'The mobility in his hip was the same as a 70-year-old person'
Wexford have shone a light on burnout in schools players and it's not a pretty sight, writes Dermot Crowe
'I think people think this is a joke, that it is being made up by the doctors'
-- Diarmuid Devereux, Wexford County Board chairman, on serious injury among young players
THE furore in Wexford during the past week, culminating in the dismissal of the county minor hurling manager, Eddie Walsh, brought to light the incompatibility of the old world order and the new. Walsh, known as 'Heffo', is in his mid-60s. He hurled with legends like Ned Wheeler and Hopper McGrath in Faythe Harriers, and served the Wexford senior team when they were winning Leinster titles in the late 1970s. "I didn't look for the job," he said on local radio during the week, ". . . one man said to me,'We need ya'."
A hint of his worldview went on offer in an interview he gave to South East Radio on Tuesday after his dismissal. "Wexford are after being beaten in a minor hurling championship by Laois, we haven't been beaten in 30 years by them and this was one of the best minor teams that actually left Wexford," he said.
"And we were then beaten by Antrim, by a team they said, the Antrim people, they picked up off the street and I don't mean any badness about Antrim, they are doing great work up there but it was sad to hear that."
Wexford have long gone past the point where they can regard Laois or Antrim patronisingly at any level of hurling. He also mentioned a Tony Forristal defeat by Antrim which "really shocked me to the bone. And when I saw this I turned around and I said to meself, 'C'mon Heff, you have the know-how, don't give out about it, you have the know-how, go and get your selectors, get them together and we'll have a go at this'." His "go" was clearly at odds with that of the county board chairman Diarmuid Devereux, who said on Friday that Walsh was his choice from a number of candidates, and he had happily worked with him for 30 years in the GAA. Walsh's plans were also meeting opposition because of well-founded concerns about player burnout, with parents contacting the board to voice concerns that their sons were being asked to do too much.
This year Wexford introduced a combined team in the Leinster schools 'A' hurling competition, to join Good Counsel and St Peter's. It followed similar initiatives in Dublin and Waterford and aims to increase Wexford's impact at county minor level where their last Leinster title was in 1985. The board maintains that the combined schools must take precedence over county minor teams until the new year. GAA minor teams are not permitted to train collectively until January 1 but it is common knowledge that many counties flout that rule.
Walsh continued to hold training sessions in spite of the guidelines and express wishes of the county board. He claimed on radio he had received mixed messages from the chairman of Coiste na nóg Bobby Goff; first being told not to train, then informed that training was permitted. Goff disputed this version of events, saying he'd attended a series of meetings with the minor manager. "He was more concerned with lads outside the schools system, one was going to Carnew (in Wicklow), and a few were in third level or had left school, guys who were not doing anything, they were falling behind in their training compared to the schools guys.
"He wanted to do some gym work with them on a Friday and hurling on a Sunday. I said that was fair enough. And he said he wanted access to the schools players three times in December, on Friday, December 6 for a team meeting to lay out plans for the year, another on Sunday, December 8, for a training session to check fitness, and again on Friday 20th; he didn't go into detail on that one.
"He had his meeting on Friday and on the Sunday he changed the goalposts, changing the Sunday session to the Tuesday night. He gave an ultimatum to the players regardless of playing with colleges or not, they were to train with him on Tuesday and Friday. The combined team is made up of 13 schools so they have to travel to a central location. Now the county minor manager was expecting those to train two times with colleges and twice with the county minors and there was a big player welfare issue. The issue I had all the time was the welfare of the players."
On Tuesday, December 10, the minor hurlers had an intensive 90-minute physical workout the day before the combined schools were due to train. The following Friday the minors were to train again in spite of the schools having a challenge match the day after. As he had not paid heed to county board instructions, Walsh was removed from the position by the juvenile board.
"I can show you correspondence going back to last September on this, the amount of times I have laid this policy down in front of people in plain black and white," says Devereux. "What we are trying to do in the GAA is we are trying to change -- you saw the number of drops-outs in the ESRI report. If we don't respond and show young people, especially those in Leaving Cert year, a reasonable level of care and attention, and better management, we are going to continue to have that problem. I understand guys coming in as manager that they are trying to win a title for their county. I can understand why they get upset but the time has come.
"At the end of the day last week I issued instructions that there was to be no (county minor) training -- my instruction was not adhered to. Coiste na nóg took it from there.
"Looking at it through the eyes of the manager, he is probably saying other counties are doing this and he is correct about all this. But we have a duty of care to young players. I can introduce you to young players who have double hip operations. I have heard Dr Pat O'Neill talk about this and what he said actually frightened me. At that stage it was something the orthopaedics were warning us about but now we are seeing it for ourselves."
Although Walsh has lost the job he was appointed to in August, this is not a new problem. In recent years there has been ongoing strife in Wexford trying to find a workable compromise between school interests and those of the county minor management teams. As one teacher put it: "They (students) were being flogged. They were training Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and playing a game at the weekend and they might be playing other sports as well. Parents were telling us they had to sign notes saying they had no time to do their homework. At the end of the day the lads don't go to school to hurl; they go there to do their Leaving Cert."
One father who wished to remain anonymous for his son's sake -- fearing it might have repercussions for his hurling career -- spoke about his experience of burnout. His son has been hurling for Wexford since his teens and this year played at under-21 level. He has also represented the county in Gaelic football and soccer. This year he was told that one of his hips needs surgery and its lack of mobility is like what you would expect in a 70-year-old. The cause is wear and tear from playing too much sport and not having sufficient rest periods. Shocking as it is, the case is not uncommon.
"I would say he has to accept a part of the responsibility for it himself," says his father. "We would have had arguments where we'd say, 'Hold on there, you are doing too much', but he always loved sport and he found it hard to say no. It was very hard to stop him. We had arguments but trying to get that through to a 17- or 18-year-old is difficult.
"The real harm is being done in hardcore training. I was at 90 per cent of his training sessions through the different age groups so I saw exactly what they were doing. Last year he started to feel pain when he trained. After every session he came home with a pain in his groin, back or whatever, but obviously he wanted to stay playing. In the last six months he noticed he wasn't running properly and his standard had dropped a bit. He began training in a certain way to mask the pain. To get through training. He felt if he stopped his career would suffer and he'd be forgotten about.
"He loved his hurling and all he wanted to do was play. So he went to a physio of his own accord and he was sent for scans and he was told the mobility in his hip was the same as a 70-year-old person. He (doctor) said it was the worse case he'd seen of a player of that age. He needs an operation but that will mean he'll miss a year and he's worried this will affect his prospects of making the Wexford panel. Recovery is very painful. He is in college with a lad who has had two hips done and he is still in pain six months later."
This parent has seen at first-hand the enormous pressure placed on young players carrying injuries, citing an example of a county manager who told him and others that if they were not fit for training they were being left off the panel. "I saw a lot of the sessions they were doing in January and February, and the amount of running they were doing was phenomenal for young kids.
"When they were with the county minors, one night they played a challenge match in Carlow at 7.0 and he had to work that night in a pub and nightclub, and they were training again the next morning at 7.0 in Wexford Park. They may have trained again on Monday because it was a Bank Holiday weekend."
Devereux claimed that four young Wexford players have had double hip replacements. The anonymous parent tells of being at a schools game where two 15-year-olds snapped their cruciates.
Walsh says he is not the villain of the piece. "To say that I was 'sacked' is a scandalous thing to happen to an amateur volunteer," he told the Irish Independent. "The chairman needs to step aside now and Croke Park needs to come down and investigate what happened and decide what is for the good of Wexford GAA.
"I don't know how you can 'sack' a man who is an amateur volunteer. I stand on my record here regards coaching and I've never looked for a shilling for anything I've ever done for the GAA. This whole thing of 'burnout' is a red herring. It [training] is happening at senior level, it's happening at under 21 level and it's happening at minor level, all around the country.
"I know these lads are playing plenty of hurling, what I wanted to do was some strength and conditioning, which every county is doing now at this level. I wouldn't be doing it if there was a level playing pitch, but everybody knows that counties are all breaking these training rules."
Petty politics, as much a part of Wexford GAA as anywhere else, is a stifling influence on progress and reform. It has played a part in this divisive episode, too, muddying the waters with personal agendas. But one thing is clear and beyond dispute: burnout in young GAA players is anything but a red herring. It is a profound physical and mental health concern.
Once this controversy subsides, Wexford will realise it has struck a blow for common sense, from which the county can only benefit in the long run.