We must prepare our boys properly
When the semi-finals of the Allianz Football League were staged last Sunday, it was quite obvious that all four protagonists – Tyrone, Kildare, Dublin and Mayo – had reached levels of fitness that cannot quite be matched by other sides at this point in time.
That does not mean of course that teams such as Donegal, Cork and Kerry will have attained the same standard of conditioning by the time the championship comes round.
Yet while some counties continue to raise the bar in terms of fitness and stamina, this should not be allowed to camouflage the fact that the GAA is perhaps the only major team sporting body that does not countenance a pre-season.
The passage of time has convinced me that it is now essential we should devote the month of December to a detailed pre-season programme rather than have players labouring through matches in January before eventually easing to anything approaching full match fitness by the latter stages of March.
It is inconceivable that players should be asked to participate in full-on games in competitions such as the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup without adequate preparation.
While it is to the credit of the league semi-finalists and those few other teams who now find themselves close to full championship fitness, I think it is imperative that a proper pre-season itinerary should be introduced in order to facilitate the greater enjoyment of players in January games, to enhance the fare that will be on offer to spectators and to make the various provincial competitions at this period even more meaningful.
Tyrone and Dublin are setting the benchmark in terms of fitness while Kieran McGeeney has his Kildare side close to concert pitch.
Red Hands boss Mickey Harte was forced to draft in several newcomers when his side was denuded of a raft of experience towards the end of last year but within three months he has transformed a team that was beaten by 10 points by Kerry in the All-Ireland qualifiers last year into a team that is capable of winning both the Allianz League title and the All-Ireland crown.
In Ronan McNamee, Ryan McKenna, Connor McAliskey, Darren McCurry, Niall Morgan and Conor Clarke, Harte has unearthed gems that look set to enjoy long careers in the Tyrone jersey. And their fitness level, passion and commitment to the cause are obvious – and this is without the benefits of a proper pre-season.
Donegal on the other hand stumbled through the McKenna Cup and revealed indifferent form in the league but this does not mean that they should be treated lightly in terms of retaining their Ulster crown.
Jim McGuinness is much too shrewd to despatch an ill-prepared team into battle and I firmly believe that by the time their showdown with Tyrone in the Ulster Championship comes round Donegal, doubtless with all their big guns in place, will be chomping at the bit.
There is no doubt that if Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty are on fire up front and Neil Gallagher is fully fit at midfield with the McGee brothers and perhaps a fully-fit Karl Lacey to oversee the defence, Donegal will not be short on guile, experience and skill in their bid to retain their silverware.
The vast majority of county teams are now trained by people with significant qualifications – people indeed who see it as their mission to bring the very best out of the players both individually and collectively.
The suggestion that some teams – perhaps including Donegal? – are 'saving themselves' for the championships has a hollow ring to it.
Maybe there are one or two dark horses out there whose identity is unknown to us all right now but I don't think that a major element of surprise will be sprung from any quarter in the All-Ireland championship.
Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the line-up for the semi-finals will not differ all that greatly from that which did battle for the right to enter the league decider last Sunday.
While the league cannot always be interpreted as an accurate barometer for the championship, I think it can be assumed that the teams who have attained promotion and reached divisional finals will bring something extra to the championship table.
But while Donegal were relegated, Kerry survived that ignominy by the skin of their teeth and Cork laboured in mid-table having held the league title for the past three years, these sides will nonetheless still be viewed as serious contenders for the 'big one'.
And that's because we are all aware that when push comes to shove, the sides which are backboned by tradition, physique, confidence and flair can be relied upon to scale any peak.
Donegal can be knocked off their pedestal but their depressing league campaign should not be allowed to breed the slighted element of complacency on the part of those teams who might believe that they have the armoury to do just that.
And, yes, that includes Tyrone.