Counties escape to the sun
Joe Kernan often tells the story of the Armagh footballers' team bus pulling up the hill in Clones prior to their opening Ulster championship match against Tyrone in 2002.
Kernan's squad had just come back off a week-long training camp in La Manga, Spain -- something of a pioneering venture in its timing, given the close proximity to the clash with neighbours Tyrone.
But Kernan had made up his mind that with inclement weather, sodden pitches and a need to draw all corners of his squad together, they'd make a break for it to Spain's Costa Blanca and the famous La Manga resort.
Widely used by English soccer and rugby clubs before that -- it was where Glenn Hoddle broke the news to the hugely-talented if enigmatic star Paul Gascoigne that he wouldn't be part of England's bid for glory at the 1998 World Cup in France -- Armagh's sojourn was looked upon as a gamble for a GAA team and the Tyrone supporters weren't slow about letting them no about it.
"Where's your sun tans?" they jeered as they banged the sides of the bus creeping slowly up the hill. Had they set themselves up for one mighty big fall?
The match ended in a draw, Armagh won the replay and the rest, as they they say, is history as Kernan's troops went on to lift the Sam Maguire for the first time in the Orchard County's history.
When Armagh looked back on the season, La Manga was one of the most important spokes in the wheel. It gave them crucial momentum, but above else it gave the unity of purpose.
They pledged that not a drop of alcohol would pass their lips during the time they spent there. If it did, they convinced themselves that it wouldn't have been worth it. Not even a glass of wine!
For Kieran McGeeney, the team captain, it was more about the dynamic that existed when the training was over as it was about the training itself. The team needed to bond. And bond they did.
Armagh's La Manga trip wasn't the first overseas camp established by a GAA team by any means.
Sean Boylan took his Meath squad to Scotland between the third and fourth games of their 1991 epic with Dublin.
Tommy Carr saw to it that Dublin availed of warmer weather during his time as football manager, though their trips were much earlier in the year and the levels of abstinence pledged by Armagh were not necessarily observed. Business was mixed with a little pleasure.
But Armagh were pioneers in one respect and many more have followed since.
A proliferation of domestic resorts -- the Marriott in Johnstown just off the M4 in north Kildare, Breaffy House in Mayo and Carton House on the outskirts of Maynooth have all become popular as budgets for team preparations are squeezed. A cut-off point of May 1 for the foreign travel is also designed to liberate more time for club fixtures.
But warm-weather training still has its appeal in some counties. This afternoon, two of the foremost football teams in the country make their way to the Algarve for five nights of training.
All-Ireland champions Kerry are bound for the new state-of-the-art Oceanico group Amendoeira golf resort, complete with its full-size Gaelic football pitch about 35 minutes from Faro Airport.
Meath are returning to Brown's Resort in Vilamoura, where they went three years ago.
Next month the hurlers of Cork, last year's All-Ireland finalists Tipperary and Waterford will jet off to various points of Spain to raise the temperature of their championship preparations.
Cork are La Manga bound, Tipperary are returning to the Campoamor resort near Torrevieja just a few miles up the coast, while Davy Fitzgerald's Waterford have shown commendable initiative to self-finance a four-day venture to the La Cala resort in Malaga, courtesy of a race night in Lemybrien which netted an impressive €22,000.
The principles of all these trips is the same: they train hard, they recover well and they spend valuable time in each other's company.
"What you do in three or four days could be worth three or four weeks training to a team," one respected manager estimated.
Tipperary worked off the disappointment of their heavy Nowlan Park defeat last year with a few days in Torrevieja and together with home comforts their performance in the league final was a lot more satisfactory against Kilkenny.
They lost that match in the end, but only after an epic battle that went to extra-time.
At just over €520 per person, Waterford can be pleased at their deal, albeit for one night fewer than most of the others.
Most squads bound for these resorts take 30 players and up to 10 backroom and administrative staff and equipment is usually transferred ahead by courier.
"Under the sun," Kerry manager Jack O'Connor wrote in his revealing autobiography, "you can slow everything down.
"You're not standing around in the rain and the wind with fellas straining to hear what's being said and wondering what they can get away with for the night.
"There's gyms, pools, tracks and wonderful pitches. The lads stay in chalets hanging in each other's companies for the week," O'Connor recalled of Kerry's trip to Brown's in 2006 -- a year which ended in All-Ireland success for the Kingdom when they defeated Mayo comfortably in the final.
Sometimes managers encourage the players to let their hair down one one night of the week, but not always as it can be a double-edged sword.
Incidents are rare -- when Dublin went to La Manga in January 2009, manager Pat Gilroy had an issue with one of his players, who was subsequently sent home early; and O'Connor recalled a few "sleepwalkers" coming late to training one morning in 2006 after a night out.
But by comparison to attacks on colleagues with golf clubs -- as controversial striker Craig Bellamy infamously did on John Arne Riise during their Liverpool days in the Algarve three years ago -- and fire extinguisher fights, behaviour is normally exemplary and the players enjoy the trips because it gives them a glimpse, albeit only for a brief spell, of what it is like to train every day as professional athletes do.
Many teams are now willing to forsake the winter holiday in preference to a training camp some time during the latter stages of the league as they strive for success. More will remain at home and pray that the weather stays fine.
Of course, the majority of county board officials cringe at the price -- anything from €30,000 to €40,000 -- and many contacted for the purpose of this article laughed at the notion that such ventures are economically feasible any more.
But the practice is still seen as a key component of preparations for those who can afford it.
Come this September, it will be interesting to see if any of the teams mentioned in the accompanying illustration are raising Sam Maguire or Liam McCarthy. If they do, players, selectors, supporters and even officials will then say they money was well spent.