Loughgiel Shamrocks PJ focused on All-Ireland bid
It's Monday night in the Ramada Hotel at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. PJ O'Mullan junior, who led Loughgiel Shamrocks to only their second All-Ireland club hurling title back last March is about to pick up the manager of the year award, ahead of Michael Bannon, Stephen Baxter and Neil Lennon, but he doesn't know it yet.
Instead, he is enthusing about the latest field trip that Loughgiel have taken as they move up through the gears before their All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Galway club St Thomas' in early February.
Last weekend, the Shamrocks played University College Dublin on Saturday at Belfield and then Anthony Daly's Dublin on the Sunday.
While the result may not have gone in their favour against the Dubs, they had different aims.
“For us, it's about trying to get up to that speed,” said O'Mullan.
“They were National League champions two years ago. It gives us a chance to try and raise our standards. They are going well, we are going well, and we came through the weekend with no major injuries. That's the big concern at this time of the year so it was a very worthwhile weekend.”
By this stage, O'Mullan and his coaches are experienced in keeping themselves right over the winter months.
They know that too much training leads to fatigue of the mind as well as the body, so they gave their players a few weeks off after the Ulster campaign.
Once they came back, they spent five weeks working on their core strength, gradually re-introducing ball work on Saturdays.
As ever, Jim Nelson was overseeing those sessions.
O'Mullan enthused: “I keep saying this, but he's the best coach I have ever seen. I'm only talking from a GAA background, he's just a top class coach, a top class man and if I could learn even a tenth of what he is teaching me, it's a privilege. His coaching is down to a tee.
“Against Dublin, the proof was in the pudding. There were a lot of things they did well and it was what we were coaching.”
The weekend away was a useful opportunity to look at fringe players also, a necessity when you have so many bursting to get into the first 15, as the manager explained: “We carry a squad of 30 and sometimes people in the squad can get agitated, they are looking game time. Believe it or not, it is the boys from 16-30, they are the main men in the squad for the boys from 1-15 to be as good as they are. Without them, the team wouldn't be as successful as it is.”
Loughgiel face St Thomas' in Parnell Park, Dublin, on February 9.
Meanwhile, a series of pre-season tournaments begins this weekend in inter-county hurling.
In the Bord Na Mona Walsh Cup, Antrim travel to face Carlow at Dr Cullen Park on Sunday.
New manager Kevin Walsh sounded a note of caution when he said: “The whole job is significantly different than what I had anticipated.
“There are aspects of this job that I have to work on, that I didn't realise I had to. It is going to take a lot longer than I had thought.”
While it is his first game for Antrim, he will be experimenting, as he said: “I am just trying to see a few lads, but we will still be trying to put out a strong team.”
The Kehoe Cup has a host of Ulster participation with Derry playing the hurlers of Trinity College Dublin at Clanna Gael, Ringsend, Armagh are at Mobhi Road on the ground of Dublin's Na Fianna, up against St Patrick's Drumcondra.
Ger Monan's Down are at Bray Emmetts to play familiar foes Wicklow and Queen's are in Darver to face Louth.