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Graham is eager for Cavan to show pride in the shirt

Cavan v Monaghan, Ulster SFC First Round: Kingspan Breffni, Saturday, 7.00pm

History boys: Mickey Graham celebrates after Mullinalaghta’s famous victory
History boys: Mickey Graham celebrates after Mullinalaghta’s famous victory
History boys: John Kegan and Simon Cadam celebrate after Mullinalaghta’s famous victory
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

A dank December day in O'Connor Park in Tullamore and a flare is lit, spitting and belching maroon smoke up into the air.

On the sideline, tears already shed and more to follow, stands Mickey Graham. His side, Longford's Mullinalaghta, had just pulled off a sensational shock by beating Dublin superclub Kilmacud Crokes in the Leinster final.

Reflecting now, almost everything about that day, the classic David and Goliath element of it. A club with 114 adult members against one with - by their own estimate - 4,800 members. The first Longford club to win the Leinster club title. It feels an unreality, even now to Cavan manager Graham.

"The amount of people I got messages and emails from, people I didn't know, saying it brought a tear to their eye, was amazing. I think the emotion was there at the end because the players couldn't believe they had done it and the people of Mullinalaghta couldn't believe it and that hit home with everybody watching," he recalled.

"When nobody gives you a chance and you've been written off and you do what people thought was impossible, it's always an overwhelming feeling and it didn't really hit home for a few weeks.

"I remember saying that if we were to win the game, we would want to get a goal in injury time and not give Kilmacud any time to get back at us and we couldn't have written the script any better. Did we plan it out that way? Definitely not!"

As incredible as it was, it created one of those unique pain in the backside GAA situations. You see, Graham had been appointed Cavan manager as far back as August 21 and having succeeded Mattie McGleenan, the prompt appointment gave him a long run in to starting preparations for the 2019 National League campaign in Division One.

Instead, the Mullinalaghta season would drag on until the middle of February when they were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by Dr Crokes of Kerry.

Naturally, all parties, county board and management do their best at face-saving by praising their own time-management skills and the abilities of those around them. But by the time Graham was all in with Cavan they were already three defeats from three and on their way to another relegation.

Ask now, the week of his first Championship week as a county manager - one against the old enemy of Monaghan - and he will admit the first few months in the job were far from ideal.

"I'm still getting my feet under the table. I'll not lie, I am still learning," the Cavan Gaels man said.

"It's a big step up from club management and there's a lot more to it. The set-up, the back-room team, the players, finding out about them and getting players to know what you are expecting of them and vice versa.

"We have met halfway as regards that. Players felt that there were things that could have been done better, we addressed that and they have seen that and now they have started to buy into what we want them to do.

"We started off with a panel of 38, we now have a panel of 40 - we lost nobody, we actually gained lads, so there's a bit of continuity there.

"It's well documented that there was a big turnover of players in the past in Cavan, whereas this year we are gaining lads, not losing lads, and that can only be good for Cavan football.

"We have younger lads in for the long haul. They have to be patient and realise they have work to do and this is the start of it."

The importance of keeping youth on the panel? It's hard to beat learning from experience.

"They are waiting for their opportunity. I was in their situation myself, I was brought in, in '95 under Martin McHugh and it was '97 before I played my first competitive game," explained Graham.

"But the experience I gained in those two years, training alongside the likes of Fintan Cahill, Stephen King, Ronan Carolan, it was invaluable. At the time I would have been frustrated and many people would have said, 'What are you wasting your time for?' but I'm glad I stayed with it now.

"When I got my chance and started getting my place, I realised, 'You know what, I needed those two years'.

"For me to come on to the panel with those lads was a dream and Martin McHugh brought in a bit of structure, belief, professionalism and everything got better and better. Everybody knew the footballers were there, it was just getting the belief."

That's one thing. Another is the sheer bloody-mindedness it takes to play county football. Graham was there in Ballybofey for Cavan's Ulster preliminary round loss to Donegal and stood there, disgusted.

"It was like a challenge match. I just said to myself, Cavan are better than that. The crowd couldn't get going, Cavan were very quiet," he said.

"And the one thing about Cavan supporters is, if you give them something to shout about, something to get them behind the team, they will do that and I felt we didn't last year. You just hope that when genuine supporters see that the team are giving it everything, that they're passionate and playing with their hearts on the sleeves, the crowd will get behind them."

A Saturday night in Cavan town, Monaghan coming to town and the Sky cameras present. This has all the ingredients.

"It's about Cavan starting to put a bit of pride back in the jersey and playing with a bit of passion," said Graham.

"When we were playing, once you took the field in Breffni Park, the hair stood on the back of your neck. It made all the training and all the sacrifices worthwhile, for that feeling. It was magic."

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