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How Mickey Graham's Managerial Journey Crafted Reputation As The Ultimate Underdog

How Mickey Graham's Managerial Journey Crafted Reputation As The Ultimate Underdog
By Gary Connaughton Updated

After two decades in the doldrums, the arrival of Mickey Graham has ignited a rebirth for Cavan football. Two years into the job, he has already shattered the glass ceiling that had existed in the Ulster championship, leading the county to their first provincial crown since 1997.

It is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider the unique circumstances of this year.

Their game against Donegal was the perfect example of just how far this group have come. Facing a team who were widely regarded as being in the top two or three sides in the country, they matched them stride for stride. Having entered the final as rank outsiders, Mickey Graham and his players produced a masterclass.

That was far from the only apple cart they had upset in this year's championship. They were written off against Monaghan in the opening round too, falling behind early in the game only to mount an incredible late comeback.

Having done something similar against Down in the semi-final, there is very much the sense that Cavan are riding on the crest of a wave.

Mickey Graham is the one driving that.

His coaching skills first garnered national attention when he led Longford's Mullinalaghta to a Leinster club title in 2018, but his journey in management began long before that.

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Still in his playing days, his first stab at management came with his own club Cavan Gaels, taking over their minor side in 2003. He inherited a group of players that had not won a championship game at any age group up to that point. They would end the year as county champions.

Those sort of instant results were to become a common theme during his early years in management. We Are Cavan podcast host Damien Donohoe, who actually coached against Graham that year, recognised at the time that his counterpart had the potential to go very far in the game.

Mickey Graham came in and took a team, I think they came from Division Two at U16 level and went into Division One at minor and ended up winning a title from nothing.

I remember from that time, even though I was a few years younger than Mickey, he was playing county football and I was only playing a bit of club, so I had a few years head start on him in managerial terms.

Yet even at that point I knew there was something different, because no manager did I ever feel outwitted me along the line or did something to me make me think ‘what’s he after doing there’. Mickey was showing those signs straight away in his first year in management...

What he was probably sewing at that stage was a bit of what we see a lot of now, in that he makes the players around him believe that he knows best, and he does know best. That’s the kind of magical thing that where if he says ‘go out and do this and I promise you that you’re going to win’, he’s got the backup behind it now.

That started with that foundation back in 2003.

That was far from the only success he would have in the 00s. He followed that minor crown with a junior championship managing Butlersbridge in 2004, a year in which he would also win the senior county final as a player for Cavan Gaels.

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Two championships in the same county in the one year is not an achievement that can be claimed by many. All of this came before he had even hit 30-years of age.

The next stop on the managerial merry-go-round was Drumalee in 2006, a club who had just fallen to defeat in the Cavan intermediate final. Damien Donohoe was part of that team and he perfectly sums up what Graham brought to the group. As had become custom at that stage, the year would end in more silverware.

What I look back now on in 2006 and find very interesting is that even though we were being beaten in league games, he was always emphasising ‘lads it’s about championship, we’re going to right for the championship, we’re here to win the championship’.

Everything was always focused towards championship with him. We played a fancied Lavey team in the first round and put in a good performance and gradually built on after that.

What he did really well, and it was a new thing for me to experience, was that after every single game at the start of the next training session he went through every single played and said ‘this is what I liked about you done, and this is where there’s room for improvement’.

More often than not, he would sandwich in his room for improvement with compliments, with what was good about your performances.

Now he showed his ruthless streak as a manager, he made some big calls that didn’t always go down well. At the end of the day, he did what he had to do to get over the line. That’s what set him apart from others...

Once we got into that final... he told us to talk up Ballinagh (their opponents), let them believe that they’re the best team in the world and will beat us easy, but we know what we’re about and that we’re ready to beat these boys.

That insulated the group and galvanised us together in that it was us against the world. That was something he played on and used very smartly.

It is not surprising that Mickey Graham's managerial chops were creating quite the buzz in Cavan at that time. Having starred as a player at club and county level in previous years, he was easily transferring those skills to the sideline.

It was inevitable that he would become involved with the inter-county game at some level, first linking up with Cavan's U16 team. He would follow that group through to minor level, ultimately culminating with a close Ulster semi-final defeat to eventual All-Ireland winners Tyrone.

While it would end in disappointment, Graham had put in some important building blocks during his time with that group, something Damien Donohoe believes the effects of which are only now being seen today:

I remember Nicholas Walsh was the Games Development Manager at the time, the ex-AFL and Cavan player, and the two of them worked exceptionally well together. What they wanted to bring to Cavan was a change of attitude, that there was going to be attention and work put into these development squads.

At U16 he was probably the first manager to come in and do 50-plus sessions in a year which was a huge turnaround. That U16 team involved players like Gearóid McKiernan and Niall Murray that we are seeing today lift Ulster titles.

That’s the side of what he brought to his county career that people underestimate.

Winning that Ulster title isn’t something that has just happened over the last two years, the seeds were planted when Mickey Graham, Nicholas Wash, and Paul McCorry at U16 level started to increase the amount of sessions that the U16 team were doing...

They may not have gotten the reward at minor level, but it was the start of the process that led him to where he is now.

At this stage, many probably thought Graham would graduate to the top job in the county much quicker than the ten years that it took, but it is clear that when the opportunity finally arrived it came at the perfect juncture in the journey of both team and manager.

The feats the former Cavan Gaels star had achieved with Mullinalaghta (a half-parish with a tiny population) ensured he arrived into the job with high expectations, but it was difficult to quantify what would count as success. After all this was a team that had not competed at provincial level to any real degree in over 20 years.

Few could have predicted that they would reach two consecutive Ulster finals, ending their 23-year drought in the process.

In a sense, defying expectations is what Mickey Graham's management is all about. He has done it with Cavan, Mullinalagtha, and even stretching back to his very first managerial gig back in 2003. He thrives in the role of underdog.

He has hardly been cast in a bigger underdog role than the one he will fill later today. Dublin are perhaps the greatest team of all-time, with few giving Cavan any chance of pulling off the upset.

Mickey Graham wouldn't have it any other way.

If there was a way to script it that Mickey Graham would want it going in, this is it. The proof of that is how quick Cavan were to quash the idea of playing the semi-final outside of Croke Park.

All that was going to do was shine a spotlight and Mickey Graham doesn’t like the spotlight in those terms. I think him and the county board managed it well. That underdog status, he absolutely loves it and he plays on it.

He will galvanise the players around to talk about respect and how ‘nobody is giving you boys respect in any way, if Donegal were here they would be getting it’...

This is the sort of day Mickey’s entire managerial career has been building towards. At some point when he literally has the world turned against him, when nobody in the world believes that he’s going to do it, he’s going to pull off the greatest upset ever.

Few could begrudge him such a victory.

SEE ALSO: The Balls Football All-Star Team Of The Year So Far

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