When Dublin football manager Jim Gavin sat down with his fitness coach Martin Kennedy last October to discuss his plans for the new season, he knew exactly what he wanted. Gavin had a game plan, a vision for the type of football he wanted his team to play and Kennedy was the man charged with getting the players in the required physical condition.
Gavin has made no secret of his desire to see Dublin return to free-flowing, attacking football. So the two men came up with a strategy to get the players in the shape Gavin needed them to be in.
Initially, the focus was on getting everyone moving easier, which meant ensuring the players had the fundamental movement skills mastered. This is vital for executing the technical and tactical skills of Dublin's game plan easier and more efficiently.
Developing strength and power was next on the list, and finally the squad worked on running capacity on the field. From day one, every session has been precisely planned factoring in the eight or nine peaks and recoveries required to successfully make it to the business end of the championship.
Dublin footballers have a couple of different training bases; they do their pitch sessions at St Clare's in Glasnevin, while their gym work is done at Kennedy's National Athlete Development Academy (NADA) near Abbotstown.
At NADA, the squad has a huge space to work in, it's a state-of-the-art facility with a free weights section and an area for speed and mobility testing. An astro track is also currently under construction. The words commitment, dedication, leadership and desire are posted up on the walls; it's the ultimate high-performance environment.
NADA is the place where a lot of Dublin's marginal gains are made under the watchful eye of Kennedy. Every player in the squad is profiled three times during the season. They are put through a series of tests monitoring speed, fitness, agility, flexibility, strength, power and mobility to establish their progress and if there are any of those areas in need of further attention, they are taken care of.
The GPS systems they use tell a lot too. Several times during the league the outline of the devices were visible through the jerseys of the outfield players. They give specific details on the demands of the game along with how much ground each player covers.
"You can also tell from the GPS if they are not reaching their potential," explains Kennedy. "It's not the be all and end all but it is a useful tool. Players can cover eight or nine kilometres every game with midfielders reaching ten.
"In any given week the combination of games and training means a footballer could cover up to 70 kilometres. Most club players would cover the same ground but what distinguishes the inter-county players is the intensity they play at."
From this research advances have been made in terms of preparation and productivity. For example, warm-ups have been scaled back from 3.5km to just over 1.5km, to help prevent fatigue at the end of a game.
In the last five years NADA has profiled over 75 club and inter-county teams from all over the country, identifying specific characteristics that are associated with different positions on the football field. Interestingly, corner-backs are often the fastest players on the team, goalkeepers regularly finish top in the agility test and midfielders do well in 'yo-yo' recovery tests.
When Armagh won the All-Ireland over ten years ago, physical fitness came under the spotlight and since then it has reached unprecedented levels. And although it can be hard to imagine, Kennedy believes it can evolve further.
"Ten years ago, strength work and aerobic capacity were the two things that teams focused on. Now I think everyone is looking at it more holistically, things like multi-directional speed and fundamental movement skills are being worked on," Kennedy adds.
"Players have to be able to kick off both feet, catch with both hands or fist-pass and kick-pass off both sides. As coaches you need to make them better co-ordinated and balanced, they need to have the right body composition and they need to move efficiently. Once they have that strong base and foundation then you can start pushing out their fitness capacities such as end stage speed and end stage endurance."
These developments in training and preparation mean that the body composition of footballers is different now, too. Players are stronger and more powerful but they are leaner too.
"There was a stage seven or eight years ago when they were a bit too bulky but that has levelled out," says Kennedy. "They need to cover good distances in matches so if they are carrying excess kilos whether it's body fat or muscle that could essentially affect how they finish the game."
Kennedy studied Sport and Exercise Science in the University of Limerick, and after graduating he taught physical education in Belvedere College before moving to St Brigid's to work as a games promotion officer.
A series of concussions put the brakes on his own football career so he moved to Australia where he completed a master's in exercise science and strength and conditioning. While studying he did a two-year internship with the West Coast Eagles in Perth.
In 2007, Kennedy left Australia, stopped off in London for six months during which time he signed up as a player and coach with the London footballers. They lost to Leitrim in the first round of the championship and soon after that he came back to Dublin with big plans to set up NADA.
Westmeath and Cavan were first to come on board, then the Dublin ladies footballers signed up and that relationship led to the Dublin hurlers seeking him out. In late 2010, he took over as their fitness coach and Dublin made some major strides. They beat Kilkenny to win the Walsh Cup and then a few months later repeated that feat to win the National League for the first time since 1939. Dublin's significantly-improved fitness and physicality was touted as a catalyst for the breakthrough.
"My job was to get the Dublin hurlers physically ready for the game of hurling. The big thing for me was they were hurlers so I had to be very cognisant of their skills. They had to be able to perform the necessary skills while still being strong enough to take tackles."
Kennedy formed part of Anthony Daly's backroom team for two years before he was approached by Gavin last October to team up with the footballers.
"The opportunity came along to work with the footballers. I had to make a choice. I'd played underage with the Dublin footballers and I'd always dreamed of playing with the senior team. It was a very difficult decision but I opted for the footballers," says Kennedy.
When he was revealed as part of the football set-up, Daly spoke of his frustration. "I don't have a particular problem with him jumping ship; it was just the way it was handled," he said at the time. "There was no approach to the county chairman or secretary or myself – just a direct approach to Martin."
Kennedy and his team have also worked with athletes and players from a range of sports including soccer, basketball, athletics, tennis and golf. As a professional member of the Irish Institute of Sport for the past number of years, he has had the opportunity to work with some of Ireland's top developmental athletes and teams. However, he admits much of his coaching time is dedicated to working and consulting with team sport athletes.
Education is also a big part of what NADA do; as well as working with schools they run courses in Blanchardstown IT for coaches to up-skill. They run exchange programmes with other coaches to discuss and share information.
This association with other sports professionals has led to discussion about the lack of regulation within the industry. Presently there is no regulatory body in Ireland for professional fitness coaches working with sports people.
However, a group of professionals working in the industry, which includes seven inter-county GAA coaches, have joined forces to try to come up with a plan to establish a body. "There is a UK body and there is no reason why we couldn't do something like that. There is a want within the coaching community to have an authority that represents them and I suppose give them a quality assurance."