When Paul Mannion let it be known early last year that he was going vegan, the Dublin team nutritionist Daniel Davey had misgivings on a couple of fronts.
The first was purely personal, Davey's own Sligo farming background placing an instinctive rampart between himself and a diet without meat and dairy.
Second, and more important in the context of their working relationship, there was the potential impact on his power and endurance as a Dublin footballer.
What sort of ceiling might Mannion be placing on himself in the robust world of Gaelic football if critical protein elements were being removed from his daily consumption?
Mannion had been arguably Davey's most diligent kitchen student over the previous six years, slicing every courgette and weighing every ounce with surgical precision . But this, Davey felt, was a "risk."
"I was hesitant, we worked very closely together. I even brought up a case study on the experience and it was really interesting. In the times we live in there is a lot of confusion around it and me being from a farming background obviously there is another layer of bias in it," concedes Davey, who doubles as Leinster Rugby's nutritionist.
Tipp hurlers’ nutrionist Gary Sweeney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
But Mannion went on, over the course of the year, to confound all of the perceptions around it. On the field, he dazzled with some of his magic; off it, he gave the dexa scanner the run-around too.
"I looked at his particular parameters very closely over the 2019 season and in fairness to him he hit every single measure," recalls Davey. "He maintained his weight, maintained a higher level of muscle mass than he did the previous season.
"What's important is his adherence to what we call his health-seeking behaviour. He was more diligent about his nutrition in general. It was a really interesting insight for me to see that someone who's diligent is able to maintain performance on a vegan diet."
When Davey came on board as part of Jim Gavin's management team in 2013, nutrition became a much more critical element of their preparation. The buy-in from inter-county management had been there for a while, but buy-in from players was more erratic. So nutritionists must make a strong sales pitch.
As an All-Ireland club football winner with Ballyboden St Enda's in 2016, Davey appreciates the primacy of skill in the game.
Watching the recent 'Laochra Gael' programme featuring Alan Brogan brought that home to him vividly. Skill will always trump everything else. But good fuel creates better engines that can deliver those skills for longer.
"I've no problem in saying Jim Gavin is someone who really valued nutrition, the same way Leo Cullen does. When you have people who make it part of the culture and part of the language, then everyone says, 'Okay collectively this is really important so we are going to buy into it.'
"When players do that, on top of the other pillars of performance, then you say, 'Wow, this is the distance that can be covered when players are fully fuelled, these are the recovery rates, this is the focus, this is how players can execute under pressure.' In high performance, it's very difficult to isolate one variable but you start to see it over time.
Nutrionists can’t stress enough the importance of diet for the modern-day GAA player. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
"It takes a long time, it isn't something you can do over a pre-season or a winter. It's layer upon layer. It takes nearly five years for full development when someone starts one of these programmes."
Davey can think of another example before Mannion, Paul Flynn .
"Look at Paul Mannion's physical development since 2013," says Davey, pointing to physique and facial features. "He really went after it. Even within the camp we would have acknowledged it and referenced Paul's development as something we can look at for future players."
Flynn went further than most, digging down deep to get the bottom of the science behind it.
In 2016, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), which Flynn now heads, negotiated a €20 weekly nutrition allowance for all county players in the framework agreement with the GAA, underlining the growing recognition of food intake for a player. The overall cost of that in 2019 was €1.37m.
In their initial renegotiation pitch, it's understood that the GPA sought a multiple of that weekly €20 on behalf of its members.
From county to county it's becoming clear the value that teams are placing on better catering and nutrition.
Tipperary spent €281,532 of their €1,776,975 overall preparation spend in 2019, just over 16 per cent. Mayo went further, their €390,877 accounting for 22.8 per cent of their €1,714,722.
When the Mayo GAA International Supporters Foundation were raising questions around the county's finances, one issue highlighted by them was the "significant movement in the catering costs," up from €172,369 in 2015 to €423,056 in 2017 when their season extended by just three weeks longer. But chart the movement in any county and it's likely to be upward in trajectory.
It wasn't always that way. Crionna Tobin linked up with Davy Fitzgerald in Waterford after Justin McCarthy's departure in the middle of 2008 and found barriers around better nutrition had to be broken down.
"When I came in it was definitely about trying to teach players basic understanding about how you get your energy but how you get too much energy and it was trying to get them to push back from a plate of spuds, 'Let's not have chips after training, don't eat junk food,' basic things whether they were an athlete or not," she recalls.
"Even female physios at the time, there weren't that many. So the first thing was you would have a female in the dressing-room and you would pick your time to be in the dressing-room strategically.
"I was someone coming and telling them that they couldn't have what they were looking at as, 'I train really hard and I want to eat whatever I want because that is my reward'.
"A lot of people look at food a bit like that whereas I was coming in telling them it's not just about on the pitch but the most important time is off it.
"I was infringing on their family time, leisure time, social time. There was a lot of craic and fun around it, text messages with people coming out of ice cream shops. I might get a photo of a basket full of chocolate!
"I found that focusing on players who had a goal that was visible, players that needed to lose weight and were struggling with performance because they were carrying an extra few pounds, if I focused on them and made a difference with them, they suddenly bought in and brought others with them."
When she moved to Dublin at Pat Gilroy's invitation, the hard early-morning sessions brought with them many questions about recovery and how best to fuel it.
In Gilroy, there was a willing advocate for better nutrition. In the dressing-room Bryan Cullen was able to exert an influence with his background in sports science.
"So again focusing on people who knew you could really make a difference, that's the way I went about it because it was difficult," says Tobin, now head of science and education in Glanbia Performance Nutrition. "You are also proving yourself to the management team. Sometimes back then you did feel you were a box to be ticked."
Hydration was a key element and a good measurement of who was sticking to guidelines around better nutrition. "The only real tangible measurement is doing hydration testing. Then you are called the 'pee lady' in nice terms," she laughs.
"There are so many things players can't control at training or playing a game. But the things they can control, is whether they had drank enough throughout the day and there were players losing intensity halfway through sessions because they had started the session dehydrated.
"Pat was great. He told them, 'If you come to training dehydrated, you're not getting on the pitch.' That happened twice - never again. When that started to happen players began to realise."
Under Gavin, Davey would deliver practical cooking demonstrations after training, upload videos and even visit players' houses for one-to-one classes.
"When it would have all started, there would have been a much bigger emphasis on the cooking and the practical side of things, We would have prepped smoothies, snack bars, even in the training facility. Then lads would have gone home and done it themselves and sent pictures to me and to the group.
"To be really straight, chopping an onion is challenge but these Dublin players will approach that as something they want to get better at themselves.
"So if you are to look at the skill of cooking, if I am to go over to their homes we will cook something together, if they send me a photo of something that they are doing, they will have used whoever is around them to help them to figure out how to do something. You're not talking about an average group."
That's why, when Davey hears stories of vans pulling up outside places of work and education around the city delivering meals to players it is "frustrating".
"That was such nonsense. When you know the amount of effort and time they put into their own food preparation, to hear that noise was frustrating."
Davey's bespoke approach to each individual player is mirrored by Gary Sweeney, nutritionist to the Tipperary hurling team under Liam Sheedy.
Education was the centrepiece of his first year with the All-Ireland champions, getting them to understand the why and the when before concentrating more on the how and what.
"It was education, full-on, as if it was a class. Then when the penny drops it's very easy then to make their own decisions. You are trying to give them the knowledge and tools to make their own decisions in the kitchen so you can reiterate all those points online by showing them simple cooking recipes," says Sweeney, a club footballer himself with Mountbellew-Moylough in Galway.
"I'm not going to show them something if they don't understand the need for that in the first place."
Competitive juices don't just flow on the field, they're prevalent in the kitchen too.
"Even earlier this year and last year we'd have run competitions to make protein and energy bars using oats and peanut butter and different types of seeds and literally getting them to put videos of themselves making this stuff.
"'Bubbles' O'Dwyer won one, Joe O'Dwyer and Paudie Maher like their pancakes. You have to make it enjoyable. You could do the simple thing of buying it but when you do make something yourself there is a lot more joy in it, plus you can show other lads, 'if I can do it you can do it yourself.' It's good for team morale."
Sweeney works closely with Tipperary's strength and conditioning team, everything indexed to a player's body mass and estimated energy output.
"We've GPS data on all the players. We know their loads, their RPEs (rate of perceived exertion) in certain gym sessions. I'd use stuff like metabolic equivalent of tasks (MET) to give me a gauge as to how much energy this athlete is actually utilising in a gym session.
"How much time is he under stress, how much time is he doing a certain exercise or ground he is covering on a pitch. All of that is accounted for so you are not over/under-fuelling athletes and they can appropriately recover."
Sweeney estimates that on a training day, a player weighing 85 kilos could consume up to 4,000 calories, depending on the nature of the session. A regular gym-goer of the same age and weight could consume between 1,000 and 1,500 fewer calories.
"That's a lot of food," he admits. "It may shock a lot of lads who wouldn't have eaten that much before but, after three or four weeks of doing it and adapting they are recovering better, there are less niggles and injuries, they are sleeping better and then they ask more questions. And then you can get into the detail, the physiology, the anatomy."
Nutrition supplements have become another important part of a player's intake.
When Kerry's Brendan O'Sullivan was found to have inadvertently taken a contaminated caffeine gel that contained a banned substance and subsequently suspended for 21 weeks, despite Sport Ireland's acceptance that he "bore no significant fault or negligence", a list of supplements - Pharmaton, Pre-fuel, Caffeine Tablets, Caffeine Gel, Vitamin C, Krill Oil and Magnesium - he had consumed in the two-week period prior to his April 2016 was revealed in the considered report on the case.
It was an eye-opener on supplement prevalence in the diet of an inter-county player but one which is considered standard despite Sport Ireland's expressed belief that a "correct dietary and nutritional regime" provide all the potential benefits.
Those early days when Tobin wondered about dressing-room acceptance have long subsided. Nutrition has found a permanent place.