GAA unrest revealed: 'I've considered driving the car into a ditch rather than train in the winter muck'
Players call for training ban to be rigidly enforced as flouted rules cause more suffering than ever
Many winter training bans were lifted over the past few days, with players officially returning to training. For those inside an inter-county squad, this is far from true.
The GAA adopted the controversial ban in 2007 to alleviate player burnout by prohibiting collective training before the new year, and while rules have been relaxed, the ban is rarely adhered to.
A 10-year county veteran told the Irish Independent that he only ever considered "packing it in" during the winter due to the thoughts of a "painful" three-month pre-season and his story highlights the shoddy treatment of some of the GAA's elite.
"I've considered driving the car in over a ditch during the winter," he said. "It would nearly be as handy rather than train in the muck and sh*** and you'd be lucky if you even get a soggy sandwich after it all.
"You're on the road having barely finished work. You're tired, cranky and miserable on the way to training. You're constantly switched on and it's not good for you - is it any wonder more and more GAA players are detailing their mental health issues?"
Food and expenses are a huge gripe for county players, with county boards not obliged to cater for them until the ban officially ends. In turn, players are losing more than they are gaining.
Some managers have paid for team dinners themselves rather than see their players deprived; one county squad were even asked to bring €2 towards the cost of food, while others are forced to go to extraordinary measures for their after-training nourishment.
"One winter night we had nothing to eat, not even a banana, so we decided to go to McDonald's," the veteran said. "We pulled into the Drive Thru and lo and behold there were three county players' cars ahead of us. It summed up how much of a farce it all is.
"A lack of professionalism in the whole set-up seeps down to the players. If they see things aren't being run professionally, then of course they'll also act unprofessionally."
A leading Munster county player added: "The ban is only suiting the county boards, it's not helping the players. It's a lot more to do with finances than burnout.
"You have big numbers at the start of the year with greenhorns trying to impress, but many of them won't survive and they'll get nothing back.
"We won't get dinners until we're in season. Management are pushing for at least soup and a sandwich but they haven't a hope."
However, managers must also shoulder a lot of blame for calling sessions in sleet, fog and snow, to gain a perceived edge on possible opponents. All the while their players are pushed to breaking point.
"I remember my thighs being red raw from sleet and running as fast as I could to stay up at the front just to keep the snow off my legs," the veteran continued.
One county boss even organised "phantom county leagues" to pull the wool over the authorities' eyes, as a former Leinster county panellist explains: "The county was split into north, south, east and west with dummy results buried deep in club notes in the local papers.
"It was farcical but we didn't ask questions. All anyone wanted to do was impress the new manager. We were told that everyone else was at it.
"While results were being posted, we didn't see a football, we just ran and ran."
One player may have had the right idea when he jumped straight back into his car after one lap of a racecourse. And, if anything, since the ban was introduced, counties have commenced training for the coming season even earlier than before.
"We've always been back at least a month before we're supposed to be," the Munster player said.
"And from talking to lads in other counties, they're back strong already. The ban doesn't even come into their minds."
The former county panellist adds: "We returned before the club championship was even finished last year. It was even more of an incentive to stay involved with the club so you wouldn't have to go back in with the county until later."
What is supposed to be a pursuit of love has turned into a chore. All three interviewees claimed that the enjoyment was being drained out of their games.
The idea that Gaelic games is a 'young man's game' is thrown around regularly, and is it any wonder? College life offers a flexible lifestyle that can balance the demands of a GAA career but it leads to further problems down the line.
More and more players are taking breaks from the game at a younger age, retirements are announced during a player's prime because the mental, emotional and physical exertion built up over time has exhausted our athletes.
"A lot of lads only have a three-week turnaround from the time the club championship finishes and then you're back at it again. We're not robots," the veteran said.
"And it's gone to the stage that I'm actually afraid to ask for a Saturday morning off to go to a wedding in December, and that's not right. My commitment will be called into question.
"Will I have to drive back in the morning after having a few pints the night before to show my dedication? That's fine until someone is in an accident and then serious questions will be asked.
"You're entitled to a few drinks at that time of the year and I won't apologise to anyone for saying that. Partners and wives who have put their lives on hold for our careers deserve that time together at least."
The veteran sees only one answer: "Put a blanket ban on every team until the new year, and enforce it. Games are on the horizon, it's a clean slate and lads are focused and ready for the new season.
"It would help make sure everyone is on a level playing field and reduce the increasing pressure on players."
Players are suffering, and not just physically. What was seen as a solution to a problem has now become a problem in itself. Action is needed now before it's too late.