Tuesday 20 March 2018

For the love of the game

County players give an enormous commitment, in many cases with very little prospect of success

Matthew Whelan
Matthew Whelan

Dermot Crowe

Seven inter-county players, randomly selected, reveal how being part of that select group impinges on their daily lives. None has an All-Ireland medal, most don't have a provincial one either. But they talk of personal fulfilment, of an abiding sense of duty, of still valuing the status that elevates them above the club player, without abandoning the essential hope that next year might bring something special.

They empathise with those who shun the invitation to play county, appreciating that they stand little chance of winning anything, and every chance of being humiliated by one of the big hitters come the summer. There is no denying the time required and the dedication irrespective of what county colours you wear. But on they go, the majority, needing no gun to the head to do all that will be asked of them.

"I think definitely there was a period say where it had gone a bit too far," says Neil Ewing, a 27-year-old playing for Sligo. "Teams were competing with each other as regards how extreme the training could be. But I think in the last year they have pulled us back a bit and emphasised recovery. We are maybe not doing as much gym work as we were. The training is more specific."

Ewing isn't looking for sympathy for the sacrifices he routinely makes to play county football. He works in a bank and had a week off around Christmas from football; otherwise it has been consuming virtually all of his spare time. The domestic programme ran on late into last year, his club Drumcliffe caught up in a series of relegation matches, including two replays.

"You come across people, even around Sligo, they train for triathlons, you have amateur golfers, lots of others who are amateurs as well, who put massive time into their sports, who don't get the same recognition," he says. "People have this idea in their heads that what we are doing is crazy, but there are people who are out running four or five times a week. Probably the one difference with inter-county is that there is a bit of travel involved and trying to get 25 lads to work off the one schedule."

Sligo play in Division 3 of the National League and in the Connacht Championship last year they had a stunning win over Roscommon that repaid much of the sweat put into their preparation. But in the provincial final Mayo retained their dominance and destroyed them. For a few years Sligo enjoyed good league campaigns, being twice promoted, and reached another Connacht final after defeating Mayo and Galway in the same summer. There is more to it than that though. "You feel there is something there you have to carry on as well," says Ewing. "Sligo has had some very dedicated players over the years who played on when they could have quit."

These are the least materialistic players on the circuit, the least corporate, not motivated or distracted by commercial imperatives. The love is pure, uncontaminated. Wexford footballers are facing spring in Division 4 and have lost over a dozen players in recent years. Brian Malone is in his 11th season, and has seen their fortunes slide south from the heights of playing in an All-Ireland semi-final. "A lot of people would say to me: 'Why do you do it? You are down in Division 4, you are not going to win the All-Ireland'. But I say I like it, I have all my life for doing other things."

The 29-year-old is a teacher in St Peter's College, and better off than many in that he has the summer free. "When we beat Down in the (Wexford) Park last year (in the qualifiers) you get as much satisfaction out of that as other teams would from winning silverware," he explains. "But we are very disappointed to be down in Division 4 this year, losing to teams you were beating over the years."

His county team-mate, Ciarán Lyng, isn't playing, realistically, to win an All-Ireland. "People tend to see things as very black and white. They might say sure what a waste of a year we had last year (league relegation and instant elimination in the Leinster Championship) but unfortunately Rome isn't built in a day; our team lost 14 players over a two- or three-year period which is not sustainable for a county of our size. It would be very easy walk away. Well, what do you do? Do you down tools? That is not the way it works."

For all that he can understand why some players turn away. "Here in work you have to come in at half seven to leave at half four (for training) and they are looking at you as if you have two heads, knowing you are going to play football for Wexford.

"In terms of the professionalism it has really moved up a notch. Everyone is chasing everyone else's tail. Everyone is hearing what everyone else is doing and that has become the norm.

"I suppose it is hard. As you get older you question these things a bit more, it becomes a bit harder to go back. But I suppose you are brought up wanting to play for your county and that is the tradition. I love playing for Wexford even though last year did not go well. You don't get these great days in Croke Park unless you have these other days as well as far as I am concerned, unless you are from Kerry or Dublin."

Lyng, who had three years in professional football from 16-19, is currently in rehab, dealing with a hip injury which flared up during the end of the club season. His club, St Martin's, reached county senior finals in hurling and football. He lives in Clontarf, having worked in Dublin for eight years. He never considered leaving his home club. If he were asked with the benefit of hindsight if he'd do it all over again, he, unblinkingly, answers 'yes'.

In Laois, in spite of a few summer hidings, Matthew Whelan, 27, is happy to continue hurling county, balancing the demands with his working life running a farm. He spent two years teaching and may return at some stage. "Farming is a little less predictable than if I was teaching, say, something can go wrong at home, and you might have to leave the gym to go back farming. Lucky enough I have the father at home so I can be flexible. Especially from late January to April, calving season, you could find yourself up all night, it could be before a league game. It has happened a few times. You have to get yourself some sleep earlier in the week."

Whelan has seen changes in his time but never seriously thought the burden too severe. "There was no video analysis when I started out. Gym programmes were only starting to take off, they are mainstream now. You were doing two nights a week. And you do spend more time now in things like recovery. Nutrition is a big part of it. You pretty much don't drink (alcohol) from the end of Christmas till the end of the championship."

Tomás Corrigan enjoyed a run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals with Fermanagh last year. He lives and works in Dublin and recently joined a local club, St Oliver Plunketts, where he had done some of his city-based training. "The season is far too long. You are doing it for two months where there are maybe no games at all. There is definitely a huge argument for cutting out that period, it is basically another pre-season. You have one start to the league and another start for the championship."

This is his sixth year playing county and he's 25. "I have to finish in work round 3.30 to get to Fermanagh for 7.30. I was fed up with it before last year, the whole commitment of it, the travelling. Maybe to play two championship matches and get beat in the two of them. Winning changes your whole perspective, you get a taste for it and are desperate for more. For five years, I was asking, 'What am I actually doing here?' I was make those sacrifices, big sacrifices, you are a young lad and sacrificing your whole social life. It is different for lads with high-profile counties, they are winning, it is fine for them, but a county like Fermanagh . . ."

Even for a player like Kevin Moran, fortunate to be hurling with a major contender, there are moments of doubt. "Of course there are times that you would question it. Absolutely. Whether you are performing poorly or asking yourself after getting hammered, 'Here, is it worth this?'. But there are great rewards out of it as well.

"There were times I thought some years ago that it was crazy, you might do four or five field sessions in a row - that's crazy. The time you are putting in now is as much as it has ever been. But you are dealing with (backroom) guys who know what is required, in terms of injury prevention, burnout, it is more scientific now than ever. There is a lot more focus on nutrition and things like that. Which in its own way, with good sleep, is sometimes better than two or three sessions. Getting a good week of food and rest into you."

His major gripe is that the season is too long and the gaps between games in the summer too wide. "Here in Waterford we are probably losing out on two or three top-class hurlers who are putting their careers first and rightly so if that is where they want to go. A lot of our lads are working in Dublin and other parts of the country so that's an even bigger commitment. Again it is back to how much you are willing to do it and how much you want it. I can't see it getting any easier really. Saying that, there are only so many hours in the week. I don't think it is going to get crazier."

Brian Malone can't see how there is room for more. "We are on the brink of doing too much a lot of the time. You are barely recovered and it is time to go again. And you are working full time."

He understands why people are saying no. "Other teachers could be going out after work on Friday, they wouldn't even bother asking me 'cos they know the answer. So I could see why people say it is not worth it. I like being fit, I like being healthy and being able to compete at as high a level as you can. But I can see why that is not for everybody."

Joey Boland is combining hurling for Dublin with a successful business he runs in the city, offering physio and sports massage services. He can see room to do more. He is aware that the Dublin footballers train on a Saturday morning and have long meetings that stretch into the afternoon. There is always scope for more but meaningful rest is considered important to achieve a good holistic mix.

"Five years ago we were drinking protein morning, noon and night, now it is only once a week," says Boland. "Why? I think a lot of people were making money out of it. They didn't really have proper research so we all guzzled - it turns out we were pissing out half of it. It was more of a new thing. But now it is more about regular portions of good food.

"People over-estimated the calories we were expending during training. You can burn 2,000-3,000 calories in a big championship match. But in the gym you were only burning 300 or so. There is a huge shift as well in testing in that body fat testing ten years ago was non-existent."

Lee Keegan has his doubts at times, too. "Of course; we are only human. Obviously when you lose big games like we did to Dublin last year, you start to question what you're doing. There is always more attention on us with the big (All-Ireland) famine. But we compete at the highest level, and there were years when Mayo could not compete in Connacht. I would rather be challenging than not challenging at all. I love playing for my county. I love the challenge of coming back every year, I suppose looking at what I can do better myself. There are always ways I can improve myself."

Keegan returned from holiday in Thailand with this girlfriend on Tuesday week last and was training with Mayo the next night. They met Sligo IT on the following Sunday and he played 25 minutes. He feels the volume of heavy training has dipped but not the fitness levels, feeling that last year he was fitter than he has ever been.

"We come back because we love it and there is a goal at the end of it. We come back to compete, There is a pot of gold there we want to get to. It takes a lot of hard work. We believe in the group, that we are capable of finishing the job."

Whatever your prospects of gold, the lure of the county jersey remains formidable. It will continue to drive men to the limit to be among the chosen few. The commitment may not have eased but the beat goes on.

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