Belfast Telegraph

Talent frozen out by crazy schedule

By Declan Bogue

Last January, Tyrone's Joe McMahon stood against a wall in the Athletic Grounds, while a semi-circle of reporters penned him in.

The Omagh man had just won the Dr McKenna Cup and was answering all the usual questions – 'Is this an omen? What did you think of the young lads?'

Normally, reporters will only detain players for around four to five minutes, depending on the circumstances, their eloquence and, most importantly, the weather.

That evening, McMahon's teeth were chattering as a persistent wind howled up the tunnel, adding insult to the injury of his sodden kit.

One reporter asked if that evening was the coldest he had ever played in, to which big laid-back Joe replied: "Have you ever been up at Greencastle?" – a venue that practically looks down on the rest of Tyrone – before going into the dressing rooms and proceeding straight to the showers still in his kit.

Last Sunday, Tyrone wing-back Ciaran McGinley spoke about their win over Queen's. His white jersey was so soaked through that you could read the writing on his baselayer top underneath.

Connor McAliskey was much later in getting down the tunnel and he granted some interview time. After about the fifth question, we could see his body shuddering as the cold began biting into his muscles, the effects of adrenalin from the game wearing off.

His voice became shaky with involuntary spasms. Although he wasn't complaining and was pleasantly answering all queries, it wasn't right, and we sent him into the sanctuary of piping hot water and fluffy towels.

At one stage, Mattie Donnelly came out of the dressing room without his top on, the door swinging open to emit a puff of steam from the showers, and disappeared into the physio room. A hardy bunch they are in Trillick.

One hour up the road in Owenbeg, Derry manager Brian McIver had paced the sideline in the first half of their game, tutting at his side's litany of handling errors. He thought their inability to keep possession was a by-product of carelessness and considered giving them a piece of his mind at half-time.

When they got into the dressing room though, his anger turned to sympathy.

"You were looking at lads at half-time and they were literally freezing," said McIver.

"Before seeing them, I would have been annoyed at them for dropping a ball. Then, when you saw them, you realised their hands were like icebergs. You have to take that into consideration. The conditions were terrible."

There were some newcomers to the Derry panel on Sunday, and if some of them were cut before the League or the Championship, it would be a great pity indeed if they were judged on that performance.

Mercifully, McIver understands their plight.

A few years back, if a shock result occurred during the National League, the usual recourse was to throw out the old cliché of it being 'only the league'.

That is not the case now. Managers no longer use the National League for experimental purposes. It is important to win, or at least be extremely competitive in every game as a vague correlation has emerged between those who perform well in the top flight and those that last the pace in the Championship.

Nobody was surprised that of the last four teams in the race for Sam Maguire, three were league semi-finalists.

The only place left to try out new talent therefore is the McKenna, O'Byrne and McGrath Cups, and the FBD League.

It seems a pity that players are being judged solely on their play during one of the most inhospitable months.

What further complicates matters are the never-ending pre-seasons GAA inter-county teams are wedded to.

Pete McGrath was appointed Fermanagh manager on November 7. As Fermanagh were knocked out of the Championship in June, the earliest they could return to training – as per the GAA's winter training policy – was November 15.

Yet, as has been publicly acknowledged, the late appointment of McGrath is being cited as a reason for Fermanagh being behind other counties in their pre-season preparations.

In professional sports, there is an off-season practice culture were players might work on their deficiencies. Given the way inter-county, club, university and International Rules seasons all meld into each other, we don't have that.

Studies are highlighting how dangerous this practice is, with players requiring hip operations in their mid-20s.

In the GAA, we determine six weeks to be way behind the curve.

Madness. Pure madness.

Belfast Telegraph

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