Ready to mix it with the best
No stone has been left unturned in Cavan's rebuilding project, writes Damian Lawlor
FOR a county with a rich football history and as many Ulster titles as Armagh, Down and Tyrone put together, Cavan were stuck in rut until recently.
In fact, before this year's Ulster opener against Armagh, they'd handed championship debuts to 72 players over 12 seasons. Either they had plenty of raw talent to call on or they were failing to get the mix right. The latter applies.
As well as the high player turnover, managers came and went like buses at a depot. In the last decade alone, Mattie Kerrigan, the late Eamonn Coleman, Martin McElkennon, Donal Keogan, Tommy Carr, Val Andrews and Terry Hyland have all taken charge of the seniors.
Yet their Ulster senior title in 1997 was their only senior success in 43 years; a damning indication of their waning status. As one player said last week: "That history can be a burden. The more the team plays poorly, the more you hear about the past."
They probably reached their nadir three years ago when they sat at the bottom of the pile in Ulster, behind Antrim, Fermanagh, Monaghan and the top teams. Radical action was needed.
"It was taken by Terry Hyland and the people he surrounded himself with," says former player Ronan Carolan, a key part of the county's under 21 set-up for the past four years. "Terry demanded a change in ways; he looked for the new breed of Cavan player to sign up for total commitment and honesty. Footballers who should be there still have fallen away, but if you can't give Terry the whole package, someone else will. That's the big difference in a Cavan footballer now. The attitude towards wearing the shirt has changed completely."
Tom O'Reilly was appointed chairman of the county board in 2010 and met Hyland, already established as the county's hardest-working coach. When they conducted an internal audit, both men saw reasonably competitive displays at minor level but found that at senior and under 21 level they were being ravaged. The fall-off in players between 18 and 21 was massive.
"College football was the players' priority," O'Reilly recalls. "We had to change that."
It was proposed to extend senior panels to 40 players and the board signed off on an agreement that the senior and under 21 teams, who normally trained in tandem, would work separately. That was significant.
"We decided there would be no further crossover when the under 21s were in action," O'Reilly adds. "It left us in situations since where we've had to play league games without our best young players, but we've got by. In fairness, the likes of Tommy Carr and Val Andrews accepted this when they were in charge, even though it wouldn't have helped their cause."
They focused more on development squads and those who didn't make the cut at senior or under 21 were merged into a Cavan junior side, also managed by Hyland. They play in the Leinster championship as there is no such competition in Ulster. Most of those players hadn't turned 21 but had potential. Cavan just wanted them to keep playing football.
"We noticed that great Cavan minors would go to college, discover a whole new world with Sigerson football and a lot else," Carolan weighs in. "Suddenly, playing for the county wasn't a priority. We had to make it that they were competing at underage with the promise of winning more as they went on."
That's where the junior championship came in. They reached Leinster finals in 2010 and 2011, lost both, but claimed a first provincial title last year. Those players then stepped into an under 21 set-up that has delivered three Ulster titles in a row. Had they been left to float unaided, they may never have drifted home.
"A few years of more considered preparation and doing things differently have opened the door," O'Reilly says. "But I wouldn't be getting too carried away, we have a long way to go."
Laying the building blocks for this impressive new structure has been an expensive business. It costs the Cavan board an extra €60-70,000 a year to keep their current set-up ticking over. But now when it comes to picking a senior panel, Hyland's job is more or less done for him. He knows his first 20 and suddenly a stack of club players are also hankering for a shot at making the grade.
"The attitude is so different now," Carolan agrees. "We have so many players thinking the one way now, but before it was hard to get everyone to row in with you. Even during Martin McHugh's time in charge we lost plenty of players who were good enough but didn't necessarily fully commit and left the scene. We'll still have that, but the numbers will be a lot fewer. Anyone wearing the jersey now is coming into a very different environment. That's what Terry has achieved more than anything."
The aim is to keep the production line flowing, while consolidating the Cavan seniors as a top team. A four-year plan is in place and Hyland's job is to keep momentum rolling on. He certainly achieved that with the win over Armagh.
Ironically, though, while all the focus was on the under 21 brigade, it was 24-year-old Martin Dunne who shot the lights out in his senior debut. Dunne hit eight points from play. Dunne was part of Hyland's first under 21 outfit and averaged six scores per game through the league. His late rise is an indication of the strength they currently have.
"The approach taken lately has demanded nothing but top-class dedication," O'Reilly notes. "From the team management to the under 21 and minor management, the county board – everyone is working together on this."
Last year they brought in the National Athlete Development Academy (NADA) to show their young crew what was required to make it at the top. A senior team with an average age of 22 needed that reality check. Former Tyrone All-Ireland winner Peter Donnelly has now taken that role after working in the Cavan system for years. He was appointed to work with the senior, under 21, minor and development squads.
Part of Donnelly's job specification is to coach the coaches, and along with games development officer Dermot McCabe, a former All Star, and Hyland's right-hand man, Anthony Forde, they are working relentlessly on Cavan's future. Sligo Rovers goalkeeper Gary Rogers has also come on board to provide specialist coaching.
Yet because so much has been ploughed in to the set-up, there was some disquiet from clubs that other areas of Cavan GAA were being ignored. O'Reilly acknowledges people had their views on this matter but reckons that once underage success came their way, the dissent disappeared.
"It's always difficult to balance everything," he said. "But the clubs and others, once they saw we were going in the right direction, they rowed in behind us. Like everyone else, we have financial problems but we're getting there. Team managements know what they can and can't have. They have been fantastic as regards our finances. We just get on with doing what's needed.
"We've been able to stay in the black for the last three years. There is an outstanding loan for work undertaken at Breffni Park but we're making our repayments and have made a slight profit in our accounts every year.
"We're realistic. Any business looks to where costs can be cut and we have tightened our belts. We're not going to bring in €300,000 from corporate nights but we're hosting smaller events and we're level-headed. They say it's easier save a pound than raise a pound."
In the build-up to the Armagh game, Hyland was comfortable. He knows his team is going places. He goes about his work quietly though.
"Terry has no ego," Carolan says. "That's partly why the players respond so well to him. Look, we could easily be beaten by Fermanagh and if we are, our progress will not be derailed. We know there's a bigger picture."
More 'senior' players, if you can call them that, like Cian Mackey, however, have been raising the bar among themselves. "There's no point in setting your goals within arm's reach," Mackey said recently. "Your goals have to be nearly where you can't see them because you want to be pushing yourself on to be the best that you can be."
Cavan played Mayo in a challenge game two weeks ago and while they lost 5-12 to 0-16, they actually led at the break 0-10 to 1-5 before fielding an entirely different 15 for the restart. Their first-half display is some indication that this team is ready to mix it with the best.
They'll need that drive against Fermanagh this afternoon. Peter Canavan was at Breffni Park to see the win over Armagh. The surprise elelment is gone, and key talents such as Mackey, Dunne and Eugene Keating will encounter tighter marking. The underage success has been great but it has flagged their massive potential. The biggest tests lie ahead.