Cavan manager Mickey Graham has credited former goalkeeper and mental health advocate Alan O’Mara with playing a key role in the county’s resurgence this summer.
Graham, Dermot McCabe, and Martin Corry is the coaching triumvirate which has taken Cavan to a first Ulster SFC final in 18 years, but the invaluable work being done behind the scenes by O’Mara, who has spoken publicly about his mental health problems, is proving inspirational to the players.
“Alan’s in as kind of our lifestyle coach,” said Graham. “He’s gone through a lot in his own personal life and he’s been a great addition to our backroom team. He works individually with players.
“If performances are dipping, we’ll ask Alan to maybe have a chat (to the player), because life outside of football is very stressful at the minute, between jobs and everything else, and it’s very hard to keep track on what’s going on in lads’ personal lives.
“Everybody is playing a part and definitely he has brought a wee bit more mentality around the place.
Every team has them now, just to make sure everything is going well. He’s another part of the jigsaw and has been a huge help to us.
O’Mara, who won Ulster underage titles alongside some of the current senior players, had his autobiography The Best is Yet to Come published in 2016 when he talked about his battles with depression.
Cian Mackey, 32, has seen just about everything in his 15-year senior career with Cavan, but he too believes O’Mara has helped them develop a new-found resolve.
“When things aren’t going your way on the field, you can have negative thoughts, but Alan works with players and pushes us on to make sure we don’t be doing that,” he says.
There was no such thing as lifestyle coaches back in ’97 when Graham and McCabe were on the field and in the process of winning Cavan’s last Ulster SFC title. Graham isn’t so caught up with trying to plot Donegal’s downfall in Sunday’s Ulster final that he can’t reflect on how much the game has changed in the intervening two decades.
“Lifestyle coaches? Sure, we had a couple of players, when we had pre-match meals before big games and we’d get spaghetti bolognese, they used to say ‘where’s the low-calorie full Irish?’ I’ll not mention the names. I wasn’t one of them.
“The boys used to look at this spaghetti bolognese as if it was alien. It was a culture shock at that stage for them. We’d a few farmers on the team and a few country boys who liked their full Irish the morning of a game.
“It would’ve took a while to convince them that this was the way the game was going, let me tell you.”
The Cavan boss is full of anecdotes and funny stories, but he gets serious when he talks football. His team will be the underdogs, but bringing no small amount of self-belief to Clones.
Maybe even a hint of O’Mara steel when he says: “I don’t believe it’s all on the day, you have to believe you can win it before you even get there. If you don’t believe you can win it, what’s the point? You might as well sit at home.
“Why would you sacrifice so much time, effort, so much of your personal life and get to the stage where you’ve earned it and not believe you can go on and follow through with it.
“That’s the big thing. You have to believe, and you have to dream.
I’m sure these lads have dreamed of the day they’d play in an Ulster final, or wondered would they ever play in an Ulster final.
“They’re now in an Ulster final, so the dream can become a reality if they want it to become a reality.”
That said, Graham is also a realist and knows full well they haven’t yet faced the kind of weapons Donegal will have firing in Sunday’s sellout.
He knows too the occasion won’t trouble Donegal in the slightest. Eight Ulster finals in nine years makes that irrelevant. A different story for his players, though, meaning O’Mara, Graham, and Co have their work cut out this week.
Mackey added: “The question was asked of us, how would we cope going into the Armagh game? We were underdogs against Monaghan, and I think we answered those questions.
“Donegal are experienced, they have All-Ireland medals in their back pocket, Ulster Championship medals. It’s nothing new to them; it’s new to us. You hope our boys will cope with the occasion, you hope it doesn’t get to them. It’s not going to get to Donegal. They know what it’s about, so we just have to be sure we put in one hell of a display.”
Ken Hogan, Ger Cunningham and Michael Moynihan review the weekend's hurling drama with Anthony Daly