Sunday 4 December 2016

The good, the bad and the ugly of a year to remember

We had the usual drama on the field, but 2015 gave us much to talk about off it as well

Damian Lawlor

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Maurice Shanahan’s emergence as a leader could see Waterford go a step further in 2016. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Maurice Shanahan’s emergence as a leader could see Waterford go a step further in 2016. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

And so the final words of a 365-page book are written and the curtain falls on another championship season of illuminating skill, controversial tactics and a decent dollop of gamesmanship.

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Although Kilkenny satisfied favourite-backers with another hurling title, Waterford broke new ground by being labelled the most defensive team to ever take the field, while Galway offered at least some hope that the winds of change might be beginning to blow.

The Gaelic football season, meanwhile, was blighted by play-acting and negativity. Thankfully two of the three most skilful and positive teams in the country (Mayo being the third) qualified for the All-Ireland final, only to see a potentially brilliant spectacle ruined by the weather.

Beneath the surface, however, there were more signs that change is needed. Here we look at some of the things we learned in 2015:

1 Restless players

Player power is nothing new in the GAA, but in recent years a lot more dirty linen is being washed in public. Those involved in the revolts in Galway hurling and Mayo football received little support, with the managerial teams gaining a lot of sympathy.

The truth is that being an inter-county player requires more and more dedication and they are not inclined to tolerate a manager who they don’t feel can maximise their potential.

Anthony Cunningham’s refusal to shift endeared him to many around the country and his ultimate removal has heaped more pressure on the shoulders of the players.

What the whole saga proved is that the GAA is no longer a ‘players play and officials administrate’ organisation. If you want to have a happy camp, players must be consulted on a range of issues.

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly guided Mayo to a fifth successive Connacht title and a hammering of Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final. But players demanded better coaching, feeling their managers were too old school.

The balance of power now lies with players. They spend a season commuting, nourishing, preparing, sacrificing and committing — often without much reward. At one stage this year there was talk of at least five managers not likely to see out the season. Some of those are still at the helm going into 2016, but for how long?

2 Waterford flak

People homed in on the role Maurice Shanahan played in the full-forward line as Waterford were unfairly labelled ‘the Donegal of hurling’.

Fair enough, they made little impact on the scoreboard against Tipperary in the Munster final before Kilkenny tore apart their defensive shape, but despite the flak, they are onto something. They arrived with a new team and created a template to help them start a journey — one that will evolve next year.

Indeed, for all the hype surrounding their perceived negativity, their scoring return per game in league and championship was higher than any Waterford team over the past five years.

They did lack fire against Kilkenny but that All-Ireland semi-final was great experience and over the course of 140 minutes against Kilkenny and Tipperary, they conceded just one goal. The foundation is there. Shanahan’s emergence as a leader and Pauric Mahony’s return to full fitness and form could see them go a step further in 2016.

3 Early retirements

In the past few years there has been a spate of winter retirements, with the age profile dropping all the time. A decade ago, the average age of a player was 26. Now it is 24 and it’s reducing all the time. Much experience, talent and wisdom is being lost to the games.

But players are no longer content to put their careers and lives on hold. There is not enough balance to their lives and they are not prepared to put up with it for as long as previous generations did.

James Woodlock and Stephen Walsh quit this year at just 29 and 30 respectively. Both had more to give. But as the years pass there is a sense that you can only don a tracksuit, hang around college and depend on summer coaching camps for so long. There is a need to lay foundations for future careers.

Inter-county hurling and Gaelic football take everything from a player, and unless you are in the top bracket, the returns are not too rewarding.

For this year, Kilkenny were hit hardest, and now it’s Tipperary’s turn. Lar Corbett joined Shane McGrath, Conor O’Mahony and James Woodlock in calling time on their elite playing days.

Sometimes there is a natural end to a player’s cycle. After 14 years, Alan Brogan owed nothing to anyone. Nor did Paddy Dalton from Wicklow, Stephen Lucey from Limerick or Westmeath’s Gary Connaughton. The worry, however, is that so many much younger are walking away.

4 Wear and tear

Players are weary of treatment tables, recuperating from injury and trying to find ways of preventing them in the first place. They are no longer willing to wake up every morning stiff and sore from the previous night’s training session.

At this year’s Developing & Maximising Youth Potential conference, speaker Des Ryan even called on clubs to appoint a strength and conditioning coach to address this matter.

“Between school, club and, in some young GAA players’ cases, county, the workload for many players is not sustainable, as every manager wants 100 per cent,” said Ryan, who works with Arsenal FC’s elite youth players.

The amount of muscle and ligament injuries sustained by GAA players has exploded and at underage levels burnout is an increasing danger. 

A study four years ago estimated that 39 players a month (across all levels) were hit with cruciate injuries, more than one a day on average. In counties where there is a dual element, or thriving school, college or underage set-ups, red flags need to be raised.

5 calendar chaos

The GAA can help immensely in this regard by tackling the fixture calendar and streamlining it once and for all.

In junior soccer you can plan ahead because you know when and where your games are. In the GAA you could play championship in April and not go again until August.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what is needed. Once again this year was dogged with fixture backlogs. In some cases, teams won a county title and were in provincial action one or two days later. Meanwhile, colleges ran riot at the start of the year, hogging players and enjoying a three-month build-up to their third level championships.

The time has come to scrap all early-season competitions and let January act as a pre-season month.

Start the football and hurling competitions in February and run them off over six weeks. Any player who wears number 25 or above should be released to his club for local leagues. This will help his club and help him force his way into the county manager’s plans.

Have an earlier start to the championships and an earlier finish too, bringing forward the All-Ireland finals to give clubs more time with their star men. There is no reason the club championships — county, provincial and national  — can’t be finished before December. Players might have to play for five or six weeks on the trot but they will readily testify that a schedule like that beats winter training and actually keeps them fresher.

Meanwhile, the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups, as well as the second and third tier events, should be played on astro pitches under lights and also be concluded before Christmas.

Any template like this will need tweaking, and while a player would remain extremely busy in this particular model, at least there would be identified periods of the year, and less training and slogging.

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