‘How can pushing guys into soccer and rugby be good for GAA?’
THERE is growing discontent over the GAA's ban on collective training for senior county teams during the months of November and December.
The rumblings come amid reports that some team managements are devising means of circumventing the regulations. These means allegedly involve openly defying the ban or, alternatively, signing up for charity fund-raising events which allow players to train together.
Squads are not allowed to train collectively during November and December but it's not possible to impose restrictions if players are coming together to prepare for charity events such as celebrity boxing tournaments. However, it's claimed that some of those sessions are cover for GAA training.
There has been a discernible increase in the number of those 'special' events since the introduction of the November-December closed season a few years ago. It's understood that they are now beginning to flash on Croke Park's radar amid concerns that they are being used as a front to beat the training ban.
The closed season resulted from a series of studies by the GAA which showed that many players -- especially those in the multi-grade 18 to 21-year bracket -- were suffering from mental and physical burnout.
However, there has been growing unease at the manner in which the collective training ban has impacted on county squads. They are allowed to work on individual programmes, but it's difficult for team managements to monitor the effectiveness of such a system.
With the pre-season tournaments (O'Byrne Cup, Dr McKenna Cup, McGrath Cup, FBD League) beginning in early January, senior inter-county teams face into competitive action just days after coming together collectively for the first time. It's claimed that this increases the risk of injury which, in turn, leads to high medical bills for county boards, who thought the closed season would cut costs.
The ban on collective training before January 1 is especially frustrating for newly appointed managers as they have no opportunity to get to know their squads as a collective entity before heading straight into the competitive season.
Among the new managers who are unhappy with system are Eamonn McEneaney (Monaghan) and Jim McGuinness (Donegal), both of whom believe it's counter-productive. Tom Cribbin, who is heading into his third season as Offaly manager, also regards it as unsatisfactory and believes it benefits the stronger counties.
McEneaney said that while he understands the thinking behind giving players a break, he has doubts if it's working out as intended.
"I don't think a blanket ban is the right way to go," McEneaney commented.
"County players who are attending college are kept busy during November and December, but they're the ones at risk of burnout because they're eligible for various grades for counties and colleges. The majority of players are in no danger of burnout, yet the November-December ban applies to all county teams.
"As a result, lads are turning to soccer and rugby to keep active because we can do very little except give them individual training programmes. Having footballers and hurlers playing soccer and rugby because they can't even train together isn't good business for the GAA."
The ban makes it difficult for new managements to blend with their squads for several months after their appointment, leaving them at a disadvantage when the season starts in January.
"It's not just a question of getting the pre-season physical work done. There's also the matter of management and players getting to know each other," McEneaney added.
"The closed season wasn't as much of an issue for me when I was with Louth because I knew all the players very well, but it's different in Monaghan.
"I would certainly like to have more time with the Monaghan players before we head into the McKenna Cup, but we have to play the hand we're dealt. I just think it's an area that should be re-visited."
McGuinness was appointed Donegal manager in late July before facing into a five-month wait before being allowed to work officially with his 2011 squad.
"We're told the closed season was brought in for player-welfare reasons, yet we now have a situation where players who can't train together until January 1 are playing a competitive game a week later. Surely that's a player-welfare matter because it increases the risk of injury," McGuinness said.
"There's no such thing as a closed season for players nowadays in that they keep working on their own even when there are no games, so I can't see why they can't work together."
Cribbin admitted that he would like to resume collective work with his squad around November 1. Instead, that's the start date of the closed season, although he remains sceptical about how closely it's being observed around the country.
"Let's say you'd have your doubts, especially when you see how sharp some teams are early in the year," Cribbin said. "I'm not in favour of the way the closed season is supposed to operate. It might be okay for established squads, but when you're trying to make your way up the ranks, you need to come together before January 1.
"And it's not just a question of the physical work. There's also team morale, which can be hard for the less successful counties to build up when they're months without coming together.
"You then come to February and March, when teams are playing nearly every weekend. It takes a lot of pre-season to be right for that but we're not supposed to start collectively until January 1. It puts fierce pressure on players and increases the risk of injury."
New Laois manager Justin McNulty intends to run off trials over the coming weeks to get a feel for what's available in the county, but they won't include current county players as it's not allowed under the regulations.
"There are good players in Laois -- now it's a question of getting them organised in such a way that they're in a position to deliver their very best next season," he said.
However, like all new managers, McNulty will find himself heading straight into competitive action in January without having had much time to work collectively with his squad.