Belfast Telegraph

Heavy demands of gaelic football have to be tackled

By Declan Bogue

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hobby as 'an activity that you do regularly in your leisure time for pleasure.'

Last week, in the lead-up to Fermanagh's game against Antrim, two-time All-Star Barry Owens gave an interview in which he expressed his dismay at the way Gaelic football has gone.

After becoming a father of twins this year, he belatedly returned to the county panel. At 32-years-old and with 13 years service to the jersey nobody would have blamed him if he had enough. Especially given his two cruciate ligament tears and his heart operations.

But the type of player he is, Owens wanted another go at it.

In the last couple of months, that has involved training every night of the week. It meant playing league matches for his club Teemore Shamrocks and challenge matches midweek for his county. Any spare evening would be spent training. Then there were weekends away with the county squad, bonding, training and more challenge matches.

Last week he said that something should be done to counter this level of commitment. "At the end of the day," he said, "it should be a hobby."

But he is wrong. Gaelic football, at inter-county level, ceased being a hobby some time ago.

Every year we hear of the commitment levels going up a notch, which means the time of players is ever-more in demand.

What happens around the fringes is also worked on and perfected. The Dublin footballers, for example, now are presented with meal boxes after every training to keep them going until the next time they meet.

One high-profile county in Ulster now have a software programme where when the players wake up, they have to log in and record how many hours they slept, how they feel and what they are going to do with the day ahead.

Everything is measured, everything is controlled and monitored. There was a time when reporters used to get a tasty yarn or a funny anecdote from a player that they would enjoy spooling out for a story.

That day has passed too. When players talk about their lives now it is through the prism of the countyman's life. Every defeat is now an 'opportunity to learn', the team will 'run some tweaks and alterations.' Any win is 'only a stepping stone' and 'won't mean anything at all when we play (next opposition).'

The really unlucky fall foul of injury. Last Saturday, Tyrone's Conor Clarke injured his cruciate ligament when playing for his club, Omagh St Enda's in their Championship win over Coalisland.

Now, he enters a long spell of inactivity. His body will be unused to it and perhaps, like another cruciate victim Colm Cooper, he might experience what it is to be robbed of how you are identified. Some hobby.

At club level, it is hardly a hobby either. Of all Gaelic footballers and hurlers, an estimated two per cent are on county squads. Their progress by and large dictates the flow of the season for the other 98 per cent.

While Owens has been slogging himself around the challenge circuit and on the training ground, his clubmates have been waiting patiently for their own season to resume.

My own club, Tempo Maguires played Derrygonnelly three and a half weeks ago before play was suspended to allow the county team ample time to prepare for the visit of Antrim.

Yet now, they are expected to play St Joseph's on Friday night, before regrouping on Sunday and facing Erne Gaels.

Such a spike in activity is crazy and drives players – and significantly in the vortex that does not allow for long-term planning of holidays and weekends away – and their partners mad.

Yet, ask a club player would they go onto a county squad and there are few that would turn it down. The mileage, the profile and benefits that county players accrue, the free boots, gloves and training gear are the icing on the cake.

The cake itself is pride in representing a place, improving as a footballer in a driven environment, and the admiration within your club as a 'county man.'

Those who play Gaelic sport have grown up in that environment. For most, their highest aspiration is to play for their county. They are entirely prepared to put their life on hold for the majority of the year in order to achieve something.

And as long as your body allows, you keep going because there is always another group coming up behind you that are prepared to make the same sacrifices.

We talk about Inter-county careers, as if it is a pre-determined spell, but in reality it is only as long as fate or your body allows.

One thing it's not though, is a hobby.

Belfast Telegraph

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