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Injuries sadly inevitable in this era of conditioning

By Declan Bogue

Published 27/01/2016

Mr Muscle: Mattie Donnelly shows off his bulging biceps as he lifts the Dr McKenna Cup, proving that he wintered better than most
Mr Muscle: Mattie Donnelly shows off his bulging biceps as he lifts the Dr McKenna Cup, proving that he wintered better than most

Wintered well. Ten years ago, you would hear that phrase a lot around the Gaelic grounds in the early part of the season.

It's strange to think that the National League used to be played over the winter. One game in October, another in November. Those games were often played out as an unreality, county sides wearing a primitive, long-sleeved jersey that would be replaced by shinier, short-sleeved garments come summer.

It lead to some odd results. In 1999, Fermanagh beat then All-Ireland champions Meath in the league on one of those Sundays with the world closing in. In the clubhouse afterwards, all the giddy talk was of how Liam McBarron had taught the great Trevor Giles a lesson. What delusion!

Back then, there wasn't an eye batted when the county teams filed into the clubhouse for a couple of pints of stout before making their way to the post-game match up the road.

Those days are gone though. The last couple of times Donegal have played midweek McKenna Cup matches, they have brought their own chef to serve them nutritious meals after the game. Far from golden nectar or creamy porter, players emerge from dressing rooms with a foul-coloured protein drink, ready for their chicken fillets.

In order to be a part of the county game, you need to live the life. Owen Mulligan reminded us of this a couple of weeks ago after attending Tyrone's first game of the season against Queen's.

"I couldn't believe how lean they were, how they were fitting into their jerseys. When we were playing there used to be a couple of bulges in the stomach!" he said. "Obviously, they were training by themselves over Christmas."

Strength and conditioning is a year-round venture now. For example, look at the biceps on Mattie Donnelly in the picture accompanying this column. You don't get guns of that calibre without a lot of work and eating right.

We just wonder if this demanding lifestyle is draining something from the players themselves. Since becoming an entertaining columnist, former Donegal two-time All-Star Kevin Cassidy has written about his process of letting the body go a little, in order to allow it to lean up in time for the summer.

His annual routine was to go for a drink on Easter Sunday before placing a self-imposed alcohol ban until the first day of the Championship. As the weeks went by, his new honed body would become a psychological tool, demonstrating his readiness for battle.

The fastest-growing trend in the Western World is that of vanity. Entire industries are exploding off the back of it.

In 2013, figures from the 'United States Bureau of Labor Statistics' reported that the number of jobs under the 'fitness and recreational sports centres' reached 484,200 in 2010. They expected that number to grow by 23.3% over the next decade.

Within that number, personal training and instructor jobs are driving the upward surge. Those jobs are expected to grow by 31.7 per cent by the year 2020.

People are hooked on looking good and its consequential sidekick, feeling good.

With all the advances in sports science and training, our inter-county footballers and hurlers have conformed to the Ancient Greek ideal of the body beautiful.

Not every single player has the ability to get into this shape. Metabolism and genetics can play their part, but that does not mean there is no room for them in the modern game.

We cite Sean Quigley as the latter-day Colin Corkery as an example. However, the longevity of such players will be open to question. By the time he reached 33, chronic back pain and too much time spent driving had Corkery retired from all football.

The danger is that these kinds of players, who major on technique and skill, are in danger of extinction. After being in the centre of 100 minutes of pure war last Saturday night in the McKenna Cup final, former Sydney Swans player Chrissy McKaigue told a couple of reporters that the GAA is amateur in name only if it can produce such an athletic battle.

Be careful. This is where the danger lies.

On Monday night at our table at the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, Mickey Harte reminisced about his season playing rugby for Omagh.

His enjoyment for the game came from his speed and his skill at kicking at fly-half. But back then, he made the point that rugby was an evasion game.

Right now, it's a game of seeking collisions. Gaelic football has followed the same path.

It has become a game of collisions and concussions. Inevitable, sad and dangerous.

Belfast Telegraph

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