Friday 23 March 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Joe Canning was on the money - the attitude towards alcohol in the GAA is all wrong

6 August 2017; Joe Canning of Galway lines up a free during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
6 August 2017; Joe Canning of Galway lines up a free during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I played the Old Head in Kinsale with friends on Tuesday afternoon, and it just struck me how much I now appreciate the freedom of having summers to myself.

Put it this way: the four teams still in the running for Sam will be training five days a week now, including three field sessions. That’ll be toned down the week before a game and the week after, but otherwise the intensity will be huge. They’re pushing to get to another level and, whatever it takes, they’ll do it. Golf? You’ve got to be kidding.

I’ve played golf since I was 10 or 11, over in Ballyferriter. Ceann Sibeal, just at the foot of the hill where they filmed scenes for the Star Wars movie. I love the game, but I know too how tired I can feel after a round. And it’s probably just not compatible with the way an inter-county player has to be when he’s closing in on Championship business.

We always had avid golfers in the Kerry set-up, fellas like myself, Gooch and Donaghy. Eamonn Fitz too. We’re all members of clubs, but over the years, that membership got little enough use.

And it strikes me that inter-county players spend an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty if they do anything that isn’t somehow geared to help them on a Championship Sunday. I’m a teacher and one of the things I absolutely love is having two months off during the summer.

Now I never resented the fact that my involvement with Kerry meant largely that my social life would be gone during those months. The potential prize at the end of it always made that seem a reasonable sacrifice. But I’ve never been able to reconcile it with the situation is so many other counties, where the chance of winning Sam will never amount to more than a pipe-dream.

It’s just not reasonable to imagine they’ll put the same commitment in when clearly they’ve no chance of reaping the same rewards.

I was on the Kerry panel for 17 years, which was only possible because motivation came easy. Seventeen years in a less successful county? Not a hope. I’d have been on the first plane to America.

Over the years, if I missed a Kerry training session, it wasn’t the manager I had to worry about, it was my own family. They’d have gone through me for a short-cut. Now that’s not exactly an environment familiar to every county man in the GAA, is it?

I was fascinated by Joe Canning’s interview in last week’s paper, particularly his take on the drink culture in the GAA. Because Joe was absolutely on the money.

Like, the first Kerry team I played in knew how to drink. When we went socialising, we did it at a hundred miles an hour, the habit being to go hammer and tongs after a game until your first night back training. Looking back, the way we went about it was completely wrong. Essentially, we binge-drank.

And Joe was 100pc right pointing out the difference in attitudes towards rugby or soccer players. They can socialise like adults, because they don’t face the same expectation to remain abstemious that GAA players face. As a consequence, they can have their three or four beers routinely and leave it at that.

When GAA lads drink, because it happens so rarely, they tend to lose the plot.

Trust me, it’s hard to describe how wretched you feel going in to training after two solid nights on the sauce. Your body just feels like it’s crying.

John O’Keeffe and more recently, Pat Flanagan, could never figure out why we’d do that to ourselves in the Kerry camp. It flew in the face of everything they knew about sports science.

The culture in English football has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades with the arrival of Continental managers and coaches, people who brought dramatic lifestyle changes to their players.

A good buddy of mine is a close friend of Crystal Palace defender Damien Delaney. I’ve met Delaney, a Cork man to the bone, an absolute gent, and he knows the GAA scene inside out. Anyway, not that long ago, the boys went out together after a Palace game and my buddy said Damien had a single glass of wine with his dinner. After that, they went to a club where Damien nursed a single vodka before slipping off home long before everybody else.

That’s the difference. He might do that every single week and it’s not going to harm him in the slightest. A GAA county man might go socialising three times in six months but, every time he does, it’s like Armageddon for his vital organs.

The contradictions in the GAA life are insane at times. You train to be as close as you can to an elite athlete, then do the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to your body two or three times in the season.

I would say I think this is changing slightly among the strongest teams. They’re striking a better balance. But at club level, it’s as prevalent as ever. People are nearly living for that blow-out. It becomes a necessary release to lads.

When Kerry drew the first 2000 All-Ireland final against Galway, my uncle Páidí made an instant decision that the players could have a few pints that evening. For all we knew, the replay was just a week away, but he just sensed the group needed a release, that everything was too pent up. As it happens, the replay was set for two weeks later and, of course, we won the All-Ireland.

Now that release wasn’t for everybody but, for the majority, I’d have to say it felt a godsend.

When we went back in the following Wednesday, Páidí’s way was to be looking for stories of the craic we’d had. That was the culture he himself had grown up with.

When Jack O’Connor came in, things were different. You’d go back to training hiding your condition, pretending to be mad for road.

We did this warm-weather training camp in Portugal once under Jack and the customary thing was our last night there to be a night out. You think about that now: train like dogs for a week, then hit the town and get on the plane next day, feeling as if a herd of buffalo had stampeded over you.

We’d be like zombies, buckling up for take-off, keeping half an eye on the sick bags. It was insane.

Another year, Jack tried to re-adjust by letting us out for a night in the middle of the week. All that was planned for the following day was a 7pm gym session. Disaster. The following day, four of us decided to head in to Vilamoura for a few beers.

And there we are, waiting outside the hotel for a taxi when Jack materialises with his young son, Cian.

“Where are ye off to lads?” asks Jack.

“Heading go-karting Jack!” we lie.

“Great idea boys, would ye mind bringing Cian along with ye?”

“Yeah, no hassle Jack!”

Soon as Jack walks off, we turn to Cian. “Cian away you go now, we’re not going go-karting at all!”

So off we head into town, a mighty day. Never make the evening gym session. My abiding memory is of lying in bed about three the following morning and being woken by a racket. T’was one of the lads trying to get another in over the compound gate! All I could hear was the rattle of the gate and a strong Kerry accent: ‘C’mon to f**k, you’re nearly there now...’

The following morning? Carnage. Diarmuid Murphy would never have been revered for his athleticism – as few goalkeepers are – but he was ahead of a few of us in the runs the following morning. I think back on that now and realise how ridiculous we were.

Those kinds of incidents contributed to a big learning curve for successive Kerry management teams. Put it this way, by the time Eamonn Fitz took over, the idea of those ‘blow-outs’ was history. Rightly so too. Because it would end up dangerous what we were doing, totally dehydrating ourselves.

We’d arrive home and be shattered for days after.

Now I’ve little doubt that kind of scenario wouldn’t get air with any of the big four teams now. The culture has changed. That famine and feast mindset doesn’t exist for them anymore, it can’t. Because the GAA man is amateur only in name and it’s a completely unnatural environment.

Actually, the more I think about it, other than students, only somebody in the teaching profession has any chance of an extended inter-county career now.

Because, come the summer months, it’s full on. And I’m just not sure how sustainable that is in counties outside the top four.

Let’s be honest, the teams we have in the All-Ireland semi-finals are teams the dogs in the street could have named last January. The gap to the rest is growing. So how, logically, can you expect the same dedication from teams who feel a million miles away from a semi-final as, say, Jim Gavin demands of the Dubs?

That’s without even beginning to explore the pressure social media now brings to bear on the modern player, the sense of being under scrutiny 24/7. For many, that scrutiny translates into simple abuse.

Maybe getting into the Super 8s will motivate other counties, but what about those for whom even that is just pie in the sky? How do you drive them on? I remember reading Damian Lawlor’s brilliant book on a year with the Waterford footballers and it was fascinating. But it also rubbished the idea that they compete on the same canvas as the big boys.

And there’s no point people belly-aching about how few real contenders we have for Sam. Are you honestly telling me there was ever genuinely a time with more than four?

People talk about ploughing money into the smaller counties to reset the balance. Really?

I’m just not sure you can flip tradition on its head through money. It might help, but only in the very long term. The playing field will never be level but, right now, the GAA has a problem on its hands in that the League is better to watch than the Championship. It’s better to watch because you don’t get these glaring mis-matches.

We’ve just seen probably the poorest Ulster Championship in years in terms of intensity. Ulster was the one province that almost always guaranteed humdingerers, this year it was a cakewalk for Tyrone.

And you have to wonder if some counties are now just losing the battle to persuade players to put their lives on hold and go chasing what might as well be a rainbow.


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