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No drinking bans, S&C overhaul, body fat and cardiac tests: The blueprint to rise in Division 4

London manager Michael Maher and Waterford boss Ephie Fitzgerald chat about what they are trying to build in 2022.

Updated Feb 6th 2022, 10:00 AM

IN THE BUILDUP to Christmas, Michael Maher stood on stage at the London Youth presentation and gazed out at hundreds of tender faces, all transfixed by the medals and trophies alongside him. Before dispersing them, he decided to make a speech, distilling his entire philosophy down to a couple of sentences.

“Success here is defined in two ways,” he told the crowd.

“The trophies and medals being handed out are one. But the bigger success is hundreds and hundreds of kids, boys and girls, playing football, hurling and camogie in London, and they are coming back year on year.

“Some will go all the way to the top, some will play with their clubs, some will go into administration. They will all contribute.

“That is incredible. That to me is real progress. Seeing those kids come back is success for me.”

Last Saturday Maher’s London played and won their first competitive match in 23 months. The final score in Netwatch Cullen Park was Carlow 1-13 London 2-11. Boy, did they celebrate that. Cherish it.

But it is working with the city’s youth where Maher garners true fulfilment. The city where he was born. Where he works as a secondary school teacher. Where he coached long before the senior team came calling.

liam-gavaghan-and-liam-gallagher-celebrate-winning-the-game Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Working with kids is a totally different experience,” the Round Towers clubman explains.

“With kids, it is enjoyment, foundations and structures. You can’t ever lose sight of that. Developing. Learning. Most of all, kids have to enjoy sport. If a kid is coming back year on year, enjoying themselves, you are hitting the only important benchmark.”

Little acorn to mighty oak. Every year, the Division 4 outfits are preoccupied with building. Eyes up because there isn’t anything to look down on: “The great thing about our position is there is no danger of relegation. You can’t go any lower. There is no pressure on our shoulders.”

Today they take on Waterford, who are also coming off the back of an impressive result. The usual surface-level pre-league predictions had Division 4’s top two pencilled in without a moment’s hesitation. Two of the 2020 provincial champions, relegated by the anomaly of a Covid-comprised league.

Yet come Sunday, Tipperary left Dungarvan relieved to have earned a share of the spoils.

ephie-fitzgerald-speaks-to-local-media-before-the-game Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“Look it, Waterford football has been in the doldrums for a long time,” says new senior manager Ephie Fitzgerald. The former Cork ladies boss has just begun his debut campaign the Déise.

“They had a few good results occasionally and a McGrath Cup, but what I want to do is lay a foundation.

“It caught me by surprise a bit in terms of trying to put a panel together. You thought there would be 30 there eager and ready. That wasn’t the case, but we have 30 now. They are very committed. A great bunch. They do appreciate the time and work we put in for them. Last Sunday you saw the passion and commitment. A will to win. That is all we can expect.”

During the dog days of Covid, Maher and Fitzgerald were daydreaming of a brighter future. Quickly they realised it wasn’t a case of waiting for it to arrive. The mountain was not going to come to London or Waterford. They must go to the mountain.

There was shock aplenty when the news of London’s victory rang out, but Maher knew they would be there or thereabouts. Intensity levels were sky high in the weeks prior to the tie.

The panel was big enough to facilitate internal games and they also played challenges against Down seniors and Armagh U20s. He is quick to credit James O’Dowd, their lead sports scientist, for his work over the past few weeks.

eoin-walsh-chats-with-family-after-the-game Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Training load was monitored with GPS and Smartabase. Over Christmas, most teams can continue with their programmes, but London lost their players as they journeyed to various parts of Ireland. Once again it was back to remote sessions. The shape they returned in is a source of pride for the management ticket. 

Fitzgerald fixated on this aspect. The biggest difference between the top and the bottom can be found in athleticism. It was the obvious starting point.

“The big difference between Division 1 and 2 and Division 4 is the strength and conditioning. The conditioning in general, the ethos. Success? When you break it all down, there are four or five teams who can with the All-Ireland. Football was never about that for me. It was getting the best out of this group.

“I knew what I was walking into but no one will tell me there are no good players in Waterford or any other county for that matter. What I want to achieve with this gang is the same with any work with the U20s and the minors, get them on an S&C programme.

“To get to the level we need, it will take a minimum of three to four years. You need the commitment and buy-in. The season now is short, but I want the lads to be able to do the programme in the offseason. That is hugely important especially for younger lads going forward.

“It has been a big learning process for the lads. We have an excellent nutritionist now. Things like getting their body fats done, they might not have done it previously. Making sure the concussion tests were done, the cardiac test. I don’t think the Waterford lads ever had that. They are all new to it. We are creating a different culture, one where people want to come in.

“We are not going to win All-Irelands or a Munster championship. The short-term goal is to improve physically. Mentally more importantly. If you get that mental toughness, the easy bit is training and playing games. The hard bit is the sleep, nutrition, proper fluids and making sure everything is right.”

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The crux comes in how you prepare. And what you prepare. There is no point spending hours concerned with problems proposed by opponents when there are plenty at your own doorstep.

“We do look at the opposition a bit,” says Fitzgerald, “but what is the point in worrying about what they are doing. We find it hard enough to control ourselves!”

London adopted a similar strategy to navigate these treacherous waters. 20 players departed the panel since their last league campaign in 2020. They had nine debutants last weekend. Every one of them is in doubt about the opportunity ahead of them. And the expectations they have to maintain in order to get there.

“We have to get the culture right,” Maher stresses. “We have to get players behaving like intercounty footballers. Committing to a programme like intercounty footballers. The level is very, very good. It might be Division 4 but look at the other teams.

“I was looking at the number of teams who have players playing Sigerson. In teams that are flooded with Division 1 players. They are playing individually and collectively, improving all the time. Where we lack for games, we have to make up in commitment levels. The extra conditioning, video analysis. We have to have it at 100% to make up for that.

“We will use video to focus on our own areas. What we do well and drill what we don’t do. You need video evidence to show where we went wrong. If I say to a player, you made this run and executed this badly, they brush it off.

“If you can show them a video and they see if they took two steps that way or brushed that defender off, there would be another yard of space. Backing up what you need them to do. They can ask a question back based on that. When you say something to someone you have video evidence back it up.”

hugh-bourke-scores-a-goal Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Ultimately, it is about creating an environment where players want to play and enjoy doing it. In the 2021 Munster Championship, Waterford bowed out with an 18-point loss against Limerick. That is something Ephie Fitzgerald is determined never to see happen again. He knows he can’t solely drive that either. 

“We don’t have drinking bans or anything like that. If a fella does something silly, we’d like the lads to sort it themselves. The captain might say to me, what will we do here? You’d prefer them deal with it. Unless it is serious and lands on my door.

“Bringing them together and lads taking responsibility, if you have leaders off the field the lads will be the same on the field. Fellas start to trust one another.

“If we can build that comradery, I’d be very happy. That is in an early stage. Fellas will make a mess of things but look, we want lads to want to play for Waterford and if you are, you have to give it your full commitment. Once we get that we can drive on.”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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