'We needed to change culture in Leitrim'
Mark Plunkett looks at the picture of a GAA league table in front of him. It's the first Tuesday in February and his Leitrim team are top of the county charts.
"Is that Leitrim?" he exclaims as a smile spreads across his face. He takes a second look. The county with the smallest population in Ireland have two wins from two games having beaten Wexford and Wicklow.
Admittedly, it's Division 4, but their scoring has been impressive - they have racked up four goals and 31 points, the most of any county across all the divisions. It's too early in the year to predict what will come to pass in the months ahead, but for Plunkett it's a nice feeling to be doing so well at any time of the year.
The Aughawillan man is centre-back on Terry Hyland's team and his two brothers, Noel and Gary, are also on the panel. For them, playing for Leitrim was always the dream so hours were spent in their back garden practising with the hope that one day they would get the chance. That dream may not have meant lifting Sam Maguire but it definitely involved representing the county.
"I didn't see Leitrim win anything but I always had hope and there was great enjoyment in that," says Plunkett. "If they ran a big team close it was exciting to be there and feel the buzz of the crowd and the atmosphere.
"We had some good days at underage level. I was on a team that won the Connacht minor league, we beat Galway and that gave us more motivation to keep going. Then at under 21s we lost to Galway by four points and they went on to win the All-Ireland, I know it's a moral victory but it was still good because we knew we weren't too far away and it gave us something to aim for."
Terry Hyland took over Leitrim at the end of last year after a disappointing 2018 and from the off has made a good impression. He's brought a solid backroom team with him, raised standards and went back to basics.
"It's the most professional I've ever seen the set-up and you can judge that by the atmosphere in the dressing room. Everything is very straightforward, he is a straight-talking man, he is a good player manager, he sets standards and we have adhered to them.
"His plan is simple, he knows how to get the best out of players, he's also brought back players who opted out last year. They are back in the fold and he's brought in some new players too.
"We needed to change the culture in Leitrim football. In the last few years there wasn't much respect or belief. You could see that from the lack of hype and excitement. Terry is changing that within the group and outside too."
Hyland has also brought in Robert Moorehouse, a business consultant who helps individuals and companies achieve success, to work with the squad. He introduced some practical workshops for the team, these involve problem-solving, learning ways to be successful and changing mindsets so that if a problem happens in a game then they will have the tools to overcome it.
"An example of one of the things we do is we are given a main structure to build, we were divided into teams, given a sheet and all the pieces of wood and we had to build it in the quickest time possible.
"We had five attempts, the average for the first attempt was 27 minutes and by the fifth attempt that was down to 30 seconds, so the overall aim was solving the problem and then understanding how it was solved, like better communication skills, team work, those kind of things. So if there is a problem on the field we won't panic, we will solve it."
Playing for Leitrim requires a lot of commitment. They have 18 players living in Dublin, either in work or college, so to ease the pressure their coach Jason O'Reilly does a Tuesday session in Blanchardstown IT for those players. There is a session in Leitrim that night too. Then, on Friday nights they do collective training, on Saturdays they do their workshop and they have a weekend session or match too.
As well as changing the culture, the players are becoming better footballers because the set-up and coaching has improved.
"We have kick-out strategies, a game-plan now and we practise the basics all the time. We are practising our shooting every day at training, that's a given at training. We are working on our basic skills. Last year we might have said, 'Oh we aren't doing enough tackling', but this year there is none of that, everything is covered"
Plunkett is in DCU where he plays Sigerson Cup football. The team is littered with inter-county names, like Evan Comerford of Dublin, Mayo's Brian Reape, and Cavan's Darragh McVeety.
"Sigerson is great because you can pick up so many tips from other players from the bigger counties. You see what they do and you learn from it. You can put it in your locker and bring it back to your own county.
"It's hard not to be envious of some of their set-ups. I'd hear of some of the resources they have and think how we would improve if we had that and I worry that we would be left behind. We have GPS trackers this year that we are using, well we had them last year but it was different.
"In the past players had to worry about a lot of things, it was on them, leaders on the team were getting bogged down in stuff they shouldn't have had to. This year everything is taken care of so players can just focus on their game and that's all they need to worry about.
"We are moving in the right direction, and we have direction. Everyone knows the plan and what the management want from us. That's the biggest change this year."
Plunkett has achieved one dream by playing for Leitrim and now he has bigger ones. Lifting the Sam Maguire one day might seem a bit far-fetched but winning a Connacht title isn't.
"For Leitrim to get to a Connacht final and repeat 1994, that would be incredible. Winning our first championship game would be a good place to start."
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