Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Joe Kernan: Success built on hunger games

Crossmaglen Rangers goalkeeper Paul Hearty epitomises the ongoing hunger for success that consumes the team

The pursuit of superb physical fitness, high-level conditioning and supreme pace are goals which are shared by coaches and trainers up and down the country.

Whether it is at school, university, club or county level, the desire to parade teams that are the embodiment of these three qualities is ongoing for the greater part of the year.

The days of lapping playing-fields, engaging in rather meaningless practice games and performing only the most basic of physical exercises are long gone.

Instead, detailed fitness programmes are diligently prepared and followed rigidly both on an individual and collective basis.

Yet there is one other attribute that is absolutely necessary if real progress is to be achieved and that is hunger.

A team’s appetite for success can be quickly gauged from players’ body language during games and often opponents, sensing chinks in their armour in this context, can overpower them without necessarily playing with greater poise and panache.

Hunger has been clearly rampant on more than one front this year.

Cork revealed a high-intensity attitude during the National League to collect their third title on the trot, while Donegal underlined their yearning to be eventually regarded as a great team and not just a good team by winning back to back Ulster titles.

Perhaps the greatest level of hunger was exhibited by Kilkenny both as a unit and on an individual front.

I cannot think of any player in any code who best encapsulated the real meaning of hunger this year than Noel Hickey (pictured).

The veteran Kilkenny defender is no longer a first-choice regular in Brian Cody’s all-conquering side but did that deter him from putting his heart and soul into training this year? Not in the slightest.

Here was a player prepared to shed sweat in training to fulfil the role of substitute and collect his ninth All-Ireland medal.

In doing this, he set a salutary example to those many players who might believe that they have conquered their own personal sporting Everest when they win just one accolade.

As teams begin to focus on the 2013 campaign now that the draws for the various provincial championships in both main codes have been made, you can be sure that managers will be anxious to assess the level of hunger, drive and determination that are prevalent within their squads.

They may be furnished with some players who are more skilful than others, other players who believe they have a point to make to their clubs and families and still more who think that earning a county jersey confers some sort of privileges on them.

Be that as it may, the one element that must unite all these players is hunger.

I have not the slightest doubt that Donegal will show a ravenous appetite to make it a hat-trick of Ulster titles next year and that they will also be keen to become only the third county from Ulster in history to retain the Sam Maguire Cup.

Indeed, manager Jim McGuinness is already talking up Donegal’s hunger levels, no doubt deploying his sports psychology skills to get the squad mind-set fixed early doors.

It does not surprise me that two of the new county bosses in particular Brian McIver (Derry) and Malachy O’Rourke (Monaghan) have made it very plain that they only want players on board who are prepared to put their bodies on the line for their teams.

In other words, players whose hunger is such that they will be prepared to go through a brick wall if necessary.

Towards the end of last year, Tyrone underwent a transition with several players such as Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan, Brian Dooher and Kevin Hughes stepping down.

Yet these players had shown huge hunger for a decade in the side and their exit owed more to Father Time rather than any diminution of their desire to land more trophies.

When Crossmaglen Rangers meet Pearse Og in the Armagh championship final on Sunday they will have players such as Paul Hearty, Aaron Kernan, Oisin McConville, Michael McNamee, Tony Kernan and, Stephen Kernan and Martin Ahern who have been round the block many times but who are still more than anxious to continue to dine at the top table.

Goalkeeper Hearty, who is a father of three, rises each morning at 4.30am, does a milk run to Dublin, returns in time to collect his children from school, attends to household chores and then goes to training. Hunger? He has it in spades.

The great Kerry teams of the past also revealed an innate hunger to be the very best.

They rarely dropped their standards, pride in their performance proving their driving force.

All the training manuals in the world and a wealth of coaching badges can be rendered useless unless hunger is the overriding attribute within any team.

I firmly believe that we shall see hunger manifest itself even more strongly next year when those counties who endured frustration and disappointment this term bid to make amends.

But to do this they will need to quell the energy, zest and appetite of those teams whose successful quest for success ensured that they got to feast at the top table with not even crumbs left on which the also-rans could dine.

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