Mickey Harte: Inter-county game has not become a chore
When Tyrone won their first All-Ireland title in 2003, Mickey Harte revealed how a diet of just one collective training session and a couple of localised gym sessions provided their early season nourishment.
It jumped off the page at a time when the diary entries of the average inter-county footballer were gathering some serious pace. Tyrone won a League earlier that year adhering to such a sparse schedule.
Almost 14 years on Harte, one of the managers on the GAA/GPA All-Stars tour sponsored by Opel to Abu Dhabi this weekend, put that approach in the context of the game today. No way could they get away with such minimalism now.
"Back then, we had a lot of highly talented players who were coming to the best of their ability. In many ways, they had the confidence to know they would be up there with the best without working their shirts off. We were lucky then," he reflected.
"Also, there wasn't a huge emphasis put on the League at that time, so you could afford to do that. In many ways, because we won the League and went on to win the All-Ireland, the League took on a new significance. And that's not being boastful, it's a fact of life.
"People didn't think the League mattered that much. I remember Mick O'Dwyer coming into our changing-room after we beat Laois in the League final and he was congratulating us but said, more or less, 'well done, boys - but this is not the Championship'.
"The League we won in 2003 was the easiest League won ever because the big guns weren't there but we took it seriously - we needed to do that to establish ourselves at that level," he said.
"It worked at that time, but you couldn't see it working now. You'd have to apply yourself more."
That said, Harte never sees the quickening pace of inter-county life between the games as the burden it is portrayed in some quarters.
Players commit to the schedule because they want to, not because they have to, he insists.
"I think it's overplayed that it's a chore. If that's the case I wonder why they go there - they should stay at home. If they don't like going there they should pick up a snooker cue or a tennis bat or do something like that.
"There's no pressure on, but they like to put themselves in those positions."
Harte rails against the idea that managers are uncompromising and place too many demands.
"I sometimes have to tell players to take it easy, hold back. I never had to do that in the 1990s," he said.
"But now I'm saying 'I don't think you should train tonight, you've done enough' or 'you need to take care'. I actually hold people back rather than push them on. To me, that doesn't reflect people who aren't enjoying what they are doing - they really are.
"This is the other myth out there, that all managers are just out for themselves and don't care tuppence for the welfare of the player. That you have a game, you want these players and you want to take them away from everyone else.
"But if we have a player who was training for college and he was training that night, I wouldn't have it. If a player had a match the day after we have training, I wouldn't let him train, never mind demand that he trains."
Harte is heading for his 14th year in charge of the Tyrone senior team but does so without the security of an extra year or two beyond 2017, the type of arrangement he enjoyed in the past.
It was sought but not acceded to at the end of this season despite a first Ulster title won since 2010.
His refusal, and that of the Tyrone players, to co-operate with RTE, limiting exposure for sponsors, has been cited as a barrier but this he shot down firmly yesterday.
"That's a myth altogether," he said. "The sponsors have never spoken directly about this being an issue at all. That's just stuff that gets into the grapevine, people repeat it and it becomes the truth.
"It's nothing to do with the sponsors or any particular stance that may or may not be taken.
"I am happy in what I am doing. If it turns out that somebody believes it is not good enough, well, that's their choice.
"There is a great group of players here at the minute, they have good confidence in each other and I think that we will work together for some time."
Progress was made in 2016, he feels, despite falling short of where they finished the previous year. But a provincial title soothes that shortfall.
"In many ways it has been a bit of progress in that those players have developed and matured and have something to show for it. If you were looking at it in a cold light of day, semi-final (2015) v quarter-final (2016) isn't progression in the raw statistics of life but I think there has been progress made. Now the proof of the pudding is 'can we build on that for next year?"
The 2017 season will see the introduction of a mark for kick-outs caught cleanly between the two 45s. Harte has always argued against overdoing rule changes, and this qualifies in that category for him.
"If you're introducing it with the key purpose in mind of increasing the instances of high fielding then you should not be able to take a mark at your chest or diving to take the ball, those should be ruled out," he argued.
"The only way you should be able to get a mark is if it's clearly caught above your head and you're off the ground but that's hard to judge and it would be adding more difficulty for the referee."
He wonders if the new measure will disrupt fluency and certainly doesn't believe the absence of a mark affected this year's championship. But he doesn't want to be seen as negative.
"People may say he's always giving out about the black card or whatever, that's not what I want to do, but I think you ought to be allowed to have an opinion that's different to others without being seen as negative.
"I am an optimistic person. I really do feel there is a serious amount of negativity around reporting and reflecting on Gaelic games.
"I think we need to take a step back. For example, they are not comparing like with like in terms of the quality of games we get sometimes. We never saw the games back in the day, we never saw anything on the television until the All-Ireland semi-finals and final.
"Even then, if you were to compare those games with modern day games, they are not the gold-dust that they appeared to be at the time."
Harte has welcomed Sean Cavanagh's decision to extend his inter-county career.
"It is superb to see him with the enthusiasm of a youngster," he said. "I knew when he walked off the pitch that day in Croke Park, 'this cannot be the end of your career. This is not right. What you've given to Gaelic games and what you've given to Tyrone. . .'
"The way he's dedicated himself and most of all the way he behaved himself on the field - I honestly never saw him lift his hand to a player in any aggressive fashion, and there's not many players you can say that about because there's always somebody who has a bit of red mist here or there."