Sunday 18 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: GAA players feel trapped in a system that consistently flouts its duty of care towards them

Wicklow football boss Johnny Magee tweeted this picture on Thursday, and asked: “I wonder does Jim Gavin wash the Dubs training jerseys?”
Wicklow football boss Johnny Magee tweeted this picture on Thursday, and asked: “I wonder does Jim Gavin wash the Dubs training jerseys?”
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Thursday, the All-Star hurlers head to Austin, Texas for a whistle-stop tour that will culminate with an exhibition game at St Edwards University.

There's unlikely to be much timber broken and, chances are, Sunday's game will have all the competitive aggression of an archaeological dig (albeit there's a certain James Stephens defender who's been known to give it a bit of a pulse). The trip will be, above all, about reward, hurling's elite enjoying a coveted bonus to lives spent at or near the game's mountain-top.

Based on the actual All-Star winners of the last two seasons, just five counties would be represented in Texas, but inevitable withdrawals will ensure a broader geographic spread come Thursday's check-in.

But an All-Stars tour must seem a small galaxy away for middle and lower-tier county hurling and football teams, no doubt already adhering to preparatory fitness programmes designed to help them give of their best in 2016.

The miracle of the GAA is that so many submit to so much for the promise of so little.

By any measure, club is the only rational expression of GAA life. It might be hopelessly subordinated to the juggernaut of county, championships may be endlessly frozen by big-name managers dictating to a craven board, whole summers could be routinely spent waiting to play a game that actually means something, but you can at least live a recognisably sane life.

County doesn't allow that.

The modern proliferation of GAA books has opened a window to practices that would contravene every Geneva Convention ever signed. Players, essentially, sign over ownership of their lives to insatiable regimes. They commit to behavioural programmes that squeeze family and work to the outer margins of their daily schedules.

The very concept of a winter training ban must draw so many rueful dressing-room smiles from those currently adhering to intense gym programmes up and down the country.

In any event, who polices such a ban? The boards who would rather march through Raqqa in Star of David T-shirts than displease the luminary in charge of their county team? Perhaps Croke Park itself might set up some kind of Stasi?

In his wonderful autobiography, Hooked, Justin McCarthy challenged the theory that modern inter-county hurling was a young man's game, attributing this misapprehension to "an over-emphasis on physical fitness". McCarthy vowed that they wouldn't be making that mistake in Waterford.

His book was written with Kieran Shannon in 2002, the year Waterford won their first senior Munster crown in 39 years. And they would collect two more on his watch before in mid-summer of '08, the Waterford players essentially mutinied against him. Why? Because they felt a need to train with more intensity. To dig deeper within themselves.

The very thing that Justin saw in himself as virtuous six years earlier became the bullet that brought him down.

A modern inter-county existence is a holocaust in the social diary. Sit today's GAA county man down and ask him to explain this wilful suspension of a normal life in (usually futile) pursuit of summer glory and, chances are, he will struggle to mount a coherent answer.

How many groups already immersed in preparatory work for 2016 can rationally aspire to a Celtic Cross? Say, three in football? Hurling? A cynic might argue one. So how many can hope for a team holiday then? An All-Star nomination? A game in Croke Park even?

The really striking thing about Michael Verney's piece in Thursday's edition of this newspaper was the broad sense of players feeling trapped in a system that consistently flouts its duty of care towards them. Of zealot managers playing God with young lives. Of autocracy and insidious thought-control.

It's not all an ordeal, of course.

Physical pain doesn't necessarily have to be a psychological negative. Many of the most romantic GAA stories of modern times threw up tales of evangelical leaders finding new ways to make their teams think differently about themselves.

Perhaps the most famous came from the Clare hurling camp of the '90s and a harvesting of spleen in brutal early-morning sessions, be they in Crusheen or on that storied hill in Shannon. Clare trained as they intended to hurl, torching the ground beneath them.

Some old friendships haven't survived the onset of middle-age in that group, but do you imagine there's a single regret for what was explored together?

Nicky English sent Tipperary on brutal hill runs up Devil's Bit and followed the Clare approach of introducing boxing gloves and tackle bags to the training-field. He even delivered his players into the hands of Garda trainers in Templemore, testing their fortitude with off-the-cuff 4am runs before sitting them down to aptitude tests monitoring their reaction to such torture.

Yet try naming a former manager held in greater affection than English is by that Tipp team.

Remember too that when Mick O'Dwyer first took charge of the Kerry footballers, his sessions quickly acquired a certain infamy. They are recalled as an endless marathon of laps and sprints and press-ups and jockey-backs, some backs-and-forwards drills, an all-out game, then, uniquely, a flat-out sprint around the full perimeter of Fitzgerald Stadium.

The breakthrough team of '75 had five PE teachers in their number. Heaven alone knows how they reconciled GAA life with the science in their heads.

But that Kerry group dominated football in a way no team did before or since and the friendships made will undoubtedly go with them to their graves.

Truth is, we have no right to presume upon what the GAA routinely deposits into our lives. But we can, to some degree, understand it. A hurler in Kilkenny or Tipperary or Clare or a footballer in Kerry or Dublin or Mayo can easily legitimatise the daft investment asked of them in the black months ahead.

But what is Eamonn Kelly selling his Offaly hurlers today or, say, Johnny Magee the Wicklow footballers? A promise that they too can climb the mountain?

Perhaps the truest glory is they try.

Irish Independent

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