As rollicking a European Championships as Ireland had, one Irishman made it further than most. Kilkenny's Ronan Kavanagh is a sports scientist, and along with his daily job with Burnley, works with the Welsh national team. We spoke to him on this week's episode of the Balls.ie Football Show, which you can listen to by subscribing on iTunes, Stitcher or on Soundcloud:
Kavanagh studied sports science at the University of Limerick before a job with STATSport, who provide a host of professional sports teams with GPS tracking devices, with clients including Leinster and Ulster Rugby, along with 16 of the 20 Premier League clubs. In-camp demonstrations by Kavanagh soon led to regular work, and led to his introduction to the Welsh F.A, and subsequent full-time employment at Preston North End before moving to Burnley.
Kavanagh is meticulous in preparation, with sessions tailored to the fitness of each player, and adapted by monitoring live feedback from each player's GPS units.
International weeks begin with each player filling in a wellness questionnaire, asking them to rate their lower body soreness, their quality of sleep and how ready they are to train. This feedback is supplemented by saliva tests along with information relayed by the sports science department at the players' clubs.
From there, at around 10.30am the boys come down to the gym, do some activation exercises to get ready for training, and get switched on. Then they go onto the pitch. The boys will have the GPS pods on, and I'll keep an eye on that live, along with organising the drinks and nutrition and so on. Based on the targets we have from the clubs, we will adapt the session.
The live stuff confirms that the players are in their target zone from the information we're getting back.
Any casual viewer of Sky Sports News will have seen the GPS vests players wear during training sessions, and Kavanagh explains exactly how they work:
They are 10 hertz GPS units, so they collect your position ten times a second. From that you get total distance covered by each player, and that's the first metric everybody looks like that. But when you break that down, you find out what that is made up of, so that's where Speed Zones come into it. So there are six speed zones, so we tend to look at zones 5 and 6, when you are travelling above 5.5 m/s and 7 m/s respectively.
You then break it into how much high speed running a player does in each session, to give an accurate assessment of player workload.
Well, high-speed running is all well and good, so what about the short and charged running, where players don't have enough space to get up to high speeds, but are still working equally hard? There is another metric called Explosive Distance which covers that area of it. You have your intensive stuff - smaller spaces - and extensive stuff in larger spaces, where players have a chance to get up to top speed. that's how we work training, because you need both to compete on a Saturday.
Gareth Bale's maximum speed, Kavanagh admits, is better than most, but doesn't single him out for praise above any of the other Welsh players, which is reflective of the main tenet of the Welsh success:
His max speed is better than most. But all the lads are great. The Welsh boys have all been playing together since they were 21, so it's almost like a club setup.
This bond was borne out in public throughout the European Championships, in which Kavanagh was heavily involved. He praises the preparation, reflecting with pride the entire staff's steadfast refusal to cut corners; everybody made the effort to do the right thing.
The fact that there were few injuries to Welsh players throughout the competition is something Kavanagh takes great pride in:
Yeah, exactly. No injuries throughout the whole thing, really, is a good selling point for us. Obviously, we try to stay on everything: the training, recovery, supplementation, we work hard on that, and we felt it would show later on.
It is a similar story at Burnley. The club were promoted last season having indulged in relatively little squad rotation nine players starting at least 37 league games.
Throughout the Euros, however, Kavanagh did not take his eye of Ireland's performances:
My brother travelled over, so I was trying to beg, borrow and steal tickets off people. The Welsh F.A. had two tickets for me, but they were in Bordeaux, and my brother was stuck in Toulouse so couldn't get to them. We all watched Ireland/Sweden in the canteen, and the boys just started laughing when I jumped up when Hoolahan scored!
Those laughs have turned to jibes as the showdown with Ireland moves to the top of the Welsh agenda:
Yeah, I'm getting a lot of heat for that, the Welsh boys are saying I'm a spy, while the Irish lads at Burnley are saying I'm a spy!
It is certainly something Kavanagh can deal with. He batted away a question on whether Bale will be fit to face Ireland on March 24th, and when asked for a score prediction in that game, his answer was exceptionally diplomatic:
I want both teams to qualify, and Wales to top the group, so however that happens!
You can listen to the interview in full in the podcast.