away in the second half. McGleenan had been Tyrone's established big man on the inside line, a perfect foil for the elusive Peter Canavan and an enormous nuisance for any full-back. The week leading into the final, he turned an ankle, allowing Omagh youngster Ciaran 'Dinky' McBride to make the starting team for an Ulster final in his first year on the panel.
In the second half, Art McRory called his former student off the bench. Wearing number 19, McGleenan hovered around the square until Adrian Cush floated in a delivery that tantalised Cavan goalkeeper Paul O'Dowd.
Forward and goalkeeper met with a crunch. O'Dowd came off second best, with McGleenan slapping the ball to the net before the adrenaline boost set him off on a sprint to the halfway line.
It's 22 years later. McGleenan's inter-county playing career fizzled out, a footnote in the richer history that was to soon come. "When you chop and change management teams, players take their lead from that," explains McGleenan's playing understudy McBride.
"That's probably what happened that group of players and Mattie would have been part of that group including myself. There was a change coming, we knew it was coming and we didn't have the time or the heart to go through it all over again."
It was hardly surprising to McBride that Big Mattie found his calling in coaching. He had observed him up close for a couple of years, rooming with him on away trips and their spells in University of Ulster Jordanstown overlapped for a couple of years. "Mattie is a deep thinker, always thinking things out and analysing things. I suppose he would have taken his lead from basketball. He was a talented basketball player."
It was at St Patrick's school in Dungannon, that he first came under the notice of Art McRory. McRory himself was a founding member of the Mid Ulster Dodgers basketball team and McGleenan's coaching is rooted in the sensibilities of basketball.
His coaching journey has gone through spells at Monaghan Harps and he has long taken school teams where he teaches in St Patrick's Armagh. But it is in restoring Scotstown to what they see as their rightful place as Monaghan kingpins that brought Cavan's county board knocking on McGleenan's door. One of the boldest things he did as coach was completely reverse accepted roles and positions of the Scotstown players. For example, Darren Hughes went from being a centre-back or midfielder, to becoming a full-forward with instructions to stay close to goal.
His brother Kieran Hughes, a wildly entertaining and somewhat unpredictable full-forward, was placed at full-back for the 2013 county final to mark one of the finest forwards in the game in Conor McManus.
When the sides met earlier in a round-robin game, McManus helped himself to a personal tally of 1-8. The switch worked, but what was most impressive about McGleenan was rather than bask in the glory, he told TG4 in a post-match interview that the idea came from his son, young Mattie.
"His record speaks for itself," says Darren Hughes. "We got to four finals. Won three, lost one by a point. Got to an Ulster club final, took Cross to extra-time…If you had have said that to us at the start of the four years we would have taken the hand off you. It's no coincidence that we went from not making finals and being a consistent team, to what we have done the last five years with effectively the same group of players."
For McBride, the key to it all is discipline. For a big man, McGleenan keeps himself in good order, running around the local Brantry Lough with wife Annette when some of his contemporaries have long since stopped exercising: "In playing with each other, playing against each other, and managing against each other in schools football in the MacRory Cup, generally Mattie is very disciplined and organised. I have never, ever fallen out with him on the sideline."
So far with Cavan, he has taken his time to find his bearings. They opened the season with a seriously impressive win over Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup but lost the chance of making a semi-final by making ten changes to the team, subsequently losing to his alma mater UUJ. The scoring tallies haven't been too great either, with 0-11, 0-7 and 0-11 in their first three games. But he has maintained that sunny outlook that he came into the job with.
That positivity almost strays into parody when he said last weekend's defeat to Donegal: "The lads are in that dressing room and they're absolutely gutted and that's a huge positive." It led Cavan web journalist Mark Farrelly to tweet, 'Does Mattie McGleenan speak like his interviews in daily life? "Fabulous breakfast! Two slices of unbelievable toast. What a mug of tea!"'
But Hughes will maintain, "Mattie's coaching would have been all based around attacking play. It does not necessarily mean 15 on 15. We would often drop men back and play with a sweeper the odd time if we were under the cosh. But it was with an emphasis on getting a foothold on the game.
"He keeps the bright side out and no doubt he is looking to finish the league well and have a good bust at the championship."
For now, he has Tyrone tomorrow. It will be fun.
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