'It's crazy stuff what's going on' - Donegal star Karl Lacey has possible solution to county/club divide
Lacey sees club and county split as the only solution to burnout unless system changes
From the first phone calls made, Karl Lacey could detect no sense of fragmentation about to happen.
When they gathered in twos and threes over cups of coffee that conviction only hardened within him. Finally, when they convened together in the same room to listen to Rory Gallagher's plans, there were no absentees, at least none that couldn't be avoided.
By then it had already been flagged that Paul Durcan was Qatar-bound but everyone else was present and correct or at least accounted for. No one had gone overboard. The expected mass exodus had been avoided. The wagons had been successfully circled.
For Lacey, the thought of stepping out never entered his head. He's 31 now and has 12 years as an inter-county footballer put down.
But with injuries and a chosen career path that could, he had suggested last year, have taken him away from Donegal, it may have been a consideration.
The ties that bind this group together are perhaps stronger than they seem however.
"Players discussed it among our ourselves, several things, phone calls, meeting up for coffee," he recalls.
"Because we are all close over the last few years. We're good friends off the field as well, just from chatting we felt we could still offer something."
For himself, there was no equivocation.
"It never entered my head (to retire). You always do think, maybe looking around the dressing room (after defeat) is there many of these guys going to be back next year. For me, I never thought, 'That's it'. Not at one stage did I even doubt that I would be back."
So the encores keep coming. The team that just about everyone had chalked down to have run themselves to a standstill by now are actually still running. And thriving.
Three wins from three have taken them to the top of Division 1 (with Dublin) with a journey to Kerry this weekend in pursuit of a first win there since 1988.
Lacey has watched their early progress from the sidelines, a conscious decision to step back after a club season that didn't end until December 19 when Four Masters lost their Division 1 league status after a relegation play-off against Bundoran, a game that he was sent off in. The vagaries of the club season are something he has touched on in the past, most forcefully in their All-Ireland-winning year when he played six championship games (including one that went to extra-time) in 22 days in a manic effort by the Donegal board to complete the programme.
Lacey was carried off at half-time in their semi-final defeat that year, breaking down in the middle of the pitch and unable to go on. By the following December he was undergoing surgery for a hip problem.
This time, after another prolonged club campaign, he wasn't prepared to jump straight back in. A master's in sports performance from UL has helped him to see the wood from the trees.
"You get to know your body better and what you can take on. Nobody knows my body better than myself," he says. "I feel I can judge pretty well the timing of when to get back. It was a no-brainer for me finishing club football on December 19 and going straight into county football. There was no way I was going to get past April.
"So I sat down with Rory and the strength and conditioning coaches. I was already two weeks behind at that stage. I thought it was no good for me.
"I had gone back ahead of the previous season in December 2014. That made it a full 12-month cycle. There was no way I could have gone on."
Last year Lacey made the decision to put his working life on hold to devote full attention to his football and reaped the benefits of recovery. But now his career path sees him lecturing in strength and conditioning and performance analysis two-and-a-half days a week in Blanchardstown IT while also overseeing a new partnership between Letterkenny IT and Donegal GAA.
The institute have laid on their facilities for all of Donegal's development squads from under 14 to minor and are staffing it through Lacey on a part-time basis.
He hopes it can develop into something more in the future and feels it's a model that every county should strive to adapt. Dublin have recently appointment of Bryan Cullen as high performance.
"This is different. It's Letterkenny IT employing me through a partnership," he explains. For Lacey, the current debate over burnout and balance between club and inter-county programmes is welcome but "nowhere near a solution yet".
The load is so great that the former Footballer of the Year believes complete separation may eventually be the only viable outcome.
"It nearly has to go down the route of rugby where, if you are good enough to go into a county squad you step away from your club and if you're not good enough for your county team any more you step back down again. There is far too much and not enough structure for club and county managers talking to each other.
"It's all about load management and how often players are on their feet. How often they training? What intensity do they train at?
"It's crazy stuff what's going on and what's being asked of lads.
"You can have a player out every night for two hours. Bodies can't go through that, bodies break down and managers don't see that.
"They might be manager for a team for two years and all he wants is to get the most out of that team for those two years. Where that player is in four years' time is irrelevant to him. That's the eye of the coach.
"You need somebody that's looking at the actual players themselves, making sure that player when he is 21 years of age, that when he is 27 or 28, that he is peaking.
"If county teams had a structure in place where the strength and conditioning managers oversaw everything and tells a player where to go, it might solve it."
In January, he went back to the Arsenal academy where he had been as part of his master's in the University of Limerick for an update on some of the players he had monitored the previous year.
"Seeing their model for academy players it's just monitored so well on a daily basis, what the load is for each player every day. Any player in the 'red' then it's just pull back, whether it's two days off, three days back, it's flagged," he says, explaining the way it works at the club he supports.
"In the GAA it's not. If a player is in the 'red' and it's flagged that he has worked too hard, nothing is done about it. He just continues until he picks up an injury. And then that's when it's flagged, that's when he gets his break then when he's nursing a hamstring or a cruciate injury."
He suffered medial ligament damage himself in the Ulster final defeat to Monaghan but played 20 days later against Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Looking back, he accepts he was physically fit enough but questions whether he could have been sharp enough after missing three weeks. But it's always difficult not to push the boat out.
For Lacey, there is a sense of duty among the senior players to ensure a stable bridge for those young players causing ripples of optimism in the county.
"It wouldn't be right for all the older lads to step away and leave it to the younger lads, because they need to grow and learn as well. The experienced lads are part of that."