Young stars can't be blamed for spreading their wings
In the past week, we heard that two prominent county footballers would not be taking part in the national football league and possibly the 2009 championship because they had decided to spend a lengthy spell in Australia during the coming year.
Keith Higgins, an outstanding footballer and hurler with Mayo, has told manager John O'Mahony he will not be back in Ireland until around June at the earliest. Fermanagh player Michael Murphy is already gone to Australia and will be there, according to present plans, for the rest of 2009. There is also word that 2008 Longford player of the year Declan Reilly may be taking a long sabbatical this year.
The departure of star players just as the new NFL campaign is about to start is a major trend among GAA players in recent years, many of whom take long breaks, often a year or more, away from the stresses and strains of inter-county action. Dozens of county players and hundreds of club players have followed the same route. At times like these, the players must be very happy that they are still amateurs. Were they anything less, they would not have the freedom to travel the world while their counties were striving for provincial or national success.
Players who are absent for the best part of a season are a huge loss and a major headache for team managers. The three lads mentioned, for instance, are all leading lights in their respective teams and apart from their absence taking from the teams' performances, there is the probability that their replacements will not be of the same calibre.
This applies particularly to smaller counties like Fermanagh and Longford. The latter look like being without their captain and regular midfielder of recent times, Liam Keenan, for the rest of 2009 because of a serious injury which represents a double whammy for Glenn Ryan in his first season. Undoubtedly there will be barstool philosophers in all these counties whose reaction will be predictable. They will blame the players and criticise them for 'letting their county down'. That is a simplistic attitude which is insulting to the players.
Much more important is to try to analyse why so many leading players decide to opt out for up to a year at a time at the peaks of their careers. The playing career of the average inter-county footballer has been declining over the past 25 years and probably runs at around eight years at the moment. So if an outstanding player decides to give up around 10pc of that career, there must be important reasons for doing so.
In the present economic climate, the temptation for many players to get away from Ireland for a year is great and hundreds of GAA players have gone in search of employment. But it is a different matter with players who have good employment and still opt to take 'leave of absence'.
The overwhelming reason is the desire to get a break. For some players, the almost year-long treadmill of training, gym work, matches and pressure involving club and county teams takes too heavy a toll mentally and physically. Many young men in their early twenties are also involved with third-level GAA teams and have major examinations to sit, often with very little consideration from the respective team managers.
Most managers whom I have met over the years regard players under their remit as robots. They are expected to perform like mechanical beings who respond to switches constantly being pulled by the manager. No allowances are made for personal problems, psychological frailties, domestic hassle, exam pressures, long-standing dormant injuries that impair performance and, of course, the monotonous approach to training in many cases that prove eventually so soul-destroying.
In every team there are players who are fanatics. They train seven days a week, go on diets or stuff themselves with the latest energy-boosting fads, constantly give out to team-mates who might not share their fanaticism and these players are regarded as heroes by managers and fans alike. Good luck to them, but not all players are fanatics, for which we should all be grateful! Some managers have a tendency to regard these fanatical players in their panel as the template for others to aspire to and this can do untold damage. The best managers know that every player has a different make-up and each needs to be handled in accordance with his particular traits, habits and psychological make-up. The failure to do this has cost many GAA teams players who have left either temporarily or for good over the years.
It often puzzles genuine GAA followers how a star player could opt out for a year as they look forward to big championship and league games ahead. But players know best if and when it is time to take an extended break. Followers only see the exterior side of the player as he wears the county colours in a game. But there is a lot more to playing county football than that and players have a very different attitude to the game than followers have. Their amateur status protects their decision-making rights.
- In the 1960s the GAA appointed its first two full time executive officers, hurler Jimmy Smith and Brendan Mac Lua, both Clare natives. Mac Lua wrote a definitive book on the infamous Ban called 'The Steadfast Rule' which sought to sell the GAA's side of that bitter debate. Brendan soon left Croke Park and was a brilliant writer on professional boxing for the 'Irish Press' and also the main GAA writer for 'The Sunday Press', in both cases under pen names, which was the trend at the time.
In 1970 he went to London to found 'The Irish Post' newspaper which was the first Irish paper in Britain. He made a huge success of that and helped to influence Irish and GAA opinion during the long troubles in the North. Brendan died recently in London and will be fondly remembered by many GAA people of that era in Ireland and across the water.