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Joe Kernan: We must have the young at heart

There's an old adage — ‘start as you mean to go on’. I have no doubt that it has particular resonance in several elements of life — but I certainly have no great desire to see it applied to one aspect of the new GAA season.

Here we are with 2010 still in its infancy and already there are grave reservations being expressed — and with considerable justification, too, I might add — in connection with the demands being made on many of our more gifted players in the 18-21 age group in particular.

Only this week I have become acquainted with the fact that quite a number of these players are currently engaged in GAA activity, either training or playing matches, six days in the week. I ask you — where is the recovery time in that? And where is the downtime for these players away from the demands of GAA and their studies?

Much too much is being expected of these players and I have serious concerns that the situation could escalate even further unless proper controls are exercised.

The GAA authorities are quite rightly concerned that players in this group who are expected to serve their universities, their counties and their clubs are perhaps under the greatest pressure of all those who participate in our games at various levels.

They need to be protected — from themselves, in fact. And it is imperative that their situation is policed much more effectively.

On Sunday next, for instance, I will be seeing one of my highly-rated Galway players in action for the first time this year in the county’s colours simply because he has been too busy with his university side and other commitments to date. I have not the slightest doubt, too, that many other county managers are patiently awaiting the return of some of their most capable players to the ranks.

I know for a fact that players like these require recovery periods and they need to pace themselves particularly given the intensity levels of inter-county football at the moment.

Today, indeed, quite a number of high-profile Ulster players are getting a breather following yesterday’s Sigerson Cup — Queen’s University v University of Ulster, Jordanstown — match at The Dub yet a lot of them could be on duty with their counties again in the National League at the weekend.

James Kielt (Derry), Justin Crozier (Antrim), Stefan Forker (Armagh), Enda Kenny (Roscommon), Conor McManus (Monaghan) and Shaun O’Neill (Tyrone) are just some of the players who are finding their talented services very much in demand at the moment. Many others are in the same boat, anxious to turn out when asked.

But it is worth pointing out that these players did not have the benefit of a close season. They were still turning out for their university sides towards the end of last year when county players were getting a breather.

Now the university players, having competed in the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup, will return to their county sides when their involvement in the Sigerson Cup is over ready for the hurly-burly of a league and championship period.

I am a great believer in giving players a break — that’s why we have the squad system, after all. It’s not solely to provide cover for injured players — it’s to make sure that excessive demands are not made on individuals.

It is essential that players are allowed to do themselves justice and they most certainly cannot perform to their optimum levels if they are in almost constant action. A lot of the players who are still performing at the highest level many years after making their debuts are doing so because they have long since learned how to pace themselves and how to look after themselves.

Sometimes a player, particularly someone endeavouring to simultaneously serve more than one master, can actually be of more benefit to his team were he to casually unwind rather than spend time punishing himself unnecessarily in sub-zero temperatures on a lonely training ground. Think about it.

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