Breaks like this weekend’s in the Allianz Football League schedule are not to everyone’s liking, but they allow players and managers the opportunity to pause and take stock before the last two rounds.
Some will be breathing easier than others. Chief among them must be Cavan manager Terry Hyland and his Roscommon counterpart John Evans whose sides eased into the latest hiatus with 100% winning records and promotion to Division Two already guaranteed.
For all the focus on the top tier and on the likes of Donegal or Monaghan, it is to Cavan and Roscommon that the eyes of the have-nots of the GAA world should be turning as the temperature on the season is turned up from tepid to warm.
At a time when hands are being rubbed about the chasm between Dublin’s million-euro deals and Carlow’s collection of €70 at the gate, these two counties have shown that money is far from everything when it comes to carving out a bedrock for success. Theirs has been no quick fix.
Cavan’s U21s were in action against Tyrone last night looking to continue their quest for a fourth consecutive provincial title. Roscommon’s will face Sligo this Saturday aiming to make it three-from-five in Connacht.
The fruits of both underage systems are now clearly budding at senior level and the pair will meet in Kingspan Breffni Park in two weekend’s time with spirits raised to new levels amid the promise of a bright future.
That they both adhere to very different playing styles — Cavan emphasise defensive discipline while Roscommon are shooting the lights out — only goes to emphasise the importance of structures and systems that are embedded far below the senior squad.
“There was a lot of work put in by a lot of people in the last 25 years but it wasn’t all coordinated,” said Hyland yesterday. “Nobody stopped to ask where did the assembly line finish or is this all being done for the senior set-up or what.
“A decision was taken four or five years ago to put all the pieces together and the rewards have been reaped. We’ve won the Ulster U21 title the last three years and we are seeing that transfer into the senior panel now as well.”
Hyland has been integral to it, serving as his native county’s U21 manager, senior selector and now senior manager. Yet Evans, who hails from Kerry, has shown that the debate on local versus ‘outside’ managers is irrelevant to the bigger picture.
People are undoubtedly crucial to success but only in terms of what they bring, not because of where they hail.
Evans first worked his oracle with Tipperary’s underage setup and eventually took his ideas to Connacht, via a stint with Meath, thanks to his friendship with Fergal O’Donnell through whom he was familiar with the groundwork being done in Roscommon.
He knew underage success didn’t guarantee senior enlightenment. He had spoken to numerous county boards about his ‘template’ and how it wasn’t an IKEA-type one-size-fits-all solution, but some fundamentals cross all borders.
Knowing your players was one, so Evans transferred training eastwards to Mullingar, thus halving the distance his 20 Dublin-based players had to travel. Facilities were another must, so a suitable gym was put together on a shoestring.
“That’s exactly the approach we have taken in Roscommon,” he said. “We’re not looking for €1m or even €100,000. We built a gym by ourselves for very small money. These are things, practical things that can be done right.”
Hyland accepted much the same point: for all the talk about who has and hasn’t the money and resources, there is a considerable amount that counties can do to help themselves.
Maintaining that success is another matter.
How many times have we looked on in wonderment as counties churned out a generation of footballers or hurlers only for the conveyor belts to run dry? Vigilance must be constant.
“The U16s and minors coming through are looking up and seeing guys who are only three or four years older than them with Ulster medals and driving this forward,” said Hyland. “We have to keep that bar high because it would be easy to let it slip.”
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