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Vincent's inactivity a 'serious factor' ahead of semi

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 Liam McHale and Kevin McStay

Liam McHale and Kevin McStay

Liam McHale and Kevin McStay

BY the time the ball is thrown in between St Vincent's and Ballinderry in tomorrow's AIB club All-Ireland semi-final in Newry, 69 days will have passed since the Marino team last played a competitive match, their Leinster final win over Portlaoise in Tullamore on December 8.

The Ulster champions will have lived 76 days of their collective lives since they last contested a football match of any kind of significance.

Ditto Dr Crokes, who, earlier in the day in Portlaoise, take on Castlebar Mitchells, 83 days since the Connacht holders' last public appearance.

Only the interludes between the group and knock-out stages of the Champions League and the Heineken Cup can compare for such prolonged inactivity in the same competition but in those instances, players are in operation in a multitude of other tournaments.

For those competing tomorrow, no player has been permitted to line out for their county – at any grade.

So try spending two-and-a-half months obsessing about one game and not suffer paralysis by analysis.

Given inter-county managers of provincial champions have often cited a four-week midsummer lull as detrimental to their team's August Bank Holiday sharpness, surely for the players of the four clubs competing this weekend idleness and wastage represent real worries.

"It's a serious factor," says Kevin McStay, who used the 83-day hiatus after St Brigid's (Roscommon) 2012 Connacht final win over Ballaghaderreen productively enough to cause the most stunning result of that year's competition when beating three-in-a-row-chasing Crossmaglen Rangers in Mullingar.

"It's not something any of us are used to, unless you're in it year-in, year-out like Crossmaglen or somebody. But it is what it is and you have to manage it."

There is, it seems, no rule, hard or fast. But the graph is common to all teams who have passed the time successfully; break, regroup, build, peak.

It's just about ascertaining how long each segment lasts on the chart.

Heavily fancied

Paul Curran, for instance, gave his Ballymun Kickhams players a complete break from football from December 9 until the second week in January. Subsequently, they beat heavily fancied Dr Crokes in their All-Ireland semi-final before losing to McStay's Brigid's team last Paddy's Day.

Different approaches but, at the time of arriving to semi-finals in which they were significant underdogs, both Brigid's and Ballymun had conquered their inactivity.

"We felt we needed to take a long break after a long year," Curran explains. "And it's about a frame of mind as well. We decided this was the best thing to do and we moved on thinking like that in a positive way. We never explored the negatives.

"The whole thing about a semi-final is the result. If we had lost that game, we would be looking back now talking about that break and what we would have done differently. But it worked for us."

McStay ordered a three-week break but reconvened in mid-December, just prior to the commencement of festive merriment, to which elite footballers – particularly those recently crowned provincial champions – are not totally immune.

"We decided that we were going to keep very occupied at Christmas so there was no sense of festivities taking the edge off them," McStay admits. "Certainly on the 'dangerous' days, if you want to put it that way, we were busy."

Curran harboured less concerns. The club organised a fundraiser for the team in Leopardstown on December 29 where everybody involved cut loose for a night but outside of that, self-policing ruled.

"I think times have really changed in that regard. In general, players are more savvy than they were years ago. I dare say, more professional."

Ultra-fit

Once back, Curran cracked a strong whip on an already ultra-fit panel and by the time they played Dr Crokes, they looked in better physical shape than they had been in winning Dublin and Leinster.

The Brigid's players, meanwhile, underwent 12 sessions which began with half an hour of high-rep weight training before an hour pitch session.

"This time of the year," Curran points out, "the hardest things to do is get quality friendlies because people just aren't back. Vincent's are playing this Saturday and the League (in Dublin) was to start this Sunday. You can't get quality games."

For his part, McStay didn't have that problem. Brigid's played a match against a different Connacht under-21 county – who were already playing Hastings Cup at that stage – every week. They won each time but that was irrelevant.

"They were proper games. They weren't bullshit games," he says.

"The whole thing was, the change in mental approach compared to the province. In the province, you're nearly playing week after week and it's more about momentum and getting yourselves right every time.

"In the All-Ireland, there is so much time to prepare, you can really zone in on the opposition. For Crossmaglen, we had three months to prepare. And for Ballymun, we had a month."

It was notable too, that that day in Mullingar after Brigid's had beaten Crossmaglen, their focus shifted instantaneously.

McStay explains: "I remember saying to the lads beforehand, 'as soon as this is over, no one is to act remotely surprised'.

"If anyone asks you were you surprised, you say 'no'. No one was to say: 'wow, I can't believe it'. We were saying 'yeah, we expected to win it. And now we're getting ready for a final'.

"The thing takes on a life of its own," Curran adds, of the level of detail to which Vincent's and the other three contenders will have engaged over the past barren period.

"It's a huge competition. It's next, really, to your inter-county championship. I think it's nearly the next most important competition for players these days."


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