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Higher demands of modern gamehave pushed county stalwarts to breaking point

TWO years ago, a medical survey of 260 inter-county players revealed that 65 per cent were suffering regular pain in their daily lives.

Over half said it made their lives uncomfortable, while one third reckoned the pain and stiffness was getting worse. One in two knew an ex-hurler or footballer suffering from arthritis.

Last week, Henry Shefflin spoke about how constant injuries have taken a huge toll on his personal life. He currently has a shoulder problem which will keep him out of action for another four months following a spate of serious knee injuries.

"At home it had a major effect," said Shefflin. "I'd have a screaming baby on the ground and I wasn't able to pick her up. That was difficult for a couple of weeks. I already had an automatic car for my knee so I was able to drive a bit but they will be giving me an ambulance next."

And Tyrone's Seán Cavanagh outlined the increasing demands that are placed on inter-county stars. Since the Dublin footballers rose with the lark for their early-morning sessions, teams all over the country seem to have adapted that template.

"At 5.30am I am trying to put the wee girl back in her cot these days," he said. "I couldn't even consider football at that time of morning. You're training every night as it is and there's only so much you can do in a day anyway. We're all exhausting our bodies, whether it's in the gym or on the field of play. You can only do so much."

But who is going to shout stop as the inter-county scene edges ever closer to professionalism and the frazzled bodies of GAA players break down? Just a few years back Ger Loughnane reckoned the average inter-county career would only last six years in the current climate. Few would argue with him.

More than one inter-county team was out snaking around fields on Christmas Eve, fellows running their legs to stumps on hills, toes numbed from the cold when they should have been at home with their families. Last week saw another glut of squads kick-start their day with 6.0am sessions, meaning that players were on their feet from 5.0am.

College students will be pulled and dragged in the next few weeks with the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups looming. Many will need power naps during the day just to get by. And these are guys in the 18-23 bracket. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Two months ago, as his county openly flouted the GAA's training ban, one player wondered what would happen if he had a tip in his car. He wasn't insured by the GAA because winter training was illegal and though enjoying a college scholarship he wasn't covered there either as he was on county duty. Like so many others, he just shook his head and got on with it.

In the past few days a successful club player recounted seeing a high profile inter-county footballer in his local gym. "I spent 50 minutes on the treadmill and watched this guy all the way through -- he hadn't even completed his warm-up by the time I was finished and stretched. It's animal stuff."

Sligo's man for all seasons, Eamonn O'Hara, is currently coaxing his body into facing a 19th consecutive season at top-flight level. Following the retirements of Brian Dooher and Ciarán McManus, he is the longest-serving inter-county footballer around and well placed to reflect on the stress facing players.

"Yeah, it's the demands that have intensified most," he notes. "You saw it last weekend with the spat between Niall Moyna and Jim McGuinness in a tug of war over a player. That's the way it's gone. Fifteen to 20 years ago, you trained on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There was most likely no gym programme. Some lads might lift weights but they'd go in, lift as heavy as they could, as often as they could and would think they'd done a great session. Others would just tone their arms -- they'd look like Tarzan and play like Jane. There was no science attached.

"That's all changed now, but I'm grateful for it to be honest. We still train Tuesdays and Thursdays while some counties are doing early-morning sessions. We spend three other nights increasing strength, reducing body fat or doing properly structured gym programmes.

"Yes, it's wearisome at times. Now and again our Dublin-based Sligo lads come home for meetings -- that's not training but it's still three hours on the road each way. Then you have sports psychologist chats and stuff like that. It's the demand on your time that has changed."

Yet, O'Hara doesn't think players are being flogged. "There is no obligation on us to sign up for this," he states.

"And you actually learn to re-organise your day. I have to be in Galway for work with Abbot Laboratories at 8.0am; that means a 6.0am start. I'll have a two-hour training session that night so I organise to get 10 minutes' shut-eye after work and also focus on diet in the hope I don't see my meal come up three hours later at training. I'm ready to go all the time but that's my choice. It just means scheduling my day well in advance."

Having invested so much into the Sligo shirt there's little to rattle O'Hara anymore but what about reports that young players have been reduced to tears trying to serve college, club and county, while respective managers refuse to yield?

"Look, on the surface it's a problem for the younger lads and their bodies. But the other side is they are scientifically being looked after in a totally structured way and from diet to strength training they're doing all the right things. I didn't have that expertise when I first started off. But yes, I take the point that they are doing way too much at certain times of year, especially the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup lads."

The Sunday Independent heard of a pre-season fitness test for one county side which found that most of the squad was carrying threatening and lingering muscular problems before the season even started.

Former Limerick manager Donal O'Grady was recently heralded by the GPA because of his ability to see the bigger picture where player welfare was concerned.

"He was basically the gold standard bearer in looking after players," says one source. "He told those who were involved to go away with their colleges last January -- he didn't want to see them until they were finished." This is a far cry from the approach of many modern-day managers. One football manager last year insisted on his panelists travelling massive distances for sessions three times a week. There is a basic flaw in the way players are being treated by obstinate managers who are well looked after for their own efforts.

"Hang on, I couldn't care less what managers get," O'Hara says. "If Kevin Walsh gets travelling expenses for leaving Galway, his wife and family for hours each night to train Sligo, he deserves every penny. The same for other managers. It's none of my business.

"I don't know what other lads feel but the GAA probably need to look at increasing mileage for players to prevent a knock-on effect. I started out with 20p a mile; that was increased to 30 cent and it's now at 50 cent and hasn't changed in about six or seven years.

"At the end of a season a player's expenses might come to two or three grand. That's a mortgage repayment or a holiday but the reality is you've already paid out that much representing your team. While the

mileage hasn't increased the price of diesel and petrol really has and I think the GAA need to pay one euro per mile to make the expenses scheme any way worthwhile.

"If they did something like that it would be appreciated as it's badly needed. But do I see players revolting if managers get officially paid or reimbursed in the future? I don't. Players understand and appreciate exactly what a manager puts into their side."

While the early-morning sessions and seven-days-a-week attitude are a threat to the GAA's amateur ethos, other aspects of the Association's culture are also greatly suffering.

The notion of one club, one county looks increasingly far-fetched; a million miles from the landscape that O'Hara first graced almost two decades ago when transfers were rare.

"It's easy to say that all the recent transfers are moving us towards professionalism but I don't take that point," O'Hara says. "Firstly, there are loopholes in existence and players are taking advantage of them. But if clubs are getting lads jobs, who will turn them down in the current climate? It's up to the GAA to close off those loopholes.

"I actually empathise with Seanie Johnston. The Cavan manager made a statement and Seanie wasn't in his plans despite being a brilliant footballer. He has serious quality and is only 27 so I can't blame him for wanting to play inter-county elsewhere.

"But will he play with the same passion as he did with Cavan? And what happens if Kildare struggle? I guarantee you the heat will come on him. He'll have to be ready because the finger of blame will be first pointed in his direction when things go wrong.

"Don't forget, though, that transfers were also there 20 years ago. So was sledging and hard training. I suppose the key difference is that everything is just so constant for players now."

And the load is only getting heavier.

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