From stuck in the mud to state-of-the-art

Longford footballer Michael Quinn with strength and conditioning coach David Hare

Longford have gone from using dumbbells on the pitch to a first-rate gym, writes Marie Crowe

When Paul Barden started lifting weights with Longford almost a decade ago, it was very much a novel practice. They used to work out on the training pitch with dumbbells and Olympic bars and when they'd drop the weights they'd sink six inches into the mud. Getting them back out was nearly a workout in itself.

But those days are firmly in the past. Barden and his team-mates now train in a state-of-the-art facility on the outskirts of Longford, equipped to the same standard as the gyms of professional teams.

At their disposal they have an astro-turf area for movement preparation and speed work, an advanced weights area, several TRX suspension trainers, four Airdyne spin bikes, a functional trainer and – look away now Pat Spillane – a medicine ball wall. And every session is supervised by a qualified strength and conditioning coach.

The man behind the gym is the county's strength and condition coach, Dubliner David Hare, who was first brought in by manager Glenn Ryan. Six months ago he compiled a report for the county board arguing that if they wanted to compete in Division 2, then they needed to improve their facilities.

At that point the team was operating out of two converted squash courts filled with weights in Pearse Park. They were doing their best, but with the league campaign on the horizon the bar was raised. The county board agreed and decided to form a partnership with Hare in the gym. They kitted it out and he works as the county's coach and runs the gym as part of his Functional Training Ireland business.

The facility is also available for all inter-county teams from 15-year-olds right up to senior, and the ladies too. Every player in the county is exposed to the sessions that the senior squad do. They are working-out in the same environment, use the same equipment but all have individual plans tailored to suit their own needs.

Senior star Michael Quinn hopes that this will have a positive impact on future of Longford football.

"It promotes good habits," said Quinn. "And when lads are stepping up from minor to under-21 and on to senior there isn't as big a gap. It takes a while for underage players to make that step up because of physicality, but you'd be hoping that they would be more advanced and ready for it when that comes because they will be doing the right training earlier on."

The new set-up also promotes injury prevention and for a player like Barden, who is 32, this is vital. In fact, Barden feels that if Hare hadn't come in as Longford's strength and conditioning coach when he did three years ago, his career would be well and truly over.

"Before Dave came in I'd spent three years with a bad back injury," he says. "I was struggling trying to play. I reckoned I shouldn't be there, but I stayed because I felt I should," explained Barden.

"I was hardly able to pick the ball up off the ground. I was thinking of giving it up and I had spoken to Glenn Ryan. But then Dave came in and after a couple of months I found that his training was working for me. All the bench weights went out the window; it's all strength and conditioning, fixing where I need to be fixed. I started to really enjoy my football again."

But, ultimately, the gym is a business and so is open to the public, including teams; they can sign up for a monthly rate and attend an unlimited amount of classes. This provides an opportunity for them to be coached by professional strength and conditioning coaches and also go toe-to-toe with top-level inter-county footballers. Gowna club footballer Cathaldus Hartin joined up and is benefiting greatly from the training.

"It's a super facility, you are training in a real high performance environment," explained Hartin. "From a club team's point of view, it's great inspiration to come in and see the county players and to be able to relate their own training to that of the top players. Football training, both club and county, has gone to another level. Club teams are training like county teams were five years ago and county teams are pretty much professional.

"Once you go into the gym here and see what the county lads are doing, you realise that if you are not doing it, you will be left behind. And even looking at the physique of the county players, you realise that if you are going to go out and compete with them at club level then you have to work harder."

Gregory Bradley of Elite Training and Fitness kitted out the gym for Longford. His company are already working with over half of all county teams in some capacity and he's found that more and more clubs and counties are interested in having their own state-of-the-art facilities.

"It's not a fad; one of our main things we find that people are looking for is education. Some treasurers or secretaries wouldn't have knowledge about the right equipment and would come to us wanting to buy treadmills.

"We'd advise them that they are better off investing in good basic gym equipment that would last a long time. They want to know about this kind of thing."

At a time when counties are constantly striving to reach the next level, Longford's vision and openness could spell the way forward for top-level GAA teams.