McArdle: Sacrifices over festive period now part of game
Whatever about the glut of sport on over the winter period, between horse racing, soccer and the NBA's Christmas Day game, it can hardly have been anyone's intentions in the amateur world of the GAA to have players preparing for a match the weekend after Christmas Day.
The very notion of players actually scheduling training sessions on Christmas week is something that has become normalised. One Ulster county even trained last Saturday evening even though they played on Sunday.
Down defender Brendan McArdle completed a full decade of service in the red and black on Sunday with their McKenna Cup win over Fermanagh. For him, these demands just become part of what is expected.
"You do have to watch yourself, you're watching what you're doing, it's always in the back of your mind. For anybody who's taking football seriously, you have to look after yourself," the Annaclone club man said after emerging from the changing rooms at Brewster Park.
"It's hard, it's just this time of year, we did have a break of seven or eight days and boys are maybe just a bit rusty.
"It takes time to get up to the pace of it but you still need those games under your belt, you don't want to go into league football without that."
It was clear that the opposition hadn't accrued the same work, as Ryan McMenamin, after his first competitive fixture as Fermanagh manager, admitted.
"We did bits and pieces, we probably started back later than the other counties and are a wee bit behind," admitted the Dromore man.
"I think we followed the rules of what Croke Park dictated!
"We had two intense years (McMenamin was selector for 2018 and 2019 under Rory Gallagher).
"The Derrygonnelly lads, they were on their run. You have to give boys their chance and for the last week, we only trained one night and gave the boys Christmas off. I think that's good too. You have to let men spend time with their families."
On a day that was all about judging the depth of the respective panels, certain experienced players stood out. Down's defensive spine was manned by McArdle and captain Darren O'Hagan, both men having been brought into the panel for 2010 - James McCartan's first year and one in which they were unlucky to lose an All-Ireland final.
McArdle's desire was there for everyone to see as he threw himself into a series of challenges against callow opposition, relishing his body being fit and healthy again after a 2019 that was partly ravaged by injuries.
"I had quad and hamstring trouble and now I'm just trying to keep on top of it," he said.
"In fairness to Paddy (Tally, manager), when I spoke to him at the start of the year he said he would manage my training load so I'm just trying to do what he tells me.
"They probably do tailor it a wee bit now compared to the rest of the squad but you still have to do the work. It's something you always have to be mindful of, and it's something I've become accustomed to in the four years since I ruptured the Achilles.
"You always have to put injury prevention first and it does help going into your later years."
Down get their National League under way in the last weekend of January with an exceptionally tricky away fixture to Tipperary. They need to win promotion or else be condemned to playing in the first year of the Tier Two All-Ireland, something that wouldn't sit well within the county.
"It's been mentioned already, and it does put an extra emphasis on the League," explained McArdle.
"The boys really want to get out of Division Three - they don't want to play in that second tier. Come the summer we could be there but our biggest goal now is the League, we're not even talking Championship.
"It's become crucial now; I just know it's somewhere we don't want to be.
"To be honest, I haven't really thought about it, I don't want to think about it. Probably most of my football was played in Division One and Division Two, I've probably only played three years altogether in Division Three, I started there and then the last two years.
"You want to push on and you want to be playing against those better teams."