A few weeks ago, Cavan manager Mickey Graham sat down with the local newspaper, The Anglo-Celt, and put some flesh on the helter-skelter season that saw them skate to one of the most dramatic Ulster titles in recent memory.
On the face of it, those looking in from the outside would have discounted them entirely.
They had just been relegated to the third tier of football and were due to meet one of the big beasts on the first day in Monaghan. They duly went in at half-time seven points down.
After winning that in extra-time with a monster free from goalkeeper Ray Galligan, they were out a week later against Antrim. It took them a while to shrug them off but by half-time of the semi-final against Down eight days later, they looked out on their feet, eight points down.
Again, they found a way — as they did seven days later against Donegal when they were two points adrift at the break.
Apart from nursing Thomas Galligan gently through games, four matches in four weeks was as intense a playing schedule as any team in the modern age have encountered. And it naturally led to curiosity as to how they coped physically.
“One thing that we learned from the first lockdown was that the lads did the work that was asked of them,” explained Graham.
“There was great trust within the group and as a management team, when the lads came back in, we couldn’t get over the conditioning of them. So that was the first sign that said to me that the mindset of the Cavan footballers had changed, that they didn’t come back (in poor condition) and we didn’t have to waste four or five weeks getting fit.
“The lads came in ready to train, they hit the ground running. Obviously we had a few issues with injuries and Covid and all that sort of stuff but the condition the boys came back in was a credit to them and that was a sign to us as a management team that these boys were serious about what they were at.
“When we first came in, we would have seen that lads were arriving to training and it was taking us two months, three months to get them fit whereas now we have lads arriving to training ready to train because they have done the work in their own time away from it.
“When they came back, they were ready to train and we could concentrate on the more important stuff. That mindset has changed now and I have no doubt that when Cavan get together again, lads will come back fit and ready to hit the ground running.”
Naturally, this approach raises the age-old question of the volume GAA teams are expected to complete. It’s an area that is still open to interpretation.
There are few better qualified to comment on such matters than Professor Niall Moyna. He is formerly of Monaghan, who he trained to the 1988 Ulster title via 19 years in Pittsburgh as he completed his studies. He then moved on to the Dublin team of 2011 that set the ball rolling at the start of the decade, and has spent many years in college Gaelic football with Dublin City University where he works.
As a regular on RTÉ’s ‘Operation Transformation’, he is a well-known authority on the health of the nation. It’s a message he has been promoting for two decades.
At the time, he stated 20 minutes of walking every day of the year was ample for the every man and woman to maintain their fitness and health.
His own preferred method was a 20-minute daily run, stretching to an hour one day of the weekend.
Nowadays, the knees do not allow that, so he layers up before the crack of dawn and does two hours daily on his bicycle, heading out from his home in Malahide.
For years, he has been hammering home the message that GAA teams do far too much training. He hasn’t been alone. Former Irish Rugby strength and conditioning coach and Fermanagh native Mick McGurn’s message has been the same.
And still, that view is treated with scepticism by coaches and managers who were brought up in a very different culture.
“It’s a culture of training. We have to wonder, maybe it is because of expenses, but you cannot justify the level of collective training that takes place,” said Moyna. “I have been saying this for years. Cavan is a great wake-up call.
“I think there should be an embargo on the number of training sessions and it should increase towards the end of the year. When they get down to the last eight teams, maybe increase to four times a week. But you shouldn’t be allowed to train more than two times a week.”
On these pages a couple of weeks ago, former Tyrone player John Lynch detailed how their manager for the 1986 All-Ireland final, Art McRory, was ahead of his time in incorporating training methods from the Eastern Bloc. The trouble, Lynch felt, was that they often did three training sessions in one night.
That workload has been significantly scaled back, but there is still a belief that county training sessions are overblown epics, lasting too often, held too often.
“You would think that with greater knowledge, the applied athletic development and sports science, that people would be aware of that. But I think the problem is that many managers are driven personalities,” explained Moyna.
“I made the point six months ago, I would say the team that does the least amount of collective training is Dublin. I know Bryan Cullen very, very well and I would speak to Bryan regularly.”
Cullen was the Dublin captain in 2011 when they landed their first All-Ireland title in 16 years, when Moyna was the physical trainer. Since then, Cullen embarked upon a coaching career that took him to Leinster Rugby, before coming back into the Dublin GAA fold in 2015 with the title High Performance Director.
“With Jim Gavin, he was old school in some ways. Bryan would say, ‘No, here is what the data is telling us, we are not doing another session’,” explained Moyna.
“Dublin haven’t had too many bad days over the last six or seven years, they are always running on the top of the surface. I think they really control the amount of training.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, they are a phenomenal group of football players, but they are always a phenomenal group of athletes.
“So Dublin players are very aware of the importance of recovery. Bryan keeps saying that to me. It was his biggest problem, to convince the management to reduce the amount of training.
“I just think this culture, and I saw it when I was involved in Monaghan, players are never more than 15%-20% away from peak fitness. Fellas know their fitness levels are improving in the last five years, the fitness levels are pretty much constant.”
The numbers game will always favour Dublin until such a time, if it ever happens, that the county is split to reflect the drift of the population to live within the county boundaries.
“In Monaghan, what is the population, 50,000? So we have ‘X’ amount of really good players,” said Moyna.
“We have one in every hundred or so is a really good player. If that player is good technically, then Monaghan have to take him. He may not have the physical attributes and whatever else, but we have to take him.
“Whereas Dublin have 20 great players, and in addition to picking the player with the brilliant skills, they can select those with the wonderful athletic ability. So it is huge, other counties don’t have that population base to pick the players with those abilities together.”
One thing is clear from the Cavan experience — training culture needs to change.
“I just know the students from various counties and seeing the training programmes that county teams are putting them on,” he added.
“There were so many Monday nights that I had to pull guys out because they had been worked so hard the previous weekend. It was ludicrous. I realised that me training them was of no benefit and I would get the benefit of all the training they were doing.”