New regimes are frozen out by winter ban
The GAA's closed season is an extra burden for county managers, writes Damian Lawlor
ON Thursday night last, the new Laois hurling manager Brendan Fennelly sat down with the county board to map out plans for the coming months. At least that was the idea. The more Fennelly thought about it, the more he wondered how much could actually be achieved over the winter.
"The training ban kills momentum for the next two months and it leaves me up in the air a little," he says. "Our meeting was essentially to pick a panel but it's hard for any new manager taking over with training ruled out for November and December. I'd like to have seen promising players myself. We've a good young promising side but the truth is that I don't know the lads on the Laois team. I don't know them individually and it would have been great to get to meet them and get a start.
"There's a lot of work to be done but we can't really start yet. We're out in the Walsh Cup on January 16 and could face a top county. Come January, it will be foot to the floor time for Laois hurling; we'll have that Walsh Cup, then the league and we're out against Antrim on May 14 in the championship. But we have to get the hard slog done at some stage."
The winter training ban is now in its second year and precludes inter-county challenges and group training sessions as part of measures to tackle player burn-out.
But is it working? Two weekends ago, Leighton Glynn played three highly competitive games across two codes for club and country in three days. That's real burn-out.
Last year showed that the winter ban means absolutely nothing to college players. They're the ones in danger of burn-out with Higher Education league fixtures scheduled amidst torturous training regimes for the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups. So, ironically, those most susceptible to burn-out are still training at least three times a week with their colleges (and some with their clubs) during November and December.
In contrast, they have county team-mates who haven't kicked or struck a ball with a team since the summer and can't resume training until January. This group represent the majority of players, guys who are in no danger of exhaustion.
Fennelly, who arrives in the job fresh from having taken Carrickshock to a Kilkenny county final, has already documented how uncertain the start to his tenure as Laois manager will be. But it's not just him; the same will apply to 11 other inter-county hurling and football managers.
These new bosses can hold two trial games during the closed season but can't include any players who were on the championship panel earlier in the year. Equally, the trials can't involve games against similar panels from other counties or against club or third-level college teams.
The GAA stand by their decision. "It's unfair to have a 12-month season for inter-county players," a spokesperson says. "The rule is there for the good of the players; it's a weight off their shoulders for a little while."
While allowing trials is a start, is it really beneficial? "Trials are important but sometimes it's only in the cut and thrust of hard training and competitive matches that you see what a guy is made of," says new Limerick selector TJ Ryan, who is part of Donal O'Grady's incoming set-up.
"For us, it's a case of trying to draw up some sort of a panel, giving players individual training programmes and then going flat to the board from January onwards. It's not ideal; you'd already be picking teams in your head and wondering if certain lads would fit in but we'll have to wait a while before we get that far."
There are consequences to all of this too. GAA players are turning to soccer and rugby to keep active in the closed season and are more prone to picking up injuries.
The ban delays the process of new managers bonding with their squads and the smaller teams are already playing catch-up come January because they haven't gathered together in months.
The bigger teams, however, were on the road right up until August or September. Val Andrews was reappointed to a Cavan team he does not know; one that has not trained together since July 9. He is automatically disadvantaged compared to James McCartan's Down, who were together until the middle of September. The gap widens.
There's another imbalance. John O'Mahony, fresh out of the managerial merry-go-round, has said there is no conviction about the closed season. "I would be aware of counties who were training right through and were getting around it by breaking their panel into two for example," he says.
"There was very much evidence of teams doing that in every province. The GAA said they would talk about it but have done nothing. If there is a blanket ban then there should be a blanket ban -- but there isn't."
It means counties who actually adhere to the moratorium are the ones punished. Something had to be done to stop county teams training three times a week in November and December -- and to cut costs crippling county boards -- but maybe it should be left to each individual board, management and players to decide what their winter regime should be.
Failing that, as Cork's Paul Kerrigan says, there are other ways to knit a team unit together and work hard simultaneously. "For those two months last year, we worked three nights a week on boxing with each one of the squad fighting a bout, three rounds, one minute each, in front of a huge crowd at Christmas and all proceeds went to charity.
"It was a great idea: it was different training to looking at a pair of GAA posts, we trained for an hour and a half each session, a real good physical workout. A great buzz."
Such are the challenges ahead for the 12 new managers. Getting to know their players and assessing promising new quality is the most pressing requirement. They'd like to start that process now. It's a big disadvantage that they'll have to wait.