Joe Kernan: We must guard against player burnout
It’s either a feast or a famine in the GAA when it comes to fixtures scehdules.
When it was decided that a formal ban should be imposed on collective training and matches involving county teams during the months of November and December, this was accepted - albeit with some reluctance - in the spirit of ensuring that potential burn-out would be avoided.
Yet here we are just over two weeks into a new campaign and amateur players are being asked to play three games within ten days!
I know that the Ulster Council is keen to package the Gaelic Life Dr McKenna Cup as a crisp, compact tournament that embraces January only and will not intrude into the initial phase of the National League.
But to ask players who have not been together for many weeks - and who may have, with some justification, enjoyed their Christmas festivities - to embark on what is a particularly demanding programme without what I, for one, would consider to be adequate preparation is dicing with danger.
There are not too many other sports, I would suggest, in which similar-style demands would be made on prticipants.
Cognisance must also be taken of the fact that grounds can be particularly heavy at this time of the year thus imposing extra demands in terms of stamina on players.
Obviously there is no quick-fix but maybe it would be worth re-considering the overall merits of the close season.
The McKenna Cup, indeed, may have proceeded smoothly to date and undoubtedly some new talent has been unearthed. But this must not disguise the fact that substantial early demands are being made on players.
Maybe those teams who have not reached the semi-finals of the competition will bemoan the fact that they will not get an extra game - or possibly two - before the league starts but Down, Armagh and Donegal, who have all reached the last four, have negotiated difficult itineraries so far.
For Queen’s, though, it was business as usual during November and December - not a bit of wonder they caught Cavan cold on opening day - as they participated in the Ryan Cup with manager Aidan O’Rourke blending his side together well.
It is perhaps no surprise that they remain in the hunt for the McKenna Cup - they have maximised their resources and the opportunity which they have been afforded to ruffle a few county feathers.
But when you consider that county teams must now face into a seven-game National League programme - and that’s before the closing stages are reached - spanning an eleven-week period it can be clearly seen that there are considerable demands on players.
I do not believe it is totally fair to ask players to make an immediate return to competitive action following the so-called close season - I would have thought that maybe the last couple of weeks of December, even allowing for the festive season, could be regarded as ‘open house’ for collective training.
I feel sure that managers would welcome this, particularly those new bosses who are still trying to become acclimatised to the nore demanding environment in which they find themselves.
In years gone by, the McKenna Cup may have been regarded as an ‘easing in’ period - a chance for managers and players to find their feet.
And while this is still true to come extent, it is equally true that teams like to flourish in competitions they enter regardless of their status.
Down are obviously keen to retain the McKenna Cup, Donegal have made it clear from the start that they mean business, Armagh have aspirations of getting their name on the trophy - and Queen’s are still hot in pursuit of what would be an historic achievement.
On the other side of the coin, new Antrim manger Liam Bradley is talking up his side despite their three defeats to date, Monaghan boss Seamus McEnaney finds himself with plenty of food for thought and Derry’s Damian Cassidy has already discovered that management, even at this early stage of the season, can impose its own pressures.
Malachy O’Rourke is optimistic that Fermanagh can perhaps progress further than they did last year while Tommy Carr is now beginning to find his feet with Cavan.
And this takes us neatly to Tyrone. They stepped off a plane from Orlando to go straight in against Down - and lost - but looked a little sharper against St Mary’s before engaging a rather higher gear against Monaghan on Sunday.
All of which would suggest that manager Mickey Harte is building towards that mouth-watering National League opener against Dublin on Saturday week.
I was very impressed with Tyrone’s new midfielder Aidan Cassidy and with old hand Stephen O’Neill against Monaghan - here is a fusion of youth and experience that could help to underscore what is certain to be a bold bid to land back to back All Ireland titles.
Remember, John Devine, Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Ciaran Gourley, Justin McMahon, Collie Holmes, Brian Dooher, Owen Mulligan and Colm McCullagh have still to come back into the frame.
Don’t bet against the Red Hands!