Mickey Graham relishing Cavan adventure
By Michael Devlin
December 9 2018, approximately 5pm: Mickey Graham is on the sideline as his Mullinalaghta side overcome all the odds to win an historic AIB Leinster Senior Club football title at Bord Na Mona O'Connor Park.
The Longford half-parish trailed Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes (membership circa 4,500, All-Ireland club titles two) 1-6 to 0-6 on 55 minutes, but scored 1-2 in the next five minutes to claim a famous victory. It’s one of the greatest underdog stories in recent GAA history.
March 16, 2019, approximately 5pm: Mickey Graham is on the sideline as his Cavan side slump to a 0-14 to 1-8 defeat to their near neighbours Monaghan at a rain-sodden St Tiernach's Park, a loss that all, but consigns them to relegation from the Allianz Football league Division One.
Two points from six games thus far, only a win against All-Ireland Champions Dublin in their final game, and a host of other results going in their favour, will give Cavan any chance of beating the drop.
“That’s football,” replies an upbeat Graham, who has clearly refused to let Cavan’s impending demotion sully his mood too much. “Unfortunately you’ll have more bad days than you’ll have good days, but when good days come along you have to enjoy them too.
“The journey with Mullinalaghta was special for many reasons because, as it’s well documented at this stage, the size of the parish, what they’ve done in terms of the only Longford team to get to a Leinster final let alone win one, with such a small group of players.
“To go from that into the frying pan with the inter-county scene, you don’t get much time to dwell on it, you just have to get back into it.
“Look it, it’s a big, big step up to inter-county, the club is more relaxed, and you’re dealing with lads that have known each other all their lives. In the inter-county scene you’re trying to gel lads together in a space of time.
“It’s very hard to believe you’re coming into the last game of the League then you’re into the clubs for four or five weeks, then you only have them back a few weeks before the Ulster Championship.”
At this stage, all Graham wants from this weekend’s unenviable task against the Dubs is a performance. Jim Gavin’s men will be licking their wounds following their defeat to Tyrone on Saturday night, ending their hopes of a League Final berth and giving rise to a few doubters questioning Dublin’s infallibility as they head into their ‘drive-for-five’.
“It’s definitely just about performance," Graham says. "The way we’re looking at it is, this is our last competitive game before the championship, and the lads go back to the clubs after this weekend. It’s important that we leave Kingspan Breffni Park on Sunday evening happy within ourselves about the performance, more so than about the result itself.
“The pressure is off in regards to we know what we have to do, everything else is outside our control. All we can do is what’s inside our control so we’re looking for a big, big performance against the biggest team in the country.”
Graham is wary that while a backlash from Dublin could very much be on the card, his counterpart Jim Gavin may also be using Sunday’s game as an opportunity to get one last decent assessment of some of the players on the fringes of the panel before they go off and prepare for another Championship campaign.
As these things go, Graham will only be focusing on what his own side bring to the game. “I suppose with the Dubs, we don’t know what way they’ll approach it," Graham admits. "They could look at it as an opportunity to give lads a game because it’s the last chance Jim will have a look at competitive action.
“You could look at it that way, but then you could look at it that they’ll be looking to finish on a high. So, we can’t control what they do, we can only control what we want to do, no doubt it should be an entertaining game hopefully.”
It seems a world away from the highs of Mullinalaghta’s whirlwind winter. Mullinalaghta would go on to valiantly exit the All-Ireland series at the hands of Dr. Crokes back in February, but the left with nothing to prove, and having won over a legion of fans during their footballing odyssey.
Mickey Graham had to hold in tandem the responsibilities of steering the club into that semi-final, the biggest game in the club’s history, whilst also setting out on a maiden voyage with his beloved Cavan, and navigating the perilous waters of Division One in search of safety.
“I’ll not lie, it was very busy, very hectic, but we managed it around. Both Cavan and Mullinalaghta were very accommodating in regards to trainings and things like that and nobody was put out in the dark as the fella says, both were looked after as well as they could be.
“There was great understanding both and I suppose the good thing about Mullinalaghta is that they train in Cavan so it was great for me as well! They train in in Breffni Park as they wouldn’t have the facilities up in Longford.
“Every time I got a phonecall it was about the National League and then Mullinalaghta had come into it and then it was about Mullinalaghta and Cavan had come into it.
“Any manager will tell you now, a lot of management now is man-management. You're trying to keep 38 players on an inter-county squad happy and then you're trying to keep another 25 lads in another panel happy. A lot of it is one-to-one on the phone every day and you could spend the day talking to players individually on what you're looking for.
“It definitely was mentally tough, but it was a great period of my career and it's one I'll never forgot and one I'm thankful for.”
Graham is not thinking of life in Division Two in 2020 just yet. After Sunday his thoughts will revert straight to an Ulster Championship derby date with the old rival Monaghan. As the players break off to the Cavan club scene over April, Graham and his backroom team, for the first time, will be able to go back to the drawing board and assess matters, and endeavour to find a way to put an end to their recent bad run of results against their Farney foes.
For next year’s run-up to the League though, he will be without the spinning plate of Mullinalaghta, something that will allow him to adequately plan with a fully-focused effort on Cavan.
“Look it, when you're a new manager, you're looking to bring new ideas and players just don't catch onto them straight away. You're trying to bring a different concept to the thing. For the first month or two - even up until now - players are still trying to get their heads around what they want. It takes time, it doesn't happen straight away.
“We're doing it at times, we're just not doing it consistently enough. When we do start doing it consistently enough and players do start to feel what we need to do, then you'll see better performances coming. I firmly believe that will happen. We're doing a lot of stuff right. It's about doing it for longer periods in the game. It's just that players forget about the things we've worked on at times and go back to type. It's about coming back in and doing what we want them to do.
“In between every League game this year, you haven't much time to prepare. I've got my eyes opened because you have 101 things you want to do. Next year, I know that I have another four or five months before the league starts to get lads going. They'll know exactly what I'm looking for. Maybe it will not be as long to get them up to speed.”
Cavan GAA are giving one lucky winner the chance to win a house worth €375,000 in Dublin for just €100 through ‘Win The Dream in Dublin 15’, a fundraising campaign launched in Croke Park. All profits raised through this fundraising campaign will go directly towards the development of the Cavan GAA Polo Grounds Centre of Excellence, a vital new facility* _at_ _Kingspan Breffni that will see the creation of three new full-size and f__loodlit_* grass pitches, a high performance gym, community walking/running track and additional changing facilities for male and female teams.