Friday 20 April 2018

No pay to play? Is full-time work with an inter-county GAA career becoming untenable?

Cork's Colm O'Driscoll doesn't believe he can give everything to his trade while playing for the Rebels while Donegal's Karl Lacey says he is enjoying the life of a professional athlete.

L - R: Donegal's Karl Lacey, Kerry's Kieran Donaghy and fellow Kerry forward Darran O'Sullivan
L - R: Donegal's Karl Lacey, Kerry's Kieran Donaghy and fellow Kerry forward Darran O'Sullivan
Declan Whooley

Declan Whooley

With nine All-Ireland medals and seven All Stars between them, Kieran Donaghy, Darran O'Sullivan and Karl Lacey have decided to concentrate full-time on football. As a result, pundit Joe Brolly is likely to feel more vindicated in his bleak GAA outlook.

The news today that soon-to-be father Donaghy has packed in his role with Ulster Bank to concentrate on football may raise eyebrows around the country, but closer inspection would suggest that the Kerry captain is following the path of a number of inter-county players in recent years.

His team-mate O'Sullivan, also an Ulster Bank employee, announced in January that he was leaving his role to concentrate on "keeping the body right" and will become an "athlete mentor" with Sky Sports.

"It just wasn't suiting me," he admitted.

The typical working life for inter-county players has changed dramatically over the years, but now it seems that the almost professional demands on amateur athletes has made juggling both careers almost impossible in some cases.

Last month Donegal defender Karl Lacey admitted that he will not be applying for any jobs this summer to prepare fully for Donegal's assault on provincial and All-Ireland honours.

The four-time All Star spent two years commuting at least twice weekly from Dublin with his financial role, and a further year travelling home from Limerick, where he completed a Masters in sports performance.

Karl Lacey, Donegal, in action against Paul Murphy, Kerry

As well as a hectic football schedule, he also has a young family to raise, but is committed to getting the maximum preparation for the upcoming Championship.

"I just want to enjoy my football now for the next couple of months and I suppose live that lifestyle of a professional athlete," he said, adding he has already felt the benefits of recovery work.

"There are a few players that have kind of stepped back from employment to concentrate on it," he added, and it would appear this number is growing.

Lacey's Donegal captain and colleague Michael Murphy opted to delay a return to college to do a Masters in sports psychology in Queens because of the impact it would have on his football preparation.

It is becoming a more common theme. For those working in a trade, the ability to juggle work and GAA inter-county commitments is becoming too much in certain circumstances.

“Honestly, I don't think it's possible," Cork forward Colm O'Driscoll told recently. "The demands that the sport places on the body, I think it's difficult to give everything to both."

A carpenter by trade, he has "made changes" and says the sacrifice is worth it to realise the dream of representing your county.

Cork forward Colm O'Driscoll: The dream is to play for your county. When you get that opportunity you are going to have to sacrifice certain things

"There is nobody forced to be there. When you get that opportunity you are going to have to sacrifice certain things."

The "sacrifices" that Lacey, O'Driscoll and many others are making, according to the players themselves, is being rewarded for sufficient recovery from matches and training.

Brolly's claims earlier this year that modern-day players are "indentured slaves" captured the imagination, and continues to do so, but Mike McGurn, a former Strength and Conditioning coach with the IRFU and a number of inter-county teams, believes that the main issue facing players is not over-training, as suggested by The Sunday Game analyst.

"It's not so much that GAA players over-train, it's that they under-recover," he said. "They are mimicking a training regime for professionals, but they have to go to work the next day. They are not recovering.

"When you are training you are breaking the muscles down. You develop when you are resting.

"These guys are not resting so they are not developing. It is going against all the science and the data."

Rest is now becoming such a vital issue that players are making big decisions to aid their recovery.

Two years ago the then Kildare football captain Eamonn Callaghan described his decision to take three months' unpaid leave as a garda to aid his recovery from a series of groin injuries as a "no brainer".

Dublin star Bernard Brogan admitted that he picked a finance degree in college on the basis that it was just 12 hours a week and allowed more time for training, something he says looking back on he might do differently, but at the time was perfect for preparation and recovery.

Bernard Brogan

Three-time All Star Lacey says the difference is significant already.

"For me it was into the car, straight out of the car, into training, back into the car for another four hours. . . and you're just in bits the next day. The body doesn't recover."

Brolly's comments on the bleak future for some in their post-GAA careers was dismissed in certain quarters as mere exaggeration, but the points raised are certainly valid.

It isn't to suggest that some players are out of work, not by choice, but simply due to the economic climate.

In the last decade, GAA players have been affected, along with the general public,  as the global recession resulted in some of the biggest names in the game seeking employment.

The 2010 All-Ireland winners in both codes were prime examples.

A few months after halting Kilkenny's 'Drive for Five', three members of Tipperary's victorious team revealed their unemployed status to Ryan Tubridy on 'The Late Late Show'.

Shortly after claiming Sam Maguire with a one-point win over Down, Cork manager Conor Counihan told reporters that three of his team,  Paul Kerrigan,  Donncha O’Connor and Alan O’Connor, were unemployed.

"People talk about pressure but if I told you guys you don’t have a job to go to in the morning that’s real pressure," he said. At the time it was estimated roughly 300 inter-county players were out of work.

Now some high-profile players in employment are deciding, on their own terms, to leave their 9-5 for the betterment of their football or hurling.

"They're not able to work full-time, they're not able to build careers," Brolly lamented earlier this year.

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