Training ban best of both worlds
The flak aimed at the GAA's winter training ban has been severe this year, particularly after the big freeze caused fixtures in the McGrath, O'Byrne and McKenna Cups to be postponed, leaving teams ill-prepared as the start to the national leagues looms.
But it seems the GAA is not for turning on this issue. One leading Croke Park official says that the closed season is the best solution to the twin problems of keeping club and county teams happy, while tackling player burn-out.
And GAA head of games, Pat Daly, also believes running third-level competitions off before Christmas and starting the U21 championships immediately afterwards will help.
"The truth is that we have a chronic overlapping of games in January and February with multiple teams involved," Daly told the Sunday Independent. "We have club games, college games, subsidiary competitions, national league matches and U21 fixtures all about to overlap and players are on a number of teams. For instance, college students are already in pre-season for the O'Byrne Cup, but they are supposed to be near peak for the Sigerson or Fitzgibbon Cups.
"The closed season is the best balance we can get at the moment between club and county affairs and we're sick of all the negativity to be honest. This winter ban is part of a bigger picture. It's an evolutionary process. If so many teams and competitions have to run at this time of year, it's going to take a while to get the best compromise.
"A lot of the talk is very negative but managers in general are looking out for their own backs and they don't see the bigger picture. We tried to reduce the number of competitions at this time of year, for instance running a few rounds of the colleges games off before Christmas and people rejected that. Then we tried to cut down on the number of teams out there playing at this time of year and people didn't want it either. So what are we to do?"
Operations manager Fergal McGill agrees: "There are some out there who would like it pulled back to mid-December. We will be reviewing the operation of the closed season but despite some of the soundbites from managers and others, I'm not at all convinced that we'll be changing anything just yet."
If the GAA is not for turning, however, it seems managers are sticking to their guns too. Joe Kernan, now with Galway, says it has resulted in crash-course training for teams, a theory which was evidenced by the Dublin footballers working out twice daily last week, while Mayo boss John O'Mahony has hit the headlines for his belief that some counties blatantly ignored the ban. Down's James McCartan has called for the ban to be lifted in December.
"We would still be giving the established players a rest during this period," he said. "They are the players in danger of burn-out. I have no desire to see Dan Gordon, Benny Coulter or Danny Hughes in December at trial games. If new managers could hold proper challenge games in December, it would mean they wouldn't be using the McKenna Cup to look at so many players."
Westmeath manager Brendan Hackett has only seen his side in action once ahead of today's O'Byrne Cup game against DCU while Sligo football selector Dessie Sloyan says his side are woefully unprepared for the start of the league.
"Trying to look at guys and trying to see what they're like is very difficult. We were going through the list and we have a lot of guys who have been out of football for about four months. They play for weaker club teams; therefore they would have been out of the county championship in August/September. They didn't play any football in September, October, November and December and now they're expected to play an inter-county game straight away without having had any training."
Respected Armagh trainer and former IRFU coach Mike McGurn maintains that to keep players healthy and fit during the season it's imperative they build up their strength and stamina over the winter.
Despite the GAA's insistence that it is full square behind the initiative, no county board has yet been fined for training through November and December. There are rumours that one county has already dropped a player for missing training sessions in that period, while Dublin got around the ban by hosting a regional tournament to double up as a series of trials. Kildare, too, got special dispensation to play New York while they were on a recent team holiday there.
McGill concedes there have been rumours but says there has been no concrete proof of breaches. "Despite all the rumours and speculation about teams training through the closed period, we haven't been given any proof of wrongdoing as of yet. Now and again people have said -- team X and Y were out training last Sunday; then we investigate and find out it's a legitimate trial or something.
"By and large counties have stuck to it, players have welcomed it too and in fact what has happened is most counties have used it as the period in which they start their players on their weight programmes for the year.
"We brought this system in because clubs were not getting enough time for their own players. With that in mind the winter ban can't be changed. We also have to balance the issue of the closed season against burn-out. There has been no player outcry whatsoever since we brought the training ban in."
The ban has also been positive for county boards. Players are told to train individually and a significant spin-off from that is that costs have been slashed. It's estimated that this could save some county boards as much as €15,000 a week for the eight-week period.
When Tipperary secretary Timmy Floyd came into the job, the senior hurlers were training twice a week in November and December. "Team costs are down a lot," he says. "In the current climate we have tried to practise good management of our funds but this closed season has helped too. We kept our team costs down below €1m last year despite playing in the All-Ireland final and doing well in football too.
"Essentially, we have also been spared two months' travelling expenses for players and management and medical costs. You're talking up to 35 players for hurling and another 35 for football; there are seven or eight in each backroom and effectively you're catering for over 100 people for two months.
"But we didn't see the ban as a problem anyway. Had it not been in place our teams would be training away now, destroying facilities like Dr Morris Park where we prepare for the year. Neither of our managers have an issue with it, so we're happy."
Maybe there are tweaks needed to keep everyone satisfied. Perhaps the key is starting the moratorium in October and freeing December up for teams to return to training is more appropriate. But inter-county managers shouldn't hold their breath. Players are getting some sort of a break, and under-pressure county boards have some respite from the madness of trying to meet ever-increasing expenses. The GAA's winter ban on collective training looks to be here to stay.