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‘You just have to be prepared’ - Westmeath’s Kieran Martin will be ready, despite uncertainty of Dublin clash

Frank Roche


Westmeath skipper Martin doing all he can to be right if game against all-conquering Dubs goes ahead as scheduled

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29 June 2019; Kieran Martin of Westmeath the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 3 match between Westmeath and Clare at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

29 June 2019; Kieran Martin of Westmeath the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 3 match between Westmeath and Clare at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

29 June 2019; Kieran Martin of Westmeath the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 3 match between Westmeath and Clare at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The new normal affects us all, even inter-county GAA players. Or, in their case, perhaps more so.

Kieran Martin is captain of a collective - the Westmeath senior football team - now compelled to train alone. As for that indeterminate future date when matches return, he can only wait and hope and try to be top-of-the-ground sharp when it happens, all the while appreciating that contact sport and social distancing can never be bedfellows.

Martin’s day job is likewise immersed in Gaelic games: he is a performance games development officer for Westmeath GAA, based out of Athlone IT (AIT) but also overseeing strength and conditioning for the various county underage teams.

On Thursday of last week, the AIT freshers footballers were due to play a Division 2 semi-final away to Dundalk IT.

Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington. Even before Croke Park had pulled the plug nationally, Martin and his Dundalk counterpart faced a very quick decision: they called it off.

AIT has been closed from that evening. Martin can still work remotely but his job, like so many others, has been thrown into a state of upheaval.

And life itself? In the first full week after normality ended, his family faced the most poignant example of what this all means.

Kieran’s cousin, Keith Allen, passed away last week - unrelated to this global pandemic but a time no less shrouded in sadness for family, friends and the Drumraney parish in south Westmeath.

“It was just immediate family and cousins, aunts and uncles,” Martin explains.

“With funerals you’re expecting hundreds of people to come in and you’re standing there, shaking hands and talking to them all.

“It was nice in a way that it was just family, but it was unusual.”

Instead of the normal congregation, you had a guard of honour from house to church, everyone standing the requisite two metres apart.

“You acknowledged they were there but couldn’t make contact. No stopping or talking, even after Mass, and the same in the graveyard”

* * * * *

Even as religious rituals are reshaped by necessity and the country grinds to a halt, life goes on. When or if there is a championship this summer, Martin needs to be fit for battle, even more so as the Leinster SFC draw has pitted Jack Cooney’s maroon minivan against Dessie Farrell’s Dublin juggernaut.

May 23 in Tullamore: what should be Westmeath’s D-Day circled in the calendar may well be a moveable feast.

Martin was already playing catch-up before Covid-19’s cruel intervention.

On the first weekend of the year, he helped Westmeath to victory over Louth, sealing progress to an O’Byrne Cup semi-final the following weekend against Offaly.

And then, on the Thursday night beforehand, he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. He was now in elite company - Messi and Neymar have suffered the exact same injury - and it meant Martin would miss league action for reasons of injury for the first time since making his debut against Mayo in 2009.

He was faced with two specialist opinions: the first surgical option was to have a pin inserted and face a minimum three-month lay-off, with the potential for later complications if the pin needed to be taken out.

“There’s a 50:50 chance it would work, so I just said see how it goes, I’ll rehab it myself,” he explains. “They were saying six to eight weeks ... the ninth week I was ready. I trained fully the Tuesday night before the Laois game (fixed for March 15) and we were getting ready to train on Thursday. And then the whole thing was pulled.”

The 2015 All-Star nominee has never been so lightly raced, but he’s philosophical.

“This could help me too, in that it could come back that bit stronger,” he says of his injury.

But the big picture is that at times like this, you must “think of your family first” and then your community.

And football? “You just can’t be careful enough in these situations. You have to try and get the training in - you can’t stop completely,” the 29-year-old says.

“It’s hard to know what to do - am I doing good, leaving the house? If you’re going up to the football pitch on your own, just running around, getting in the car and home, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Once you’re not in contact with people.”

Lines of communication are vital in times of isolation - especially with Jack Cooney and his S&C coach, Joe Nangle from Wolfhound Fitness. The Westmeath players all have their own fitness programmes and GPS packs, so workload can be monitored. Martin also has access to Maryland’s club gym.

“You just have to be prepared,” he says, outlining the need to bring gloves and wipes and the prerequisite for good communication (“putting it up on your WhatsApp group”) to ensure you are only ever there on your own.

Not every GAA player can call on a GPS monitor or an empty gym. But as a graduate in sports science, Martin appreciates there is plenty you can do even at home.

“Club players are tracking it on their watches or phones when they go running and putting it up on the group... you don’t need your GPS,” he reasons.

And, even though certain exercises can’t be done without access to gym equipment, the same principles can still guide your “high-performance” regime at home.

“It’s just doing the basic movements and trying to add a bit more weight to them. You could have a tyre at home, or a bucket of water or a bag of spuds, which I presume every house has plenty of now,” he says.

Almost all lower-body S&C exercises are based on three movements: hinge, squat and lunge.

“If you can just get them right, you’d be able to do anything from that,” Martin stresses.

As for bodyweight exercises, possessing a chin-up bar would help but even simple press-ups - “holding up for longer, letting yourself down slower” - are useful.

“Upper-body is a bit harder but again you can push-press a bag of spuds. I know it’s only 5kg but if you do a lot more reps, it will get tough eventually,” he adds.

* * * * *

Martin has more than his own fitness to fret about: there is a tranche of Westmeath development squad players seeking direction from afar.

“You have to try and get the message through to them without being there. It’s all through emails or phones,” he explains.

“They were saying two weeks (of a GAA shutdown) but it’s going to be a lot longer than that. It’s about getting the right equipment and the right stuff that they need, so they can do it at home.

“You have your Smartabase (training app), where the underage players put in their data every day… the type of training they’ve done, the duration, how hard it was. And they’ll put sleep quality, hydration levels, how many litres they drank.

“It’s trying to get them in the habit of it. You know yourself, in every squad of 30, you’ll have 10 that will do it by the book, 10 that will half do it and then 10 who won’t do it at all. And that even happens at senior level.

“Look, they’re at home where if they’re running and racing to a match after school, they mightn’t think of it. Now is probably the time to try and get the good habits in.

“If the season does open later on in the year, it’s going to be run over a very short period of time, so recovery is going to be very important come that stage.”

* * * * *

Life as we know it has come to a stop for every inter-county player. You are training in solitary confinement, preparing in a vacuum.

“You hear a lot of different things,” Martin confides.

“You hear people saying that the league is going to be null and void, just start it again next year. Then obviously the Tier 2 championship would have to go then because you’re not giving everyone the same chance.

“It’s hard to know. It all depends on when this comes back, because the clubs will want to be playing as well.

“Again, the only way if they want to run it off quickly is straight knockout. But we have Dublin then in the first round!

“Everyone’s in limbo,” he accepts. “We’re not being told everything straight away because I presume they just don’t want to panic everyone… you saw the panic last week and the week before in the shops.”

And if championship gets the green light, somehow, to start in May?

“You have to be ready - and especially against Dublin. We can’t be going out, sluggish and half-ready. Against some teams you might get away with being at 75-80 per cent, but you definitely won’t get away with being that against Dublin.”

Irish Independent