Friday 23 August 2019

Mickey Graham: A man of the people on a miracle mission

Mickey Graham has tasted success wherever his management career has brought him. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Graham has tasted success wherever his management career has brought him. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

At one stage on his journey, Mickey Graham took over the Cavan Gaels' minors. If you were looking for a team to butter up your reputation, the town's minors would normally be a safe bet, but this group had won nothing on the way up. "One of the poorest we've had," admits club secretary Louis Blessing. "And we have a phenomenal record at underage, crazy stuff, it's off the charts; but this was an odd year and Mickey took them and they duly won the championship."

Small beer, perhaps, but another toast to Mickey's gifts, he being either very good or extraordinarily lucky ­- or a conflation of both. When he won an intermediate title in 2006 with Drumalee, a small club on the outskirts of Cavan town, you might have said the wind was blowing his way. The year before they had reached the final, but the title still needed to be won, and they managed it after a replay.

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That season, 13 years ago, he was still playing with Cavan Gaels at 31 alongside a 22-year-old Seanie Johnston. They were seeking four in a row when they lost to Mullahoran in the county final. Handling two clubs was hard going and with the added complication that Drumalee had won promotion to Division 1 the season before he arrived, so they would be coming into direct conflict with the Gaels. But he took his new interest to the county final against Ballinagh, who were fancied and who hit a levelling score two minutes into injury time. The next day Drumalee won 1-5 to 0-4, only the club's second ever intermediate title and first since 1969.

"He was a clever footballer," says Blessing. "He is not the biggest man, he is quite small. But he was a quintessential corner forward, a nightmare to mark. I played corner back and wing back, I'm 20 years older than him, and I used to say I would not like to mark that fella. He was a very complete footballer. He obviously had a feel for it. He is full on into Gaelic football - that is his thing."

When Cavan defeated Armagh in the Ulster semi-final replay, reaching their first provincial final since he played against Tyrone in 2001, Graham emerged from the dressing room "teary-eyed", according to The Anglo Celt newspaper man. "I am emotional," he confessed. "I'm a Cavan man and I've seen more bad days than good days."

That he has seen many bad days is not in dispute nor in any way surprising; that is the reality of a Cavan footballer's existence since they stopped winning All-Irelands in the era of John Joe O'Reilly. Graham's playing career highlight, aside from featuring in an All-Ireland under-21 final in 1996, was the 1997 Ulster senior final win over Derry, Cavan's most recent success, and their first since 1969.

Cavan was mostly a story of short summers and broken dreams. Donegal dethroned them when Ulster champions in 1998 in the provincial semi-final in Clones. A year later Cavan were hammered by Derry in the quarter-final, 2-14 to 0-5, and 12 months later Derry beat them again (2-13 to 1-5). A year after they made the final, losing to Tyrone, and a year later an exhibition of sparkling forward play from Graham and Jason Reilly shot down Roscommon and brought them to the League final against Tyrone, but they were well beaten.

Cavan Gaels provided a better return, although playing for Cavan was a boyhood dream fulfilled for Graham. In 2001 he was captain when the Gaels landed the senior title, ending a wait of 23 years and ushering in a period of prosperity that has brought nine more titles since then.

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Graham became interested in coaching when doing sessions for the county board while still a young player. From there he began delving into management roles. In January 2004 he was appointed manager of Butlersbridge, who had won a junior title in 2002. That November, he scored a goal for Cavan Gaels in defeating Magheracloone in the Ulster club quarter-final, on the same day he managed Butlersbridge to an Ulster JFC win over Antrim's St Brigid's.

Drumalee had an added relevance that remains to this day. It brought Graham into contact with John Denning, who's been a close confidant and associate in virtually every task he has filled in management since, working on stats and other administrative duties. An engineer with Cavan County Council, Denning served as secretary of Drumalee and is still deeply involved.

Cyril O'Keeffe is the current chairman of Drumalee. "John would have played very little sport, but a highly intelligent man. After they beat Armagh in the (Ulster semi-final) replay he was able to tell within a couple of hours how many opportunities Tyrone had missed against Donegal (in the other semi-final); they were already thinking of the Ulster final. They are two great ambassadors of the sport, not afraid to mix in with the community. They are well respected."

O'Keeffe played football with Mickey Graham's father, Mickey senior, when Cavan Gaels joined with Butlersbridge and Drumalee to field minor teams. "Mad into his Gaelic football as well," says O'Keeffe. Graham senior is a ground steward at Breffni Park and also works at Clones on match days, as well as umpiring for Noel Mooney who is on the national referees' panel.

Following Drumalee, starting in 2008, came the Cavan minors for three years. Graham had first worked with the players on under-16 development squads. The county record at minor was abysmal but in his first year they defeated Antrim and then Armagh by seven points to reach the Ulster semi-final. Gearoid McKiernan was on the team eventually beaten by just two points by a Tyrone side featuring Peter Harte, Kyle Coney and Mattie Donnelly that would win the All-Ireland.

When he also took on Ballyhaise in 2009 while still managing Cavan minors, the matter became a bone of contention at a county board meeting. Ballyhaise were intermediate finalists in 2008. He stepped away after one year with the club, having lost to eventual winner Lavey. The Cavan minors later lost to Down by a point in the Ulster quarter-final.

In 2010 his Cavan minor team beat Fermanagh but lost to Armagh, after playing most of the second half with 14 men, a side containing Jack Brady and Conor Moynagh. But while he left without a title there was visible improvement in Cavan's standard of play. The 2008 team beaten by Tyrone, by just two points, had been hammered by the same county as under-16s.

From there through most of this decade he has built up his résumé through different clubs, but most notably Mullinalaghta, which saw his profile soar. There was talent in the club, and a county final appearance underlined that in 2014, but in his first year he delivered a Longford title, bridging a gap which dated back to 1950 and then embellished it with two more and an incredible Leinster final win over Dublin's Kilmacud Crokes.

Those players who worked with him recite many of the same management attributes. His full-back at Mullinalaghta, Paddy Fox, had his finest career moment when holding Paul Mannion scoreless in the Leinster final. Graham has been praised for his ability on match-ups and reading the opposition.

"A very good people person," says Fox. "One of his talents is getting the most out of people. There's a way about him that can instil confidence in people. Before Mickey I had never been called into a Longford squad.

"I think Mickey was the perfect manager for us when he landed. We had an extremely talented squad, we have eight county seniors at present and that's with one or two opting out as well. We'd lost a county final. We were there knocking on the door.

"When he first came he asked us how we wanted to play and he didn't want to change it too much. He made us a lot slicker. Keeping width in our attack, a lot of drills on how to break down defensive systems. He made us tactically smarter and more efficient and he was very good at always getting the match-ups right. I think that was his big strength."

Gary Rogers, scorer of the late match-winning penalty against Kilmacud Crokes, sings a similar hymn of praise. "The minute he came, I remember the first training session, it being completely different, like there is no negativity with Mickey at all. He tries to get the best out of you, he likes playing positive football."

John Keegan was an instrumental part of the team. "He is probably the most rounded manager that I have ever come across in that he is happy to roll up the sleeves and get involved in drills and the actual sessions themselves," Keegan maintains. "I suppose a lot of managers would prefer to step back and observe the sessions. In our club we wouldn't have the resources."

Shane Mulligan captained the team. "I guess from the initial get-go there was a really good vibe in the dressing room and it was one of those things that, from the start, it clicked," he says. "He has a really positive attitude and very enthusiastic about the game and that's infectious and that came through from the off.

"Mickey came in after we had been in a final in 2014 and in 2015 we were beaten in a quarter-final. We won the county final in the first year with him. He had an impact straight away."

There were two separate spells with Clonguish in Longford too, the first in 2011 ending in a county final defeat, while he gave a year to Sean O'Heslin's in Ballinamore and one to Cavan Gaels in 2013 which wasn't successful.

"He is a very good coach, a great way with the players," says former Longford player Paul Barden, who was on the Clonguish teams managed by Graham. "You can see how he is successful, he seems to be able to get the players on his side. His coaching philosophy is all about football, everything is done with the ball."

None of the players you talk to express surprise that he has translated his act successfully on to the bigger stage. "I went down to the first round against Monaghan," says Rogers. "They played lovely football. Now, I would have seen Cavan play before and they were a bit negative. Not that they are not still defending, but their kick-passing and shooting that day against Monaghan was very good. You could see they were trying stuff they weren't trying before.

"I would definitely give them a chance (today), with Mickey there. They will need bit of luck on the day, too, Donegal are very strong. But I would give them a very good chance of winning."

Under Graham, Cavan have found a new spark. Keegan admits he had some doubts about the move, with Graham again balancing two jobs initially, when Cavan's National League campaign overlapped with Mullinalaghta's run in the club championship. "I honestly felt it was a difficult task for Mickey to take on Cavan when in Division 1, and the Ulster championship is probably the most competitive championship, and the expectation in Cavan is so high, I thought it was a questionable decision on his part, but boy has he delivered. Taking Monaghan in the first round, which would be for Cavan people a huge local derby, for bragging rights. They really let Armagh off the hook the first day and got the job done the second day, and you can be sure that Donegal won't be taking this one lightly."

When Graham was on the Cavan team that lost its Ulster title 21 years ago, Declan Bonner was managing the Donegal team that lowered their sails. All these years on Bonner is back in a second instalment, with Graham still finding his feet and learning his way.

It wasn't inevitable that he would get the vacant Cavan post, according to Louis Blessing. His old shooting partner Jason Reilly was in the mix. Peter Reilly, his former county minor team-mate, was another name in circulation. But he was the chosen one, with another former county minor, under-21 and senior ally, Dermot McCabe, added to his management set-up.

"Here's the thing," says Blessing, "for someone like me, it is the way they are playing football (that matters). I am as much delighted about that as they being in the Ulster final. Because we are in it playing the way it should be played. Because we were boring. We were all getting sick of it."

Graham has been working as a rep for Coca-Cola for a long number of years and Blessing wonders how he can cope with the amount of interaction with the public that's unavoidable on the week of a big match like this.

But he also knows that Graham has a handle on the fever. He knows how long it has been since his people have had this experience. He certainly knows how much football means to them. He is them.

"Another thing about Mickey, too," says Blessing, "is that he is hugely popular with every club in the county. Cavan Gaels aren't the most popular club, a town team, nobody likes us, not that nobody likes us, but (he pauses) ... basically they don't like us ... but Mickey is the exception to that rule."

Thanks in no small part to Mickey Graham, they are all from the one club today.

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