Sport

Danny Hughes: Pre-Championship training camps a priceless exercise

The price Armagh pay for Kieran McGeeney taking his squad away for warm weather training ahead of the Championship is one that's worth paying

AS expected, a significant number of county teams up and down the country used the ‘club-only’ month of April to take a much-needed warm weather training camp abroad.

Armagh could get their knuckles rapped in any ensuing investigation, the punishment being the forfeiting of home advantage for one National League game in 2019.

This consequence of Armagh’s actions hardly acts as a deterrent though.

If I were in Kieran McGeeney’s shoes, the pros of going away in April by far outweighs anything else.

Five days in Portugal will provide the squad and management team with quality time that isn’t possible when at home.

It will allow players to become closer as a unit and indeed perhaps even forge closer ties between the management team and players.

A training weekend (home or abroad) before and during Championship is an excellent opportunity to focus minds on the biggest test of the year.

League football is one thing, but Championship football is the true testing ground for any team and player.

I always looked forward to a training weekend. This camp usually coincided with the first bank holiday in May.

On arriving on a Friday in resorts such as Carton House, Dublin’s Citywest or The Nuremore Hotel and Country Club, any preconceived notions that the three days ahead would be relaxing were quickly put to bed with an itinerary that wouldn’t look out of place on an induction week for the Navy Seals.

These camps are expensive for county boards. You wouldn’t see much change from 15 to 20 grand.

So when you wonder where Croke Park’s annual funding distributions to county boards go, you can easily see, through this one trip, how finances could be stretched thin over an inter-county season.

You can add on another 10 grand to the bill if you deem it necessary to go abroad.

For players, you get the opportunity to taste the lifestyle of a professional sportsperson.

This was something to embrace.

Facilities, food and all sessions catered for.

Of course, man cannot live on bread alone. Luckily, the regular visit back to your room would allow you to snack on the 3,000-odd bars of chocolate you hid in your kit bag before leaving.

If you were far enough out from a Championship match and, indeed, if you thought that you could get away with it, it was also time to spring an escape to the local town for a few drinks.

For some, a ‘couple’ turned out to be ‘ a few’, then ‘a session’, then it was sometimes hard to avoid a feeling that the whole thing was spiralling out of control.

Needless to say, the early morning training session the next day wasn’t long in separating the various drinking groups.

To be honest, I have yet to experience an ‘old school’ bonding session which didn’t bring an indirect positive feeling to the group dynamic.

Provided that it doesn’t happen regularly, the importance of a team socialising together cannot be underestimated.

I would contend that is essential in getting people to know one another away from a football context. And even if it is re-living the memories (however vague) of the night before, football players will have much more in common than they may think.

In many teams nowadays, the responsibility for the team and indeed their actions belongs to the manager on the sideline. By giving responsibility to the players, it means that whatever the context, socially or competitively, the team identities are player-led.

Unfortunately, primarily due to the impact of paid managers, the responsibilities for teams is now increasingly along the sideline.

Peter Reid, ex-Sunderland manager, had once overseen a promotion of the team from the Championship and, as newcomers to the Premier League, they were finding the early games particularly difficult and losing them all.

On the way back from another defeat, he decided he had had enough.

“Right lads, off the bus,” said Reid.

“Anyone who can walk back onto this bus won’t be playing next Saturday.”

The Sunderland players proceeded to drink the place dry and, whether coincidental or not, Sunderland won four-nil the next week and went on to finish in the Premiership’s top 10 that season.

Reid pointedly noted that the camaraderie within that squad since that particular day and subsequent season rubbed off on the field.

In my opinion, there is nothing as important as the bond players have within a squad and indeed the bond forged between a manager and his players.

This is sometimes only forged in social environments and on training weekends such as those that are common practice now for most county teams and clubs operating at the top level.

However, unfortunately, managers are increasingly reluctant to socialise or indeed have close relationships with their players for fear of being ‘too close’.

Somehow, they think that by being close to a player, this will cloud their judgement.

The natural psychology in any relationship means you will want to commit to those who you respect or like the most.

The logic of being ‘too close’ just doesn’t add up. That doesn’t mean you cannot be honest and, if needs be, tell a few home truths.

Some of the most respected people I know have always been honest when it comes to football, no matter how brutal.

Therefore, for me, the best managers need to trust their players and I find that this will be reciprocated in most instances.

The other benefit of training weekends (within Ireland) is facilitating a challenge match with another inter-county team, inevitably suited to both teams’ preparations within different provinces.

They are usually played behind closed doors, but the dog walker and locals were never turned away if a small crowd had gathered to watch the game.

The recent revelation that the Donegal team employed a small security team to prevent any prying informers infiltrating their Ulster Championship tactical preparations is another reason for teams to perhaps seek the warmer climate and more anonymous surroundings.

I am sure that Armagh’s secrets will remain firmly locked within the confines of the Vilamoura resort hotel staff or wherever, the dog walkers and local GAA club members. Kieran McGeeney has no such concerns of their training weekend being infiltrated.

Meanwhile, Donegal’s security staff stand in the rain, almost reminiscent of Dougal and

Ted with their placards urging everyone to ‘Move along, nothing to see here’.

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