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Joe Kernan: Playing by the rules? Give me a break ...

Is it just me or are the words ‘close season’ beginning to grate rather too much? Every time I turn round it seems that people are consumed with the Croke Park edict that county team squads are banned from collective training in November and December.

Surveys have been done, it seems, which prove that within some counties it is business as usual with the Headquarters decree non-existent. And anecdotal evidence, too, would suggest that the close season rule, like others within the GAA’s Official Guide, is simply there to be broken.

We are told that the two-month break from activity for county players will benefit them, of course. However, I beg to differ.

Rather than becoming paranoid about the close season we should become much more focused on an alternative term — pre-season.

Is there any major team sport at present in the world apart from GAA that does not have a proper pre-season period during which players can prepare properly for the physical endeavours they will face with their teams from January 9 onwards?

Could you imagine soccer and rugby players rushing headlong into their competitive season without taking the necessary precautions to ensure that they are fit and sufficiently honed for action?

Let’s examine the scenario that pertains within the GAA right now. County squad members are barred from any collective training in November and December yet, even on top of the Christmas excesses, they will be expected to line out with their teams in early January in the hope that they can hit the ground running.

This to me is a non-starter. I believe I have a much better idea. Why not designate November as a closed month for ALL players irrespective of their status? At present, club and university players, who ironically are deemed the most vulnerable in terms of burn-out, are able to play away during November and December with no one seeming to care too much about the demands this makes on them.

In urging that November should be a totally closed month, I would suggest December should be the official pre-season period when county bosses could oversee collective training — most likely indoors given our recent weather patterns — and hone their squads in advance of the new season rather than see their players thrown in at the deep end.

It’s no big surprise that many seasoned players are conspicuous by their absence from the McKenna Cup. I would not blame them in the least. Why shouldn’t they pace themselves for the demands of the business end of the season?

There are some high-profile players of course who rarely miss a game for their county — Daniel Hughes tends to be ever-present for Down, Sean Cavanagh is rarely an absentee from Tyrone’s line-up and Brendan Donaghy’s imposing presence invariably solidifies the Armagh rearguard.

An adequate pre-season programme in December will help to ensure that injuries are kept to a minimum at the start of the season, that physiotherapy bills are significantly reduced and that players are spared the frustration of sitting out early-season games because of preventable niggly injuries.

More and more is expected of our leading GAA players now. Paying spectators and television audiences want to feast on a diet of top-class action but players can hardly be expected to give of their best when they’ve had little or no preparation.

A number of managers have been vociferous to date in condemning the whole close season concept, arguing that university players can continue to play while their county colleagues must kick their heels.

The sooner there is uniformity the better. I see no reason why the fixtures programme cannot be completed by the end of October which would lead us into hibernation in November and then a re-awakening from our slumber in December.

Perhaps the Christmas period might see players — and indeed managers — slip from the high standards they set themselves but we will forgive them that.

After all, the first three weeks of December will offer them time to recapture their appetite and sharpen their reflexes.

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