GAA Football

Harsh lessons learned with Tyrone serving Mattie McGleenan well with Cavan

Cavan manager Mattie McGleenan spent much of his inter-county playing career casting envious glances towards men with All-Ireland winners' medals. He came within a whisker of emulating them in 1995, but rather than look back with regrets, he has many valuable lessons stored in his little black book to assist him in his managerial career. Andy Watters spoke to him..

The Irish News Ulster GAA Allstars of 1997. Mattie McGleenan is third from left in the front row
Andy Watters

TYRONE were good, but when their Ulster rivals looked them in the eye in the early 1990s, the Red Hands blinked first and lost.

It's hard to believe now, but back then the Red Hands were the poor relations in Ulster. Down (1991), Donegal ('92), Derry ('93) and then Down again took the Anglo-Celt Cup on the way to winning the Sam Maguire and all Mattie McGleenan and his Red Hand team-mates could do was congratulate them and try to hide their jealousy.

McGleenan – now manager of Cavan – logged a lot of harsh lessons from those lean years spent watching his neighbours climb the Hogan steps as their fans partied in Croke Park's September sunshine.

“We were definitely jealous,” says the former Tyrone and Eglish full-forward, who leads the Breffnimen into Championship battle against Donegal on Sunday.

“Why did I play Gaelic Football? I dreamt of winning Sam Maguire, that's what got me out of bed – winning Ulster and winning Sam Maguire.

“I watched my friends in Derry and Down do it, boys that I was in university with like Brian Burns, DJ Kane, Dermot McNicholl…

“At one stage in Jordanstown I had 12 All-Ireland winners in the same dressingroom as me and we were great friends.

“I had great battles with (Derry players) Henry and Seamus Downey and Johnny McGurk in those days and they showed me the pathway. They showed Tyrone the way – ‘if you want to win an All-Ireland, you have to beat us' – and they didn't take losing too kindly.

“We realised we didn't have the mental strength to beat them and that was the catalyst back in 1995. Down beat us in an Ulster final in '94 and we watched Down go on and win the All-Ireland comfortably.

“That winter we sat down and we said: ‘Right, for one year we are going to set everything aside and our sole objective is going to be to win'. We knew we were there or thereabouts but you have to deliver.”

Derry had beaten Tyrone in 1991 and 1992 so when the neighbours lined out at Clones for the Ulster semi-final in 1995, most pundits tipped the battle-hardened Oak Leafers to keep their foot on the Red Hands' throat.

“They had the Indian sign over us,” McGleenan admits.

“No matter what happened, we couldn't beat them but at some point the players decide that it's time to step up and take responsibility for their actions.”

Tyrone boiled over in the summer sunshine and Seamus McCallan and Pascal Canavan were both sent off before half-time. Reduced to 13 men, Tyrone's chance looked to have gone but, inspired by eight points from the majestic Peter Canavan, they claimed a famous one-point win.

“There's something that happens in a football team in that moment when you know ‘this is our opportunity',” said McGleenan who learned a valuable lesson from that game.

“Nowadays I don't look at football for 70 minutes, I only look towards 35 minutes. That day we played Derry we had a great plan for the first half and the second half, but by half-time we had two men sent off and the second half plan that you have worked on was out the window.

“I have tried to take what has happened to me in the past and bring it into right now and I have never coached a game for 70 minutes. I coach for 35, then we think for 15 minutes and then go at it for the next 35 because you don't know what's going to happen.

“Your best player could get carried off after 10 minutes and if you are built around your best player – Peter Canavan as it was in those days – and you remove him from the equation early in the first half the gameplan is out the door.”

Canavan and McGleenan were Tyrone's attacking spearhead back in 1995 and they combined to see off Cavan (in the Ulster final) and Galway (in the All-Ireland semi-final) to send the Red Hands into the second All-Ireland final in the county's history.

Again Canavan led the way with 11 points, but Jody Gormley was Tyrone's only other scorer and Dublin won by a single point to shatter northern dreams.

“We missed our opportunity, that was our one chance,” reflected McGleenan.

“Whether it's a bounce of the ball, or lady luck or whatever you want to call it, Dublin were there and they finished the job off.”

Now in his second season as Cavan manager, McGleenan is infectiously passionate about the game. A teacher at St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh, the former Ireland basketball international admits he is constantly thinking about football.

“I don't sleep any more,” he said (only half joking).

“I would wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning and I have my black book. Something will come into my head and I'll get up and write it down.

“It could be that I need to contact somebody and get them to do something or think about something in terms of their game or something happened in a play that I think we could do better.”

Whatever the result on Sunday, he'll write a page or two before Monday morning comes…

CAVAN manager Mattie McGleenan insists he is not concerned that other Ulster counties have been on, or will go on, residential training camps.

“You have to earn the right to these things,” said the Eglish native.

“If the county board feels that going to Portugal or La Manga or wherever will help drive this team forward it wouldn't be an issue. At this point in time it's not on my frequency at all – everything I need to do, I can do where I'm at.

“I don't look at what other teams are doing.”

He added: “The Cavan county board have been outstanding to us this year earlier in the year.

“We were away in Cork and we know how expensive it is to run a team nowadays. We have a great place down in Killinkere and I would call it our training camp where we have worked on tactics.

“Why do you need to head off somewhere when you have these facilities on our doorstep?”

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