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Meet the Irishman with Wales at the European Championships

Kilkenny sports scientist Ronan Kavanagh talks to The42.

File photo of Ronan Kavanagh, with Wales during a 2018 World Cup qualifier with Georgia.
File photo of Ronan Kavanagh, with Wales during a 2018 World Cup qualifier with Georgia.
Image: PA

THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS are not entirely devoid of Irish involvement, as Kilkenny sports scientist Ronan Kavanagh once again forms part of the Wales backroom staff at a major tournament. 

He was there for the bewitching journey of Euro 2016, as Wales appeared at their first major tournament in 58 years and then reached the semi-finals, manager Chris Coleman tearfully framing the odyssey after the quarter-final win against Belgium by saying, “Don’t be afraid to have dreams.” 

“Just an amazing experience”, Kavanagh reflects with The42. 

“Coleman was an unbelievable speaker and leader. There were good players in there, everyone was on it, and it was really good to be part of it because that’s all I was, a part of it.

“I remember the first anthem: there were members of staff crying. It was the first time in so long, all the fans were belting it out and it was unbelievable.”

Kavanagh has been a part of the Wales set-up since 2013, following a path leading from Irish company Stat Sports, who provide a GPS tracking system to many of the leading football clubs and international teams across the world. Having travelled with the company and ran demos of the product at the likes of QPR, FC Twente, Galatasaray and then the Welsh national team, where he ultimately remained on staff as sports scientist. 

He initially combined it with a role at Preston North End, and now juggles it with a full-time role at Premier League club Burnley. 

Irish fans reeling from an infamous moment in the Pyrenees last week might take heart from this: the Welsh odyssey began when they fell 1-0 behind to Andorra in a qualifier for Euro 2016.

“We went 1-0 down and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God.’

“I was in preparing for the end of the game to get the shakes and everything ready for after the game, so I didn’t see the winning goal.

“The whole place erupted: Bale scored a free-kick and it just went from there.”

soccer-uefa-euro-2016-qualifying-group-b-andorra-v-wales-camp-desports-del-m-i-consell-general Gareth Bale scores against Andorra in 2014. Source: Adam Davy

And on it rolls. Wales are based in Baku for the group stage, where they will face Switzerland later today and then Turkey on Wednesday before closing out the group away to Italy in Rome on Sunday week. 

Robert Page is in charge now, having stepped in for Ryan Giggs, but much of the backroom staff remains the same, and while the squad has been refreshed somewhat, the recognisable triumvirate of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen remain. 

“Bale is brilliant: jovial and really good around the place”, says Kavanagh. “The beauty here is the lads have all played with each other growing up through the age groups. “The majority are from similar areas, and they all get it. There hasn’t been a huge turnover in the squad and it feels like that. And the staff are the same.” 

Wales missed the intervening World Cup thanks, largely, to Ireland, who won 1-0 in Cardiff the final night of qualifying to pip the hosts to a place in the play-offs. (We need not dally on what happened from there.) 

Was the Irishman in the Welsh dressing room at all conflicted? 

“I was devastated as you want to go to a World Cup, don’t you. But I’m quite close to the Irish lads who were at Burnley at the time and I was very happy for them. But at the same time, in a selfish way, you’re thinking, ‘I want to go’

“I’d been at Wales five years at that point and you get to know the boys, and you see them crying in the changing room after and the kitman is crying and everyone is crying and you’re like, ah, for fuck’s sake.” 

Nonetheless, Wales are now at a delayed championships with many unique challenges, one of which is the draining schedule that has preceded it. A season that started a month later than usual didn’t compromise its number of games, and the Euros have started just 13 days after the Champions League final. 

“There was also a lot less of a break from the end of last season to the beginning of this season”, says Kavanagh. “The boys didn’t even really get the mental recovery of that.

“They might have been off for a week or 10 days, and then you were trying to ramp them up for the next pre-season. It was all condensed into a shorter period of time and every club ended up with more injuries.

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“The issue was that players were being required to run a lot more frequently. We had a situation where we had a lot of games with only two days recoveries in between. You can get away with that if you have a clear week, a two-game week and then a clear week, but having to bang out two-game weeks for six or seven weeks at a time was just demanding on everyone.” 

Working in an international set up requires more exact planning, to make the most of the limited time national squads are gathered for.

“Because they are not our players, we are trying to manage that and just make sure we do the basics really well: so give the lads a stimulus when they need a stimulus, and give them plenty of recovery while still making sure they are getting the coaching and tactical elements they need. A lot goes into it.

It’s different at club level because if you have exposed the players to doing some conditioning say, two days before a match, a particular day, you will know the players have done that loads of times and their bodies are used to it. But at international level everybody is coming from a different place: from a different training methodology, and different days off, so you just have to be aware of what everyone is doing. I feel we do that well, I feel the medical team is on top of it, and the communication is pretty good up and down the chain.

“The day of the game, I will learn the team and I’ll have all the nutrition stuff set up. I’ll have the pre-activation set up and my warm-up set up. A match day is about making sure you have everything planned and prepared, to make sure that if anyone asks you for something, that you have it.

“You just want it to be smooth, the prep to be bang, bang, bang, and then out you go. You’re always afraid of forgetting something, and you have that in the back of your mind, but I don’t think I feel any pressure. I get nervous sometimes, but it doesn’t compare to anyone else.”

wales-v-belgium-uefa-euro-2016-quarter-final-stade-pierre-mauroy The Wales squad and staff celebrate after victory against Belgium in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. Source: Joe Giddens

We turn back to that 3-1 win against Belgium for Kavanagh’s favourite moment of the odyssey five years ago, which is not, as suggested by The42, Hal Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff-turn-and-finish for Wales’ second goal. 

“It was 2-1, and they sent me in to get gels and mats and so on, so we could prep the boys in case Belgium scored for extra time. So I’m running out with gels and mats and then Sam Vokes scores, so we just start charging around. It was brilliant.

“Later in that game, Aaron Ramsey was calling for a gel. One of the physios went to throw the gel, and as he flung it, Neil Taylor stepped in front of him and got the gel right in the side of the head. Even Coleman started laughing at that.” 

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Gavin Cooney

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