If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail. Do you remember that one? It was very popular round this time ten years ago, when some training equipment failed to show up on time in a tiny Pacific Island named Saipan for a pre-tournament camp.
It wasn’t a former Manchester United midfielder that coined it, but swimmer Mark Spitz. Or maybe he got it from somewhere. Either way, this little platitude became known as something quite prophetic when it belonged in a Chinese fortune cookie.
It’s worth noting that sporting symbols and logos made their way into the GAA around about this time, with Ulster sides on the verge of a breakthrough its most eager proponents.
Last Sunday, the Down team wore training tops during their warm-up, emblazoned with buzz-phrases such as ‘Razor’, ‘Press’, ‘Set’ and ‘Ruthless’. Just before the team huddle, they took these off and put on their jerseys, which sported a Latin phrase on their collar; ‘Acriter et Fideliter.’ It’s the motto of the Swiss Guards, the Pope’s own bodyguards and it means, ‘Courage and Loyalty’, or else ‘Strenously and Loyal’, depending on which Google result you click on.
Is it a coincidence that when Aidan O’Rourke — now James McCartan’s assistant — was with Kieran McGeeney at Kildare, their players had similar messages on their training tops? The defenders had a tally of scores that was acceptable to concede, the forwards a tally to surpass as well as other words and phrases.
O’Rourke has always been a fan of this psychological sharpening. When Armagh were encountering a glass ceiling to their ambition in the early ‘00s, he sent McGeeney a note with the famous Theodore Roosevelt ‘Man in the arena’ speech. McGeeney kept it in his desk at work.
When they finally broke into heaven, Armagh players were wearing orange wristbands and had a copy of Muhammad Ali’s good luck message to them, which was slipped underneath their bedroom door on the morning of the 2002 All-Ireland final.
The following year, Tyrone had religious medals blessed, woven into a red and white thread when they captured the Sam Maguire.
Those examples were captured in widely-read books and interviews and gave ideas to every other manager, who would then dream up something unique to his side. Ulster managers in particular have fully embraced it.
Antrim had the motto; ‘Ní Neart Go Cur Le Chéile’, meaning ‘There is no strength without unity’ on orange armbands when they made it to the 2009 Ulster final.
Fermanagh had a discreet circle on the backs of their jersies with a large ‘T’ above a small ‘M’ the year before when they made the decider, the implication being that the ‘Team’ is bigger than ‘Me’. Last year, they went again with another symbol, an ‘F’ inside a circle, which was meant to signify supporters, county board and the team all in it for Fermanagh.
In 2009, Monaghan faced Derry in the Championship and the numbers on their backs were made up of the names of the squad members.
Last year, Cavan players were stamped on their bodies before going out and getting easily beaten by Donegal. It was in the Ogham format, an early Medieval alphabet that druids used to communicate with each other on standing stones. It meant ‘Gaiscioch’, translating from Irish as ‘Warrior.’
Donegal of course had their wristbands from last year with ‘MA’ [Mental Attitude], ‘GP’ [Gameplan] and ‘20’ [20 controllable factors of the game]. This year, Donegal retain the wristband, but with different messages on them.
The only Ulster county that haven’t experimented, or else kept it to themselves, has been Derry, for whatever reason.
Mayo had adventures in wristbands in 2004, and Dublin had their famous ‘Blue Book’ in 2008, which was a guidebook for each player. It contained such motivational entries as ‘We will do whatever it takes’, and ‘Winning is not everything, it is the only thing.’
Apart from that, these techniques appear to be something that northern Gaels have taken to with greater enthusiasm than their southern counterparts. We had this in mind a few weeks ago when we witnessed former Mayo player David Brady warmly greeting John Morrison, a coach he once played under at the Tyrone and Armagh match. During their time together, Morrison once sent Valentine’s Cards to all the players, addressed ‘From Sam with love’, an episode Brady laughs at now. Maybe he forgets that Mayo reached an All-Ireland final that year.
This kind of thing makes a lot of Gaels squeamish, and in Down, some will shudder at the thought of players requiring motivational statements to help them win games of football.
I leave it though, to Kieran McGeeney’s explanation of these kind of techniques, the year after winning the All-Ireland; “People might say, what has that got to do with Gaelic football? But you have to look for what it has to do with football, look for the motivation in it, because motivation always comes from within.
“Things have an impact on you if you want them to have an impact. Sometimes it’s the small things that can make all the difference.”