Sunday 8 December 2019

Donegal's 'camp' stay takes unity to another level

McGuinness sees five-day Lough Erne training stint as 'icing on the cake'

Donegal's use of training camps has brought the squad together, according to manager Jim McGuinness as his side prepare for the All-Ireland Final
Donegal's use of training camps has brought the squad together, according to manager Jim McGuinness as his side prepare for the All-Ireland Final
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Cavan and Meath reached the 1952 All-Ireland football final neither county thought twice about what their first move should be as they drew up their preparation strategy.

Collective training in advance of an All-Ireland final had been common practice for years before that.

So Meath pitched up in their regular retreat in Gibbstown a few miles outside Navan while Cavan sought the sanctuary of Ballyconnell to fine-tune their plans in the weeks leading up to the big game.

Cavan had a set routine for their two weeks billeted away in the north-west of the county.

Their day began at 7.45am with a "fast three-mile walk", incorporated morning and afternoon pitch sessions and concluded with another brisk half-hour walk at 9.0 that night before a Rosary was said and lights went out shortly after 11.0.

Ballyconnell wasn't always the venue of choice for Cavan.

Prior to the 1949 All-Ireland final between the same counties, Cavan decamped to Virginia just over the border from Meath to stay in the Park Hotel, then owned by the former Cavan footballer Ernie McDonnell where, archives record, they had the access to the services of a masseur throughout the day and a daily visit from a doctor to check their well-being.

The practice of going 'into camp' wasn't exclusive to just finals. Squads regularly convened for up to two weeks before semi-finals too.

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The Cavan team preparing for the 1935 All-Ireland final in Mountnugent had a radio installed especially for the duration of their stay there.

The principle of having a training camp was along the same lines then as it now.

It was quality time together that they never got at other times of the year due to club activity, resources and the logistics of being able to come together on a regular basis.

Eventually the GAA banned the practice at a heated Congress in 1954 because the compensation required for players to engage in such camps clashed with the amateur ideals of the association.

At that Congress the GAA president Michael O'Donoghue explained the concept of what collective training was, how it was defined by the association as "bringing a whole team away from their ordinary work or employment, keeping them for a period of time in a hotel or camp, then paying these trainees in cash or in kind for the period."

The debate provoked strong exchanges among delegates in favour and opposed to the practice of training camps.

One who spoke against argued that the standards of fitness and skill had not improved since the advent of the collective training camp.

Another in favour suggested that by banning them standards would drop and that spectators would be treated to watching teams "composed of players lying down every few minutes."

But from that day until the present the practice of "full-time" training has been banned by the GAA under its rules on amateurism.


Training weeks and weekends are permitted however under strict criteria. They can only take place prior to the league finals or within 13 days of a championship match. In the case of an All-Ireland final, that window increases to 20 days.

With Donegal embarking on their second 'five-day' camp in three weeks in preparation for a major championship game, the 'professional' level of their preparations will inevitably fall under the spotlight.

That a group of players and management with lives and jobs away from Gaelic football can commit the same time again for what constituted a normal working week for many underpins the lengths that they are willing to go get the most out of themselves.

Inevitably, there will be a fresh spotlight placed too on the financing of such regular collective activities from the week spent in Portugal in April prior to the Division 2 league final defeat to Monaghan to the five days they had in Johnstown House before the Dublin game.

In the build-up to the semi-final, Jim McGuinness himself compared the resources now available to Dublin with the impact of Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea in the 2000s.

But Donegal appear quite adequately resourced themselves to get the most out of preparation. In his time with Donegal, McGuinness has been able to build up a strong core of benefactors willing to fund preparation beyond the county board's remit.

When the Donegal board were reluctant to pick up the tab for a night in the Slieve Russell Hotel prior to the breakthrough Ulster final, a business contact of McGuinness based in London stepped in.

The Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh has offered accommodation before matches in the past and the general Donegal diaspora have been quick to put their hands deep into their pockets.

In recent weeks, a group of Dublin-based Donegal supporters have held a golf classic and a 'questions and answers' night in the Harcourt Hotel which is understood to have raised in the region of €20k for the official Donegal training fund to help with the costs of All-Ireland semi-final reparations for minors and seniors.

The tab for Lough Erne will surely come close to that figure too but the benefits of coming together clearly outweigh everything else.

They are not alone in seeking to get away to prepare in this manner. Kerry have routinely used in to the Fota Island resort nine days out from a big game and are sure to follow that practice this weekend.

Before their All-Ireland quarter-final with Donegal, Armagh checked into the same Lough Erne resort that Donegal have gone to this week and used local pitches to polish their preparations in an intensive environment.

Last weekend McGuinness ventilated the advantage of a camp to a squad like Donegal.

"It was a help," he said of Johnstown House. "But we have been very focused from the first training session and we have been working hard from that day. We have a lot of training done.

"When you get away for four or five days, then it's like the icing on the cake," he said. "It's the thing that pulls it all together. You can sit down and have a chat with somebody and you can ask, 'Do you understand that?'

"If you are going with a certain set of kick-outs for that game, you can say, 'Do you understand that' and you can have that conversation. And you can get clarity on it.

"Whereas, if you going to training, you do something on the training pitch, you go back into the dressing-room, you get a bite to eat and they are all shooting off in a hurry, you don't get that."

The sense of fun was also highlighted. "It brings people together," reflected McGuinness. "Among our boys, there are no shortage of blackguards in the group, the manager is not immune to that either.

"They will play cards at night and there is table tennis and they are just bouncing off each other. If you go through four or five days of that somebody will do something or someone will get caught with a gag and that's the butt of the joke for the next training session.

"Fun and momentum carries. It's just positivity. It is a good help that way."

The players of Cavan, Meath and Kerry who regularly set up camp before big games could have identified with that.


Training camp pioneers

Cavan 1930s-50s

During their most successful years it was common practice for Cavan to embark on camps within their own county, not just for All-Ireland finals but for semi-finals too.

Most successful counties organised such camps in the build-up to big games until they were banned in 1954 because of fears for the amateur status. They lasted for up to two weeks and involved twice-daily practice sessions.

Meath go to Scotland, 1991

Between the third and fourth games of their epic four-match first-round Leinster Championship series against Dublin in '91, Sean Boylan decided something different was required, so a snap decision was taken to go to Drymen near Loch Lomond in Scotland for a weekend away.

It involved training and late nights, partners were invited along and it was considered the perfect 'breather.'

Armagh set up in La Manga, 2002

The concept of the modern-day training camp can be charted back to this trip, though Dublin, under Tommy Carr, had taken off to Spain in one of the preceding years. Poor spring weather gave Joe Kernan the idea to bring the squad on warm-weather training to prepare for Tyrone.

It cost 30,000 euro, invited abuse on the way into Clones for their quarter-final but helped to lay the foundation for their breakthrough.

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