Tomás Ó Sé: Imagine Jonny Cooper or Diarmuid Connolly being photographed supping bottles in Coppers this week...
Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30
That was a mighty win in Lille the other night for our boys in green and I wonder did anything strike you about the players' celebrations after?
Like how, four days before a monumental game against France, management allowed them have a few beers. And here's the thing. Nobody took umbrage. Nobody was phoning Joe Duffy or grilling Martin O'Neill at a press conference about what in the name of the Almighty they were doing supping drink so close to the biggest game of their lives.
And Hallelujah for that.
Trust me, they'll be more than fine by the time Paul Pogba and company stand before them in Lyon tomorrow and anyone who thinks otherwise has probably learnt everything they know about sport from a library book.
But just imagine the same thing happening with a GAA team. Imagine Jonny Cooper or Diarmuid Connolly being photographed supping bottles in Coppers last Wednesday with the Meath game just four days away? There'd be consternation. Not alone would they not be playing tomorrow, chances are they'd be gone off the Dublin panel for a whole summer.
Now I'm not for a second recommending lads going on the beer in the week of a championship game, but I do believe there's a red light flashing for the GAA that they'd be wise not to ignore. And that light is drawing attention to the number of young players, particularly in the weaker counties, now opting against committing to inter-county.
In Kerry, I always felt that the social side was vital to us being successful, vital to a sense of camaraderie. It was a release valve that, ultimately, made us more united. We always worked damn hard, but we played harder than anybody else too, though few enough people probably knew it.
In Jack O'Connor's first stint, we went for one training weekend in Cork, staying in Hayfield Manor. The restaurant wasn't quite big enough to take our full party for dinner, so there was a kind of partition separating some of us from the rest. Next thing, Jack pipes up, 'Lads, ye can have a glass of wine with the dinner!'
And we're looking at one another, thinking that there's surely a hidden camera somewhere. That he's maybe trying to set us up here. We'd presumed it would be a strictly-no-alcohol weekend but now, weren't we sitting on the far side of the partition to Jack, with an invitation to drink.
We identified the youngest, most innocent waiter and - basically - got him to open the wine taps. Had the poor chap so flat to the mats ferrying bottles to the table, he almost didn't have time to bring out food. And you know that thing about it only taking one spark to start an inferno? I'd say we were in a pub in Patrick or Washington Street before Jack had even got up from the table.
Lord Jesus, we paid for it too. Jack ran us into the ground the next day, deciding there and then that he couldn't trust us to turn sideways. It was the beginning and the end of the Kerry wine list!
Jack made things a lot more disciplined in Kerry, introducing us to Pat Flanagan, a strength and conditioning wizard who was well ahead of his time.
And, after a while, he started having us back in training the Monday after a championship game, purely to keep us on the straight and narrow. But the game was still enjoyable. I honestly wonder if it is today.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to depict the county man's life today as life in a prison camp. I know there's great banter in most dressing-rooms, successful or not. But everything now is analysis, core-work, strength and conditioning, personal programmes, monitoring your diet. The game eats into every aspect of a player's life, taking up more and more of his time.
And, in my opinion, we're treading very dangerously here.
In the last ten years, we've seen bigger changes in the game than we've seen in the previous hundred. The younger generation are willingly pushing the boundaries out further and further.
The balance has been lost in my opinion and God forbid you buck the trend. Put it this way, I've had an insight into three generations of Kerry football and there's no doubt in my mind that the most enjoyable one was Páidí's. National League? They'd be wheeled out at venues around the country like some exotic creatures being presented for a photo opportunity.
If it was any distance out of Kerry (and most places are) they'd head up the night before, sink a few pints, then do their thing on the Sunday. Now, the same bottom line applied. On the field, you were expected to perform.
When Páidí took over as manager in 1997, we trained awful hard, but it was only three nights a week. No weights programme, no personal programmes, no stretching sessions, no core work. Your total workload was carried out in those three sessions, maybe Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Páidí was a good reader of things, knew when to give lads rope and when not to. His attitude was - basically - train hard, play hard.
Pressure on time was probably the reason I walked away from county in the end. When I started out, September to February was basically down time. And that time was vital to me. I'm not sure the modern player knows fully how to switch off. The most physical thing I'd do in that period of down time would be a game of five-a-side.
Otherwise, I'd eat loosely, drink loosely, put on the few pounds. But I'd come back mad for road even though those first two months back training would be torture. Now if a fella goes for a pint over Christmas, he'll most likely be in the gym the following day. Probably won't even eat the turkey. It's gone too far.
It strikes me that the game lacks coaches with sufficient confidence to make that call. To say to fellas, 'Lads, leave your hair down over Christmas'. You have this epidemic of guilt running through the GAA. Remember, most fellas have pressure of work too, so something has to suffer. Work or training.
When that happens, you're not right mentally. How could you be? My own view is that a lot of young players are left half-depressed by the unnatural demands being placed on them now. And the art of talking is going out of things. You see fellas on their way to games now with the big earphones on, shutting themselves away from the outside world. The concept of a bonding weekend is to take a group away for military exercises rather than just sitting down and getting to know one another. Everybody's in a terrible rush.
And my worry is that this is only going to get worse. We're certainly not seeing all the best footballers in the country out on the field today because the game is burning a lot of young lads away, especially in the weaker counties. It means the gap is getting bigger and bigger. Everyone's trying to set the same standards when it's probably just not feasible.
Like I don't doubt the likes of Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice make sure their players get enough down time to keep the experience enjoyable. My worry is for the 20 counties trying in vain to get up to that level. There's simply got to be a two-tier championship in my opinion.
I think it's still possible to allow players have some kind of social life without falling foul of the modern ethos. But it takes a confident manager to facilitate that. Not one who apes what's going on elsewhere. I heard a story last week that one inter-county team is doing two weights-sessions a day and a ten-kilometre run every second day.
That's madness. You wouldn't be able to lift feathers after that.
I also sense strength and conditioning coaches becoming more and more influential, despite many of them having no GAA background at all. It's in their nature to drive players as hard as they're allowed. So our balance is completely wrong here, every coach just driving his own agenda, be that club, Sigerson or county.
Listen, I like the professional side of the game. I just fear a lot of current county players will look back on their careers in ten years time and be going 'What the f**k was that about?'
When I came in, there were some great characters in the Kerry dressing-room, the Eamon Breens, the Liam Flahertys, my own brother Darragh. There was so much fun, the sweat would be coming out of me in buckets just from laughing so much on the way to a game.
But by the time I finished with Kerry, I had kids, I was traveling from Cork, we had core sessions, personalised weights sessions, three or four field sessions. Everything took longer. Training, meetings, video analysis, study of the opposition. I might leave home at 3.30pm and get back at 11.30pm. The same enjoyment wasn't there.
Now I still loved it, nobody was putting a gun to my head. To be quite honest, I even kind of regret that I didn't go back for one more year. But I just sensed my time getting more and more squeezed.
I read recently that as many as 50 footballers in Galway got J1 passes this year and I'm sure they did so imagining Galway had no chance of beating Mayo last weekend.
In my view there's no more than seven football counties right now who don't have to worry about this problem.
And that's something the GAA is going to have to get its head around sooner rather than later. There's a talent drain that needs to be fixed and the way to do that is through loosening the chains, not tightening them.
By the way, best of luck to the boys in green tomorrow.