Cahair O'Kane: Applying yourself to club more attractive than county duty
WHEN I hear of how players apply themselves in the modern game, I always think now of Séamus Downey.
The Lavey man won All-Ireland football titles at club and inter-county level in the early 1990s, punching home the goal that brought Derry right into the game against Cork on their most famous afternoon.
The knee strap that he wore throughout his career was synonymous. Some people probably thought it was a kind of fashion statement. But he had torn his posterior cruciate in 1989, an injury nicknamed the ‘dashboard injury’ as it’s more commonly associated with the effects of a car crash.
He missed a year of football because of it and the Derry county board agreed to pay for the operation, but through Jim McKeever and former Ireland rugby boss Jimmy Davison, who was lecturing in Stranmillis at the time, Downey had gotten in touch with David Irwin.
A former Ulster, Ireland and Lions rugby player, Irwin had suffered a similar injury and told the hopeful Derry forward of how he was able to rebuild his career without going under the knife.
In those days, it wasn’t the relatively simple operation that it would be now. Downey decided after speaking to Irwin that the safer course of action would be to following the weights programme the ex-international prescribed for him.
Working on the knee between five and seven days a week and taking a year out, Downey nursed his leg back to health and went on to have a hugely successful career, playing on with the club until he was 38.
Others wouldn’t have applied themselves in that manner. In that era, such an injury would have destroyed many a footballing career. Even in this era, where such an operation is almost routinely successful, the emphasis in terms of recovery remains on the player’s willingness to apply themselves properly to rehabilitation.
Touch wood, I’ve never endured an injury of that nature, but anyone who has would tell you that, unless you do the work to properly rebuild your knee after a cruciate injury, you’ll be on the high wire when you return to playing.
Having success on the field is equally dependent on your application. One need look no further than the weekend just past. Slaughtneil have developed a very talented bunch of players, but in different circumstances, they’d have had nowhere near the level of success they’re enjoying.
Since Mickey Moran took over, though, they have applied themselves so completely to the pursuit of more and more trophies and medals that they have turned into a winning machine.
At the top level of club football, rest and recovery have become par for the course. Their regular Monday trips to the sea have become a timeworn part of their routine. It’s all part of the sacrifice, but they’ve realised too that sometimes less is more.
A night spent dedicated to the club isn’t necessarily another night spent flogging your guts in training. They’re an incredibly well conditioned team, but arguably their most impressive trait over the last eight weeks has been their ability to retain their freshness on a weekly basis.
During the week, in an interview with my colleague Kenny Archer from Dubai, Mickey Harte scoffed at the idea that modern county players are flogged by their managers.
“This is the truth - I sometimes have to tell players to take it easy, hold back. I never had that to do long ago, in the ’90s,” said the Tyrone manager.
“But now I’m saying ‘I don’t think you should train tonight, you’ve done enough’ or ‘You need to take care’. I actually hold people back rather than push them on. To me, that doesn’t reflect people who aren’t enjoying what they are doing - they really are.”
There is no denying his sentiment. The players he has at his disposal didn’t attain their levels of fitness simply by training two or three times a week with the county team.
In this era where athleticism stands supreme in Gaelic games, the base levels of fitness required to play county football are frightening. But there will always be individuals that will bring themselves to that level. They’ll find a way to do it themselves. They’ll go to personal trainers, they’ll follow their meal plans to the letter, they’ll sacrifice their social lives because that’s what they want to do.
Those people exist everywhere, and nothing Mickey Harte or anyone else says to them will stop them from pursuing the levels of excellence that they feel they can reach themselves.
That’s always been the way. Always will be. That’s why loose talk of imposing training bans is a futile exercise. Armed with the learnings of modern sports science, players are going to train. And why wouldn’t a manager encourage those players to reach those levels when that is what they want to do?
Harte has always argued that anyone who is on a county panel is there because they want to be. Again, another undeniable fact, even moreso now that the demands are increased.
You wouldn’t put that strain on your family life and your social life if you didn’t want to pursue success in the sporting arena. Harte is in a very privileged position, though. Tyrone never seems to have any shortage of capable and willing footballers lining up to dedicate themselves. There is just this thing in Tyrone that nearly every cub growing up in a GAA family in the county wants desperately to pull on that white jersey.
That is the legacy of success, and it fits with the current situation in Dublin, and the all-time situation in Kerry. It is also the genuine prospect of success that drives them. It’s much easier to commit to a team that carries the favourites’ tag in their province and has a genuine shot at competing for an All-Ireland.
The grading of club football and hurling into senior, intermediate and junior, and the addition of provincial and All-Ireland titles at the lower grades over the last 20 years, offers such an attractive alternative to inter-county football, where you have Sam Maguire and the provincial titles and that’s it.
Players will continue to apply themselves to Gaelic games because they want to do it. But more and more we’re seeing that they will apply themselves to their clubs rather than their county.