Antrim fit and raring to go with short, sharp training sessions
It was a night towards the end of October that really set Sean McVeigh’s heart on another year with Antrim.
Mixing among the great and good at the 2014 GAA All-Stars Awards in Dublin’s Convention Centre, the Ballymena All-Saints man did not feel like an imposter in the company.
“I know for a fact that we train as much as any team that end up playing at the start of August and end ofSeptember,” is his reasoning.
“The difference is that the others are getting longer at it,” he adds.
By that time, he knew 2015 would be different. Frankie Fitzsimons was already named as Antrim’s new manager, stepping up from selector to the managerial post.
He wasted no time in getting in renowned strength and conditioning expert Mike McGurn alongside him to give Antrim the necessary physical tools to compete.
“We are putting in the same work and not getting the same success, so you want to start every new year afresh,” explains McVeigh, a schoolteacher, who will be 30 by the time the new campaign rolls around.”
The first coup McGurn organised was to broker a deal with Gym Co, the progressive gymnasium in Belfast with ties to Saffrons forward Paddy Cunningham, for the use of their facilities gratis.
Two separate groups of players do their conditioning work — a group in Belfast in Gym Co, while those from the south east end of the county visit the new club gym in Randalstown.
In answer to those who maintain that today’s training regimes are burning players out, McGurn has already stressed that his own sessions are incredibly tight and fast. McVeigh backs up that assertion.
“Forty minutes, boom, home,” he emphasises.
“We are literally working, as hard as I have ever worked, but it is 40 minutes and you are finished.
“Mick’s a sportsman, he has made his career out of sport. He tests us the whole time to see if we are at the baseline score we got at the very start.
If you are underneath it, you are not allowed to train because he will know if you are fatigued or tired.”
He continues: “He is taking boys with injuries, or maybe older boys like myself and saying, ‘look, you maybe don’t need to do as many of these type of sessions, we will give you a flexibility session instead’.
"So he is really personalising the training and we are all training to our individual needs.”
On the pitch, manager Fitzsimons is casting an eye over the under-21 players he has brought in to audition.
As manager of that age group last year, the Lamh Dhearg man is already familiar with the personnel, and McVeigh has also been taken by the rise of standards.
“It’s not running around the pitch 200 times, again, it is short and sharp and working hard and getting it done,” he adds.
“Frankie is doing it all with the science, using the GPS heart monitors and all that.
Taking Antrim to another level that we haven’t been to and that it very evident early on.”
To date, McVeigh’s county career has been rather stopstart. He didn’t get to enjoy the boom times of Liam Bradley’s first term in charge. Instead
he left at the start of the 2009 season for England to gain his teaching qualifications and experience and captained a London side that beat Fermanagh in the 2011 All-Ireland qualifiers.
The following year they ran Antrim to two points and Bradley remarked that McVeigh would get a call-up in short time as it was then widely known that he was on his way home.
His first year back was Frank Dawson’s rather unfortunate one-year spell in 2013, characterised by player walk-outs and a very public falling-out.
Bradley was back last year but the magic could not be rekindled as they languished in Division Four of the National League.
The 2015 McKenna Cup campaign will begin with a tie against St Mary’s College, but after that, it’s Armagh and Tyrone within a few days of each other.
Far from seeing it as daunting, McVeigh is keen to get out there and begin playing football in the New Year.
“You want to go out and play the best teams. Myself and loads of other people don’t consider ourselves a Division Four team.
“We want to be testing ourselves against the bigger teams and the better teams. Hopefully that will stand us in good stead for the start of the National League.”