Declan Bogue: The modern GAA player has a different mindset now - the emphasis is on year-round maintenance
Last year, highly-decorated former Tyrone footballer Enda McGinley was forced to pull on the Errigal Ciaran jersey for one last time.
There was an ulterior motive. He was manager of the club minor team and the reserves were a little short-handed for a Championship match.
Rather than let one of his players risk an injury, he said he would fill out the bench, years after being told he had to retire on medical grounds.
He was called into action for the last few minutes. After going through his stretches, he was set to run onto the field when he was called back.
A member of the management team wanted to pop a GPS tracker device into the back of his jersey, prompting a lot of head-shaking and then some chuckling about how serious matters have become that a man approaching his 40s would be tracked by satellite in a reserve football match.
But that’s where the club game is at now.
At this time of year, team photographs of sides winning at all levels — senior, intermediate and junior — will have the signs of management teams that have grown to resemble trimmed down versions of county set-ups.
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GPS tracking systems aren’t commonplace. The cost and the expertise required to operate the system prohibits most clubs from using it, but there are several examples of the top teams using them, trickling down to lower leagues.
Sometime around a decade ago, the use of statistics became widespread. Previously, teams such as Tyrone would have used the late Gerry McDermott to help them in that area, but when a Dublin statistician got tangled in a confrontation with Monaghan’s Tommy Freeman during a league game in 2008, the name of Ray Boyne became famous.
He was then a highly-prized asset when Dublin began their dominance of Gaelic football and was head-hunted by Liam Sheedy when he resumed his role as Tipperary manager.
After their All-Ireland win some weeks ago, Boyne’s role was explained and it showed how sophisticated the job has become since the old days of just counting wides and turnovers.
There is some coincidence that he is now linking up with the Monaghan footballers and another returned manager in Seamus McEnaney, having had to travel to the Oriel County to deliver an apology to Freeman in the company of McEnaney in 2008.
Now, every club serious about measuring their performances have at least one statistician.
When it comes to the physical preparation of a team, it has always been the way that whatever the All-Ireland champions were said to have done prior to their win, the rest of the island would follow.
Former Kerry footballer Tomas O Se was once quoted by Anthony Daly as saying he was sick of listening to the northern counties going on about how to win.
As he said: “‘If they went set dancing twice a week, we’d all be set dancing twice a week!’ And he was right.”
Now, whatever the counties who win at All-Ireland level do is being replicated at club level.
In 2018, Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling title and spoke freely of leathering the head off each other in a boxing club during pre-season.
Last weekend, Maghera club Glen reached their first ever Derry county final. In pre-season, their manager Jude Donnelly had his players gloving up and going at each other in the Loughshore Boxing Club in Ardboe.
That is now the standard required, before a club even get their teeth into pre-season proper. Traditionally, clubs used to show up for a belly-buster of countless laps and sprints, leading to pools of vomit after months of inactivity.
The modern player has a different mindset now. The emphasis now is on year-round maintenance.
Players didn’t retire because they fell out of love with the sport, they retired because they couldn’t face the thought of losing a stone that they put on over the winter and the brutal regimes required to get them back into some sort of order.
There is a body consciousness that is both healthy when seen as a means to an end in terms of preparing sport, and unhealthy when it is taken to extremes.
Gym programmes are now essential. In this area, clubs have caught onto what is good practice. The expertise is out there and in the one growth economy of gymnasiums, it is a competitive market.
Clubs have enlisted highly-qualified fitness trainers to design bespoke training programmes for their panels and link it all to a shared app that players download on their phones to keep track of attendance and progress records of their strength and conditioning work.
Slaughtneil’s camogie team have been well ahead of the curve, which led to their phenomenal run in the All-Ireland Club series, as well as their coach Dominic McKinley’s value in good hard running.
All of this makes for a better product. The club game has never been healthier. But it all comes at a cost. And clubs do not have the scope to keep funding expensive senior set-ups.
At the same time, players will be quick to anger if they see standards slipping.
The only thing that can be said is it is a marvel how they manage under such budget constraints.
Antrim need a strong league and not to worry about Championship
Such is the way the GAA have chosen to do their business this year, the draws for the respective 2020 Championships are in the middle of being carried out, with Ulster's draw today on RTÉ's Morning Ireland radio show.
There could well be some coincidental match-ups made, such as the new Derry manager Rory Gallagher being paired against his former assistant Ryan McMenamin, who succeeded him as the Fermanagh boss.
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, after seeing two of his highly-prized coaching staff walk away this autumn, could land a particularly tough opponent, say reigning Ulster champions Donegal, in the final year of his current arrangement with the county.
Any chance of extending his 17-year and counting reign as Red Hands supremo would look on shaky ground.
And what of Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney? He could get, say, a draw against Armagh and inherit a Monaghan team that have an in-built cause after meekly exiting the Championship to Kieran McGeeney's men over the summer.
It's not popular to say it, but every year is the same.
Every team want to get Antrim and given how they have no real county ground, even being drawn out of the hat first is no consolation to them.
Having attended the Antrim football final last weekend, there is no doubt that there is major talent in the county.
The problem for manager Lenny Harbinson is that most of their big performers would already feel that they owe Antrim nothing.
The performances of the McCann brothers stood out for Cargin but they are beyond the stage in their lives that they need to be training five times a week to play county football.
The Saffrons' season can be judged almost exclusively on how they cope in the Division Four league campaign.
In year three of Harbinson's term, he will know of all the players at his disposal and those that will not buy in.
Last year, they lost their opening league games to Derry - by a point - and Wexford.
They never really recovered after that.
An early start back and a promotion bid is what their season will ultimately be judged upon.
Unless a second-tier competition comes into being, of course.
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