Back in 2012 sports nutrition was not especially in vogue, nor especially rewarding. Daniel Davey had played Gaelic football for his native Sligo, acquired a primary degree and a masters, and had been working in a start-up sports supplement company for 3½ years while also working as the nutritionist for the Dublin hurling team. He was also giving talks in schools, anything he could do to build a portfolio in sports nutrition, but feeling disillusioned, he was about to travel the world.
Whereupon, Jim Gavin called. The manager of the Dublin senior football team at the time.
“That was a very, very interesting introduction, because I didn’t know Jim. For two years beforehand, people were telling me this guy was going to manage Dublin some day. I heard he was a really impressive man. I heard that he didn’t suffer fools. You need to make sure that you know what you’re talking about, and be very clear about what you’re going to bring.”
Davey first met with a friend from home in Sligo, Brian Walsh, who was in the Army and had worked with Gavin. “I asked him for some tips and he said: ‘Know and be very clear about what you’re going to bring. I’ll tell you one thing, if you can get Jim to see value in what you’re doing, he will back you and always be there. Once you’re in Jim’s platoon, he will treat you like that.’ And that was the case right to the end, that when Jim has your back, he has your back.”
That said, Gavin told Davey he was on trial before he re-assessed his value.
“That brings an element of pressure, but if you prove yourself, you get the job. And that’s what I did. He came back to me after about six weeks and said he liked what he was seeing and that we’d continue for another three months.
“You’re constantly getting feedback and working under his guidance, and then you realise you’re after working with Jim Gavin from then until last year, and that you’re a different person.”
About six weeks after Davey started with Dublin, he took up the same role as Performance Nutritionist with Leinster after what he calls a very challenging interview process.
“They asked me to deliver my vision for what I would do with Leinster and how I would add value. And I had a vision for it that I had been practicing with the Dublin footballers and hurlers, and I felt I was ready to deliver something that would really impact a professional organisation as well. They liked what they heard and it went from there.”
Extremely generous with his time, Davey’s passion for food over the course of almost two hours over a coffee in Wilde & Greene is palpable. It’s founded on his belief that nutrition is both a vital component in the well-being of us all and is to be enjoyed. His approach is also multi layered, with the ultimate aim of not only performing well, but “living a healthier, longer, vibrant type of life.”
“And if you can really simplify that message then you’re doing something that’s exceptionally difficult to do, particularly in a very instant gratification type of life that we’re in now.”
As well as working with Leinster and Dublin, he has his own website, daveynutrition.com, his own clinic, and spent two years writing his book, Eat Up Raise Your Game, which was published last year. In an uber competitive market, the book was a number one best-seller.
“I thought the person who I was going to connect with was the GAA athlete, the soccer athlete, the rugby athlete or whoever, who wanted to perform that bit better because I am a sports nutritionist working with teams.
“What was really interesting was that it was mothers with kids who wanted their child to develop good habits from an early age. I never saw that coming and it was one of the most rewarding elements of writing the book.”
This connects very much with Davey’s own upbringing.
His mother’s parents were dairy farmers in Bunnanadden in Co Sligo. His grandfather, Mike Doherty, returned from the World War II and married Davey’s grandmother, Mary, whom Doherty had met once before, within three weeks. They had six kids.
“He was a hard worker and died at the age of 93. The year before he was getting up at 5am and milking the dairy cows.
“It was only when I wrote the book that I fully understood the profound effect my grandparents had on me, and those early formative years of picking vegetables from the garden, my grandmother making bread in a turf oven fire; those type of things.
“Her approach was that you eat nourishing food to have energy to do the physical tasks on the farm or to play football. Now she didn’t say it exactly like that but that is what came through from a very early age and I wanted to share this very simple framework with everybody.”
His father’s parents, Sarah Ellen and Sonny, also had a small farm. Davey himself grew up in a village called Chaffpool in Sligo, near Tubbercurry where Normal People was filmed, although Davey hasn’t watched it yet himself. The family home was a two-room gatekeeper’s cottage.
He has one sister, Marianne, and Davey himself still has a sheep farm which his father, Peter, manages.
His father worked in the local dairy firm from the age of 17, and went on to manage it. His mum, Eileen, also had him peeling potatoes from the age of four on the stool at the back of their house, and his upbringing ensured he was never a fussy eater.
“My mother was a good cook, but my father being the enforcer, he’d say ‘you eat what’s put in front of you or I’ll eat it for you’. What you are exposed to and what your parents do and the habits that they have, have a profound impact on their children. We are only beginning to understand the psychology of this.”
Davey was nine when he won his first schools’ championship with his under-12s side at St Nathy’s College. He played through all the age grades up to the Sligo senior team in 2008 and 2009, and studied Agricultural Science in UCD.
Encouraged by his good friend Brendan Egan, who was doing a Masters in Sports Nutrition at Loughborough University, Davey did a Masters in Nutrition and Physical Activity at Bristol University while also playing with the London football team.
“It’s hard to believe that your best friend would act like a life mentor. He’s a genius. He had his Leaving done at 17, his Masters at 22, PhD at 25 and post-doctorate at 29. He’s recognised as one of the best researchers in his space in the world. He holds very high standards and science is his passion, so as he was learning he was drip-feeding information to me.”
Davey returned to Dublin to do further qualifications in strength and conditioning, and played with Ballyboden for eight years before seeing out his last two years with Coolaney Mullinabreena. There he was teammates with neighbours who he’d have kicked a ball with when they were nippers.
“There were the Connolly lads, Paul and Niall, who were 18 and 19-years-old. I’m at centre forward and they’re at left and right-hand forward. Incredible. Reconnecting over those two years was very special.”
His guiding principles are not about supplements and protein, rather behaviour. “It’s ultimately how you live your life.”
He’s still learning, but if he has learned one thing from working under Gavin and since then, it’s this: “There’s nothing wrong with the repetition of the brilliant basics every day whereas as a young practitioner I was afraid of repeating what was important every day.
“But it was that repetition in each pillar of performance; your sleep patterns, the execution of the skills, your training, the physical, tactical and lifestyle components, that made the athlete perform consistently over time.”
Not only do the needs of the two sports differ - Gaelic football and rugby - but everyone of us, athletes or not, have our own individual needs. He delivers this information through workshops, in seminars, in athlete’s homes, through cooking classes, social media support and very solid relationships
It sounds time consuming and it is.
“You live it every day, every week, all-year round.”
Of course, it’s not without its rewards. There have been six All-Irelands, seven Leinster championships and five National Football Leagues with Dublin, and one Heineken Champions Cup, one European Challenge Cup and four Pro14 titles with Leinster.
“I don’t know how many pinch moments there have been. I don’t know many times I’ve looked up at the sky in Croke Park or in Bilbao and thought ‘is this real life?’ And every year it gets better. You learn to actually enjoy it more and to experience something that so few people in the world get to experience.”