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Joe Kernan: Lift winter ban and watch spring in everybody's step

A proposal to allow counties to return to collective training sooner than the January 1 date which is now in place is expected to be discussed at an important Central Council meeting in Croke Park on November 12.

The proposal follows representations from various counties urging that there should be a relaxation in the current winter training ban on county squads which embraces the months of November and December.

However, there will be no immediate change as the formal green light for a modification of the policy which is now in place would have to be given at Congress next year meaning in effect that a change would not become operative until next winter.

There have, of course, been reports that the ban, brought in to ensure that players were given an opportunity to avoid burn-out and to allow club programmes to be completed, has been flouted in various counties in the recent past.

Yet despite strong opposition to the ban from a number of leading county team bosses, a motion to reduce the closed season term was rather surprisingly defeated at Congress in Mullingar in April.

Now there appears to be a strong feeling that the ban should be relaxed although for four Ulster managers — Eamon McEnaney (Monaghan), John Brennan (Derry), John O’Neill (Fermanagh) and Jim McGuinness (Donegal) — they would surely have wished that this had applied last year.

All four were then just newly appointed and had only minimal time in which to assemble and prepare their squads for this season’s campaign.

This certainly did not prove to the detriment of Brennan and McGuinness, though, who subsequently steered their sides into the Ulster final while the latter also brought Donegal to the National Football League Division Two title.

For O’Neill, however, his first season in charge of Fermanagh proved a torrid spell with the team languishing in Division Four of the league and making a tame exit from the All-Ireland football qualifiers at the hands of minnows London.

Monaghan boss McEnaney has already expressed strong views on the November-December ban and hopes that it will be relaxed given the demands which he now feels are being made on county managers and players.

And I agree totally with his sentiments which to me make a lot of sense. When you think about it, as things stand the GAA is probably the only sport which does not have a properly structured pre-season.

It is ludicrous to expect players to go straight into inter-county action in the first week of January in competitions such as the McKenna Cup, the McGrath Cup and the O’Byrne Cup without some sort of organised preparation.

I know that well-meaning managers and coaches will perhaps have furnished players with personal fitness programmes to follow but collective training is nonetheless an absolute necessity to monitor standards, massage morale and evolve tactics.

It is ironic that the players who are most at risk from burn-out – those who turn out at Under 21 and senior levels for their club and county and who also represent their college or university — are the very players who are actually flat out during November and December because of Higher Education games!

Players in this bracket are expected to serve five teams over the course of the season and we all know that each of those teams will expect commitment from them thus making perhaps excessive demands on them.

It does not make sense to me and I would hope that when the November Central Council meeting takes place a more enlightened approach will be taken on this particular issue.

Besides, if players are plunged straight into action, the risk of injury is greater and given that the weather forecast for the winter months is anything but encouraging, the recovery process will certainly not be facilitated.

It would be much more feasible and practical if the GAA were to ban collective county team training for the month of November and then relax this ban for December.

In practical terms, the chances of squads doing any meaningful work over the last ten days of December would be remote anyway so the ban would really only be lifted for two-thirds of the month.

It would help new managers to become more familiar with their squads, encourage players to have themselves at a reasonable level of fitness and perhaps lead to a better overall standard of play in the opening weeks of the new term.

If such a scenario were to pertain, then it would be to the benefit of players, managers and the paying customers.

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