Dublin's dawn patrol
It’s a bitterly cold morning but there isn’t a snood in sight as the Blues get down to business
Early morning training sessions -- swimmers are famed for them, rising before the rest of the world and putting their bodies through the mill before heading off about their day's business.
But in the GAA they are spoken of in hushed tones, with the Dublin senior footballers one of few, if any, teams who put in the hard yards before dawn.
The very words conjure up images of 'floggings' and laps of hellish toil and dedication.
The Dublin footballer is an oft-maligned figure, but for all the expectation and hype of the summer, in January, the glamour of wearing the blue shirt is stripped away as they quietly hone their fitness and skills on murky winter mornings.
Yesterday the panel assembled in Clontarf between 6.0 and 6.30am for the first of their two training sessions. The temperature hovered around zero, but the rain stayed off and the biting wind mercifully was also absent.
After 75 minutes they had dispersed into the dawn, back to the day jobs where they will mingle with colleagues unaware of the body of work they had been through that morning.
From the 'Blue Book' to the warm-weather training camps, the Dubs' methods have always been scrutinised more than any other inter-county team's and Pat Gilroy's decision to introduce pre-dawn work-outs have been questioned and defended in equal measure over the past week.
There is a mystique about these run-outs that will be referenced whatever Dublin do in the championship in 2011. Those early mornings will be spoken about reverently if the Dubs succeed, but they will be rubbished if Gilroy's men come up short.
The idea behind training twice a day is to ease the daily burden on the players and allow them more time off. But the commitment is huge regardless, with even the injured players unable to escape as they continue their recoveries up the road at DCU.
The players must be ready for anything -- as they found out on Tuesday, when a text from the management during the day ordered them to be in Ringsend that evening for a challenge match, with their swimming togs ready for a recovery session. Some had to leave work early and get their best Speedos before attending.
The hushed tones and urban myths that surround the regime are quickly dispelled after just a few minutes of observing Mickey Whelan take charge of yesterday morning's session in Clontarf. The old master keeps his groggy charges on their toes, with short and sharp intervals that have them awake in no time.
If it took place in the evening under lights no one would bat an eyelid, but with the city around them asleep, these amateur sportsmen's commitment to the cause is unstinting as they dream of a summer that must seem distant.
5.50: The area around the facilities in Clontarf is deathly quiet. Every now and then a car or a hardy soul on a bike will fly by as the Dublin footballers make their way to training.
6.0: The first cars begin turn off the Clontarf Road and into the car park at the Alfie Byrne Road complex where the Dublin team train.
6.03: The floodlights flicker on and grow stronger as selector Whelan and two other coaches set up cones all over the full-size all-weather pitch. Every marker is strategically placed as the coaches await their boss and their charges.
6.15: The hulking frame of Gilroy enters the arena. Arms folded, the manager has a quick word with the coaching team, who make some tweaks to the set-up.
6.17: Stephen Cluxton is the first player on to the pitch. The goalkeeper started his 10th season with the Dublin seniors on Tuesday and took a full part with the outfield training yesterday. The three-time All Star and International Rules star ambles around the pitch, slowly waking up as he warms up.
6.22: The rest of the squad gradually make their way on to the pitch, shaking off the vestiges of sleep in silence. There is little or no chat between the players as Player of the Year Bernard Brogan makes his way around the pitch, wearing a pair of tights and a hat to ward off the bitter cold -- he's not the only one, but there is not a snood in sight.
6.29: Three minutes after the first DART rumbles into Clontarf Road Station, a piercing whistle from Whelan's mouth calls order to proceedings. A brief word is exchanged before the players start traversing the pitch for their warm-up.
6.33: Whelan barks orders as the players weave intricately in and out, foot-passing to each other as the session develops.
6.36: "Standards," shouts the veteran St Vincent's man as the players begin a passing drill familiar to club and county football teams all over the country. The focus is on the ball.
6.40: Short, sharp manoeuvres are the order of the day as Whelan directs that the balls be dropped and the 50m sprints begin, with a little movement at the end for good measure.
6.45: Having stood silently observing his troops for 15 minutes, Gilroy intervenes for the first time, instructing a number of players who he feels are just running round the cones instead of using them to burst off one foot in a change of direction.
6.50: The ball is re-introduced into the sprints, with players hand-passing it at speed. "Give it, bang! Give it, bang!" is the instruction from Whelan, who urges the players to burst on to the ball. "C'mon fellas, wake up," he urges.
7.01: No sign of light over Dublin Bay yet as Whelan calls a stop to the sprinting and the players relax with some more passing.
7.10: The Alfie Byrne Road is coming to life with traffic as the players are ordered to begin working on their tackling, a core principle of Gilroy's regime.
The manager selects two forwards, unidentifiable because of the hats pulled down low over their faces, to practise their shooting.
With the rest of the squad toiling, the two forwards are isolated in their creative endeavour -- a bit like Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara in last year's championship.
7.15: The balls are withdrawn and the players must use their strength to beat their opposite man. Brogan draws particular praise from Whelan, as does Alan Hubbard for his efforts.
7.20: The ball comes back in. "Hold him off, strip," comes the instruction from Whelan, who wants the players to tackle the ball.
7.30: Brogan goes down with a leg strain and is tended to by the physios. The rest of the players continue with a chasing and tackling drill, but the talisman regains his feet and joins the other two forwards for some shooting practice.
7.32: A sharp whistle from Whelan and the players assemble. Gilroy addresses his troops before they disperse for a brief warm down.
7.35: The players filter off the pitch as the gloomy sky above Dublin Bay begins to give way to a silvery blue dawn. Boss Gilroy is the last to leave the field.
7.40: The cars filter out on to the Clontarf Road as the players head towards their normal lives. The workers head towards the office, the students perhaps for an hour's sleep before lectures.
The city slowly awakes from its slumber and Dublin's summer heroes return to their 'normal' lives -- but only in the knowledge that they would be back under Gilroy and Whelan's watchful eyes once again that evening.