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Comment: January will be insight into GAA year ahead

By Declan Bogue

It has been just over a decade now since the winning of a McKenna Cup prompted such genuine joy among Down players and supporters in 2008.

After beating Derry, captain Dan Gordon climbed the steps of Casement Park (remember that?) and spoke over the microphone about how this young team were taking their first steps under the new management of Ross Carr and DJ Kane, and their hopes for further silverware.

At the time, the Mournemen had gone 14 years without an Ulster Championship. That record stretches into a quarter of a century this summer as Down begin life in Division Three in a few weeks' time.

A decade can be a very long time in football indeed, but the last 10 years have produced more advancements in preparation and training than any decade prior.

Rather than worrying about that, as many nostalgia peddlers tend towards, there should be an acceptance that this is a mere reflection of the wider advances in technology that affect every facet of our lives.

Sports science now enhances, rather than guides, the principles of team sports.

Ten years ago, for example, it was not uncommon for county teams to produce a set of long-sleeve jerseys for the pre-season and early National League games. That is all gone now, gone with the sight of some players clearly having enjoyed the excesses of the Christmas season.

Little things stand out. God knows what 'The Gunner' Brady might have made of it, but some heavy beats were ringing out of the Cavan dressing room in Kingspan Breffni on Sunday. One reporter who prides himself on youth culture proclaimed it to be 'Grime'.

Down had an understrength line-up, but as the players trooped towards their team coach it was noticeable how defined their cheekbones and shoulders were. Not one of them could be said to be carrying any excess weight. Again, that hasn't always been the case.

The re-shaping of the GAA calendar has created little pockets of space for tournaments to be run off and, while an imaginative approach could always produce something better (though I have yet to see one that gives county players a sufficient break as - guess what - they are club players too!), it's difficult to imagine things being different to how they are now.

A decade ago this year, Queen's University made it to the McKenna Cup final. It was against Donegal in Omagh and went to extra-time, when John Joe Doherty's men scraped through, though they barely deserved it.

That appearance of a college side in the final sharpened a few minds of county managers. Mickey Harte was never fond of letting too many Tyrone players swan off to play for their respective college teams but other managers then questioned the wisdom of deliberately weakening their own panels for match day too.

A quick look at the panels for colleges this year would suggest that none of them are capable of winning a game. This comes just two years after University of Ulster actually beat Tyrone and Cavan in their group, finishing level with both counties on four points but being eliminated due to score difference.

As such, with the element of unpredictability largely gone out of it, the McKenna Cup occupies a curious space in the hearts of Gaelic football followers.

On one hand, it is an absolute necessity to have some games leading into a league campaign, with most of the Ulster counties prioritising their achievements in the league over the vague notion of a 'run' in the Championship.

On the other hand, it is a non-event at times. The strength of the teams leads to a number of phony wars, and yet it is everything to those getting to make their debut in county colours. The same players deserve support too.

Unlike other sports where the season begins with much fanfare and other competitions are layered over the league sequence, the season of Gaelic games has always been a slow burner, heating up as summer and the Championship approaches.

There are, however, two great fascinations that the month of January will provide. Will any manager or player have a positive word to say about the rule limiting players to three consecutive handpasses?

Over three games at the weekend, just two goals were scored from play. Paddy Tally, Mickey Graham and Declan Bonner all believe that the experimental rule is costing the game the effect of goals. Is this what they meant by improving the sport as a spectacle?

And finally, Darragh Canavan. Son of Peter, he only made his senior football debut at club level a few short weeks ago at the start of October, coming on as a sub for Errigal Ciaran against Coalisland.

And now he's into the Tyrone panel. People need to be sensible regarding their expectations just yet, but it won't stop many supporters getting giddy at the possibilities.

Belfast Telegraph

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