Michael Solan oversaw Mayo shaking off seven years of disappointment at the U21 grade in Connacht by guiding them to their first provincial final and title since 2009 against Roscommon in Sligo a fortnight ago. The Ballaghaderreen man sat down with the Mayo Advertiser in the lead up to this Saturday's All Ireland semi-final against Dublin to look ahead to that game and back on his first few months in charge of the side.
CG: You must have enjoyed that win over Roscommon?
MS: It was nice to have a bit of success at the end that's what everybody is looking for, but the work is nowhere near done at this point, we've a lot of work to do to get ourselves ready for Dublin and that has been our sole focus.
CG: When this job came up did you have any doubts about putting your name forward?
MS: I was involved last year as coach with Niall Heffernan and that was a brilliant experience from my point of view, and I learned a lot while I was in there about different pieces and learned a lot off Niall. When the job came up this year, I suppose it was something that I thought about initially and thought, would I or won't I? I left it for a while and I just decided it would be worth having a go and throwing my hat in and seeing what would happen, thankfully things worked out.
CG: The U21 grade is often difficult to manage with so many commitments from players, how have you found it?
MS: It is a difficult grade that once January comes around you've got the fresher championships, Sigerson Cup, and a lot of stuff going on, but the key thing with us with all of the stuff going on was that just regular communication with them, we made it our business to know all the time what the players were at, so if there were times players were turning up to training and it was a recovery session they needed. Luckily we had good relationships with all the colleges and we were able to keep the majority of the guys injury free and bring them through that crazy period through January, the start of the National League and through those initial few games. The work that the medical team have done behind the scenes has been huge.
CG: Can getting guys together on the field for your own preparation be difficult?
MS: It is, but sometimes guys need a bit of work and sometimes a guy just needs a bit of a break, and in a lot of cases guys came back to us and the one thing they weren't wanting for was football, they were playing loads of football, there were times plenty of lads in the squad their focus would have been just on recovery. If they had any bits of injuries, we made sure they worked with the medical team to make sure that they were healthy, coming into championship season.
CG: How important was the North West Cup in your planning?
MS: It was brilliant, we were delighted with not being involved in the Hastings Cup to be involved there for a competitive outlet in January, we got four games in that and it was worth its weight in gold to us, through January and February period. Conditions weren't pretty but you get a good idea of where you stand in terms of your squad and getting guys into a competitive environment.
CG: After that came the hard part of the job having to tell lads they weren't going to be continuing on with you?
MS: It is yes, it's terrible. You have some guys in there that would have worked extremely hard and you know that unfortuntanly we can only keep a certain number of guys on the squad, and we had been working with an extended panel up to that, and there were some guys who didn't make the championship squad and some guys who worked very hard who didn't make it. It's one of the less enjoyable parts of it.
CG: Was the Leitrim game in the first round of the championship a tough encounter for you?
MS: The first round of the championship is always tough at any level, club, county whatever it is. You generally don't have an established form line going into it and it can be tough to know where you are until you're smack bang in the middle of it. We found out very early in that game that we were under pressure, it took us a few minutes to regroup and to get reorganised ourselves and get ourselves moving, and we ended up putting in a decent performance for parts of the game.
CG: Once the championship starts it's all go, is that hard to keep everything as you would like?
MS: It's the same for everybody, it's not any more extreme on Mayo than it is anybody else, the two week turnaround between the games is tough obviously, if somebody picks up a bang or a niggle, the foot has to go down on the recovery stuff very quickly after the game. That's the one disadvantage with the tight turnaround, if someone picks up a bang or a knock it puts them immediately under pressure for the next game.
CG: In both the Leitrim and Roscommon games you had slow starts, can you afford that the next day?
MS: It is something that wasn't our intention the last day to start slowly, it's something that happened and we dealt with it, but it's obvious getting yourself six points down seven or eight minutes into a championship game is far from ideal. That is one of the areas we've been looking at for the next day.
CG: Were there any doubts in your mind when you went behind so early against Roscommon?
MS: A lot of things go through your head when you're on the sideline, but I wouldn't say that it was going away from us, we were under pressure and we needed a reaction in the first half and we got it. Fionan Duffy kicked a brilliant score of us to get us off the mark, we settled after that for a few minutes and got ourselves into the game. I wouldn't say there was a moment that turned it, it was more of a gradual increase in the tempo all over the pitch.
CG: Dublin are next up, how is the preparation work going for them?
MS: We've been working away on them since we got through, obviously they are coming off their third provincial title in a row, they've won three senior All Irelands since 2011, in terms of playing population and playing resources available they are the form team in an awful lot of grades in the country. We do appreciate it's a huge challenge in front of us and one that we are going to have to work very hard to overcome.
CG: The sideline hasn't been slow to make changes when they need to be done in this campaign.
MS: Every game is different, we ended up making changes and it's very, very, tough on the guy who is taken off, but the way we look at it is that we don't hold an individual responsible for those things, that would be a team issue. The way we see it everyone in the 15 and on each line is there to help the other. All the guys are there to help and back each other up.
CG: It must help that a lot these players are winners and will want to continue that.
MS: They demand a lot from themselves, there's a fair few of them involved who won the minor title in 2013, but as I keep saying to them that's a success they reflect on at the end of their careers as opposed to now, we'd be very much focused on what is in front of us now and it was great to win the Connacht title, but now our focus turns very quickly to the next challenge and that's Dublin.
CG: The role of the U21 manager is about bringing through players for senior along with winning.
MS: Oh, absolutely that's a huge part of it, we're very lucky that we have a fantastic relationship with the senior set up, there is a great crossover and sharing of information between the management teams, medical and strength and conditioning teams. We would see that as a massive part of our brief to be developing the players and to be equipping lads that when they are finished with us in the U21 grade they are more than capable of going on to the senior level and competing there.