'You have an opportunity to put a smile on people's faces, to make people proud'
Being a county footballer in the days of lockdown is a strange existence. Being a Cavan one must be even more surreal; you spend so long looking for that new normal to use the dreaded phrase, and then when it arrives, you look for the next goal and end up spending five months wondering when you will even kick a ball again.
As we write, even that much is not clear. The players, like the rest of us, just have to sit tight and ride out the storm.
Long-serving defender Killian Brady prefers to look to the positives.
“At least I'm working away [Brady is a Garda based in Laytown], I have that routine that a lot of people don’t have - and it’s good to have that. We work four days-on, four-off. so it’s about trying to fit in whatever training you can.
“We still have the issue of not really knowing what we’re looking forward to, there are no defined dates or anything - as I say, it's trying to get that bit of training done wherever you can.
“It’s a good opportunity, too, to spend that bit of time with the family that you wouldn’t have got in the last few years; once you were back [with the county], you were back. It was just helter-skelter and your weekends were based around the football calendar.
“That is one change I’ve noticed with the lockdown, getting that opportunity to spend that bit more time with the family. It’s been nice but at the same time you can see how people are getting fed up at this stage. I think everyone is looking for a bit more normality to come back.
“I know when we came back in October last year, there was a big debate about whether the football should come back or not but I think everyone saw the benefit of that in terms of having sport on TV - even giving people something to talk about.
“It has been a fairly quiet past couple of months.”
Cavan adapted superbly to the strange circumstances they found themselves in at the tail end of last year. The players, says Brady, were looking forward to a short turnaround and carrying their momentum into 2021 but that has now been stalled.
“The longer the lockdown goes on, I think, the harder it gets. The lads came back so early and chomping at the bit, mad to get back. We had the initial goal of January for the start of the season and I know a lot of the lads didn't take much time off at all.
“The hunger, after the Dublin game, was there, straight away. Looking back, it would have been nice to have some clarity from the government, or the GAA, that things might have been extended, in that lads might have been afforded to take an extended break but it is what it is now.
“We’re always looking to be a little bit stronger, or faster, so we have to, initially, keep on top of the physical side of it - maybe there's a couple of kilos here and there if you're not keeping on top of it. But I know from my experience that a lot of the lads are keeping on top of it. You have to set your goals but, again, there's no clarity on that.
“There is a discussion on whether there's going to be three league games and then you're into a championship but there's not much of an opportunity to see where you're at, in terms of game time. It's about making the most of the time and coming back in the best-possible shape.
“It's not just about physical shape, it might be about playing as much football as you can on your own, or just getting as much ball in your hand, so that when you do come back you're not as focused on physical fitness. You have to keep ahead of the curve because there is a new standard ahead.
“Last year was the benchmark but there's a new benchmark now because you're defending Ulster champions. You're not contenders anymore. If you have the opportunity to push on, why not?”
“Last year” will never be forgotten but by now, that’s all it is – the past. For Cavan players, management and supporters, it meant the world but it also left them wanting more.
It was hard-earned and the players don’t want to squander it.
Brady is now in his ninth season on the panel. He freely admits that at times he doubted whether the breakthrough would ever come and even whether he was good enough to be there.
“Senior was always an ambition but the gap was whether I believed or not that I could do it. That was the big thing. I had massive heroes playing for Mullahoran but I don't really remember [watching] Cavan all that much.
“When Paul [Brady] started playing I started following them a bit more, and development squads were a new thing. When I first started playing, they hadn't been around very long. We're bearing the fruits of it now but it was a new concept at the time.
“I think we started at U14 with development squads - it was a new level of competitiveness. Your training would be with massive squads of 50 or 60, and you were getting exposed to a new level of training. As that went on, you got more game-time and in different tournaments against other counties, and a bit more hunger.
“I know, at the time, there were four or five of us from Mullahoran, and we were a group, which was great for us. That's when you see things filter down and you know some aren't going to make it.
“I suppose, I wasn't sure if I'd be the one to make it. That was especially after the U21s and you could see the talent there - you'd doubt if you could be part of it, so to speak, to make the senior panel. I got the opportunity and decided there was no point looking back because you're constantly trying to improve.
“The main decision is about if you're willing to make the commitment; that's about the biggest part of it. There are sacrifices you have to make - weekends and holidays and stuff like that. That is probably the big difference between the lads that make it and don't make it.”
When Brady broke through to the senior county panel under Terry Hyland, expectation in the county was through the roof after a number of underage successes. A run to Croke Park only added to that but progress was a slow process.
“We'd had a relative amount of success coming up with those teams, even at U16, I remember playing under Mickey [Graham] in Buncrana in a cup final and that was probably the start of our journey.
“We had a lot of success and probably had gotten used to beating Ulster teams at underage level and then we made that breakthrough at U21 level - we thought, 'this is the start of a good journey here'. There was expectation there for ourselves, not only for the fans, but it was surreal. I suppose, coming in, in your first year and getting to an Ulster semi-final and then getting to an All-Ireland quarter-final, and we thought, 'that was that', we'd be making finals all the time but for whatever reason, it didn't happen.
“That's been frustrating and we've analysed that over the years - about what went wrong and where it went wrong. I came in in 2013 and we were in Division 3 and things had been bad for Cavan for a long time. Initially, all you wanted to do was make things better and improve things.
“There's a cliché about leaving things better from when you got there - that is a main driver and, at the minute, we've done that. The trajectory has been slow and while it hasn't been all uphill but there have been a lot of ups and downs.”
Did he ever consider packing it in completely or taking a year off? “Probably most years!” he replies, only half-joking.
“From my experience, there seems to be an extra session every year, or an extra sacrifice you have to make, or an extra commitment, so you do weigh it up and for myself, personally, I've been in and out of the team, off the bench and in and out of panels, so you do question it a little bit more but at the end of the day you weigh it up again and ask yourself: 'Do I have something to offer here?'
“If you feel you do, why not give it a lash? I'm coming to the end of my career, in that I've played a lot more than I'm going to play. That can re-affirm that you won't be here long but that you still have something to offer. Why not do it? I know a lot more talented fellas have played for Cavan than me - I suppose the big difference is: 'Are you willing to make that sacrifice and that commitment?'
“I suppose it has been hard, but at the end of the day, you'd never change it and if you talk to any of the lads and ask them, they wouldn't, even with taking all the bad days.”
As the years have gone on, Brady has gained more experience and confidence. That, too, took time.
“I got into the side and backed myself a little bit more because if you look back now and think of all the great footballers you've played with and all the great footballers that you came up through school with, you thought 'they are 100pc going to make it' but I remember Mickey saying to us, after we lost an Ulster minor semi-final against Tyrone, 'Take a good look around because there's only five or six lads that are going to play senior football, or you aren't going to play on the same team together'.
“I remember thinking: 'Jesus, I might as well enjoy it while I can!' So, you get a perspective on things. The higher the standard, the little bit harder you have to work. For me, I suppose, that was my strength, it was my work-rate, or I was willing to make those sacrifices, and as I'm getting on, you realise that you can always try that little bit harder.
“You can always put in a little bit more work in that is going to prolong things for you, in whatever it is. In terms of confidence, I would have always struggled a little bit with it, because I couldn't always rely on my skill-set to get me through games, so you have to rely on the other things that you are good at.
“ Every year, I am looking to improve one, or two, things, and that's, maybe, what's kept me going in a way - even in terms of your stats, or your PBs and if you can see an upward trajectory - that's what keeps you coming back, really. If you finished a year on a low and thought you had nothing to offer, you might have to reconsider it.”
For the longest time, he got the sense that there was no respect out there for Cavan. That galled him.
“Definitely. Even at underage and schools, everything - that sense was always there. It was like, 'here's Cavan - a pushover'. So, it was always nice to get those little wins against them - whenever you got the opportunity - but you were always fighting for that respect. Always.
“And even with the Ulster title, you still question if you have that respect. I think you'd have to win two, or three, for them to think that you're in that top two bracket. You'll always be fighting for that but I think we went a long way, last year, in terms of bridging that gap.
“Teams do have to take you seriously, of course, but it was always questioned if we had what it took to get it over the line. We even lost McKenna Cup finals and we questioned our bottle and asked ourselves questions… obviously, we put that to bed this year but it's no good unless you back it up. Whenever this year does start, the goal is always Ulster, every year. This year, obviously, that is going to be no different, so we have to manage the expectations of this year and last year.
“Obviously, for me, it's that we have the big benefit that we have the same squad as last year, and there are lads now chomping at the bit to get back in - that's a massive change. I've discussed it with André [Quinn, head of Athletic Performance] a few times and it's a frustration in having to start with ten, or fifteen, new players every year - you have to get them up to speed.
“So, already, you have that advantage, where you have the same group of players and that's leaving us in a better position to defend our crown, or in whatever league structure takes place, that'd be the first priority.
“Time will tell in terms of if we have bridged that gap regarding respect but you'd like to think you've gone a long way towards doing it but I think that you'll always be fighting that battle, to be honest.”
No interview with a Cavan player is complete now without a name-check for Quinn. He has been crucial in helping change the culture in terms of accountability and how players prepare. Now, there is science to back everything up and having those stats has given the Cavan players confidence that they are doing the right things.
“If you look at it in terms of your fitness, or personal best, or your data; at least you have it - because I was coming back looking to getting fitter, after a few knocks last year, and you have that benchmark, and you know where to get to, but if you are slogging away on your own and looking at it thinking, 'I'm a good bit off this here', it can be hard on your head.
“It's a mental roller-coaster, at times, and you learn that over the years, but when you're hitting a new target every week, that can be good for the head, too - you're seeing a constant improvement. That's one of the biggest benefits and it drives competitiveness, too.
“But it is also about having a benchmark for the player themselves. You're always looking to improve but you're always also looking to catch up to the lad next to you, or the lad breathing down your neck - and you try to keep ahead of him, too.”
'Enough is enough'
With such a scientific approach to preparation, nobody gets away with swinging the lead, either. The numbers don’t lie.
“Exactly. That's been, I suppose, one of the main culture-switches for us - you're not coming back hitting the 're-set' button every year. You're coming back looking to be in better shape and within that percentage of that 'personal best' that you have for yourself - that only benefits everyone, really.
“It's one way of finding out if 'is he ten, or fifteen, or twenty seconds off it?' There are other factors, like injuries, but they're taken into account. You're always looking to improve but the margins get a little but smaller in terms of improvement, so it's a constant benchmark that you're always rubbing off.”
What makes the 2020 success all the more extraordinary is that getting on the team bus after the Ulster final in 2019, a breakthrough felt as far away as ever.
“I remember coming away from the Donegal game thinking they were so far ahead of us in terms of everything we were doing: strength and conditioning, tactical-wise. You thought you knew what the level was but obviously there's another level above that again in terms of what Dublin are doing.
“At the beginning of the year, that is what you are trying to get to but we had so many blows over the season in losing Dara [McVeety] and Conor [Moynagh] and other lads, so we were at a disadvantage straight away. You think to yourself: ‘Can we bridge that gap without those lads?’
“But we had a core and, I suppose, it was up to us to have a word in a couple of lads' ears, with our experience, about what we are trying to do here. Also, to make a decision, about 'enough is enough' in terms of Ulster.
“But you can't do everything based just on commitment and that will to win; you do have to bridge the gap in terms of strength and conditioning, too. I definitely feel we did that. How we finished out games will tell you that. All the lads got a little bit stronger.
“It was good to play Dublin to see what the level really is but it probably just makes you hungrier and that's what we got out of that Donegal game [in 2019], you knew where you had to get to.
“Did we think that we would get there as quick as that? Possibly not, for a lot of lads. We've gotten there now but it's about staying there and the continuing need to improve because Dublin have set such a high standard that you can't afford to take a day off.”
The confidence in the Cavan camp ahead of the Ulster final on November 22 last was striking. There was no false modesty or talking up the opposition; Cavan knew they had a huge opportunity and, crucially, that they had to take it.
“There was a core group of us there, maybe eight or ten, since 2013, but there was player-turnover over the years. But looking back now, you might think: ‘We've another opportunity next year and we'll start again’. I think that perception changed because a lot of us have played more than we have to play now, so you had to reach a point where you say to yourself: 'There can be no next year'.
“That's the way we approached it. It's been said before - and it's no lie - we really do approach it one game at a time. You have to set up that way and even then I suppose we questioned our own leadership at times. ‘Did we do enough? Did we stand up when we could've?’
“I think that's been the biggest driver and the lads you expect to stand up have stood up. They've shown that bit of leadership, not everyone is a great leader, but it only takes a few lads to set the tone. I don't know if we got massive confidence out of the way we were playing because we were so far behind in a lot of the games but the confidence probably came from the decision that 'enough was enough' and we were going to get over the line.”
Brady plays a physical game, based around intensity, putting his body on the line. Turnovers, winning dirty ball, are the currencies in which he trades. That can get him into trouble with referees and he has picked up his fair share of cards over the years but the black one brandished over his head, harshly, in the first half of the Ulster final was a sickener. What was he thinking when that card was produced?
“The first few seconds, I don't think I knew what I was thinking. I remember walking off the field and thinking: ‘Y'know, I'm after putting so much into this for the last, whatever, nine or ten years, just to get to this point' and I'm after getting a black card and again thinking to myself ‘am I even going to be brought back on here? Y'know?’
“Those were the high-stakes that it was. I was confident we were still going to win the game but there was potential that I left the lads down, the county down - it was such a unique opportunity to win an Ulster final.
“I remember, initially, thinking: ‘Wait, what happened, how did he end up on the ground?’ Those were my initial thoughts. When Barry [Cassidy, ref] came back I thought, ‘I'm definitely gone here’. It was a pointless argument at that point but I remember coming up to the bench and thinking: ‘What happened? He's [the opponent] after codding me there!? He's after making a so-and-so of me!’
“We had another similar incident before but that's the type of me, in that I'd not like to see anyone get an unfair advantage. It was more frustrating than anything else. They said to focus again in that it was to say that you are going on again now, but it was so early on in the game that you have to watch yourself from that point on.
“But over the years I think I can handle myself a little bit better now, if I'm on a yellow or a black. I was just delighted it worked out in the end because after games like that you'd hate to see it ruin the result.”
When the game was won and celebrations erupted around the county, the players, uniquely, found themselves insulated from it all. In the past, a breakthrough success would have seen those involved taken into the embrace of the county, quite literally. With lockdown restrictions in place, that couldn’t happen and in a way, for those involved, it made the aftermath different, sweet in some ways and bitter sweet in others.
“That was the most unique thing about it, in that in my experience with winning championships with Mullahoran is that you are surrounded by the fans and locals for a couple of days but for us [after Ulster] was a couple of days just being among ourselves.
“Given the stature of what you're after winning, you can only imagine what things would've been like if things were normal and what the town would've been like. We would've been separated from the players and all that but to able to watch the game back together, and not having that distraction of people coming up to you with pictures and all that, which you've no problem doing - and you enjoy that side of it! - I think that is something that is an amazing opportunity to get.
“But you do feel a little bit hard-done-by, in a way, in that you didn't get to celebrate with the fans. The drive-through was great and I think the lads would've sat there all night watching people come through because that's what it's all about, at the end of the day.
“ But then it was all over very quickly because we went into the Dublin game and the lockdown had come in so fast that you're still bumping into people, even now, and you didn't get the opportunity to see them - it was nearly impossible to reply to all the messages on your phone, as well. There was so much joy but, looking back, I think that is the one thing that I will always appreciate: that it was just the players.
“I remember in 2012, Mullahoran won the Senior and Danny [Brady] was over us at the time, and we sat in the dressing room for 10 or 15 minutes, because we thought 'this is going to be mental when we leave here and we're going to be separated', and the Monday was always like that, so any opportunity to be with the group is the most unique thing.”
Which brings us back to Mullahoran and where it all started and will finish. As a member of famed footballing Gunner clan, Brady knows the importance of tradition, of safe-guarding the jersey, be it club or county.
As the years have gone on, he has come to realise that that is what matters most of all. The pride in representing family and community is why he plays the game – and the same goes, he says, for his teammates.
“I suppose that's the main driver, even in recent years. When you start out, I suppose, there is an ego thing for playing with your county. I suppose, when you're a young person, as well, when you’re a minor, U-1, or when you first start you have that image of playing as an inter-county footballer but as the years go on you become detached from that and you ask: 'Why am I really playing?'
“You realise that you are playing for your family, your club, yourself, and it's nice to join that and be up towards the top. Phil [‘the Gunner’, Cavan legend of the 1940s and ’50s] played for so many years and won Ulster titles, and to have one alongside him... I suppose that's what your legacy is now.
“I suppose, it's not about what you do, it's about how you make people feel and representing your club. There's not too many people doing it, so when you get that opportunity, in whatever way it comes, you have to take it.
“If you talk about role models, as we had when we were young, I'd like to think that I'm someone's role model now. Whether that be Cavan or Mullahoran or wherever it is, you are continuing tradition in a way.
“And, it's one that is handed down to you. You have to carry that on and don't waste the opportunity. If you have that bit of talent or have that opportunity to represent your county, you have to take it - you'd nearly feel obliged to take it, so that was great with the proud people of Mullahoran and just bumping into them, and there are people I haven't seen in a while and to see the unbelievable joy on their faces with everything that's going on.
“If that conversation only lasts five minutes and they get a bounce out of that conversation, I've come to realise over the last few years that that's why you're playing. It's nothing to do with ego - it's that you have an opportunity to put a smile on people's faces, to make people proud and no matter where you go, they can say they're from Mullahoran or Cavan - that's what it's all about.”