Enda McGinley: Managing team down-time may be key to summer success

Derry and Down players trudge off at half-time during last year's McKenna Cup semi-final clash on a wintry evening at Celtic Park in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

When you are young December usually feels like the longest month of the year.

How could 25 days seem so long?

Now with young ones of my own, it might be going slow for them but for me, like all the other months, it just seems to fly by in a haze of things to get done that somehow remain undone by the end of the month.

For players it was usually a month of rest and, barring the county players, for many still is.

Any player would be thankful for not having to head out into the winter nights to train or thankful for having free weekends to enjoy the Christmas party season.

The WhatsApp group texts calm down a bit with the only stirring being around any potential management changes or late night shenanigans.

Given the way that time fools us with its ability to drift by unnoticed or at the least underutilised, this should not be the traditional off-season of old.

It’s fair to say that within any squads there are those players that definitely need a rest.

Those that have had long seasons, playing on multiple teams.

Those that are perennial starters and maybe were starting to look a bit jaded by the end.

There are others, though, it is equally fair to say, that definitely do not need an extended rest.

Some may be those that ‘winter well’.

You know the ones who come out in February having put on a bit of insulation over the winter.

A lot of these guys just need time to slowly get their engines purring.

I wouldn’t give the name of Tyrone’s best model for this method of seasonal athleticism but his name rhymes with Big Moe.

‘Moe’ came out in January like a transit van, slow to start in the morning, but ended the summer like a Rolls Royce.

These players can afford this luxury as they often have the skill to get by while their lungs catch up.

Granting them January off however is not an option as the fun has to stop somewhere if they are to meet their summer goals.

The other group that don’t need a ‘rest’ are the boys who spent more time on the physio table than the pitch last year.

Either through bad luck or of their own making, these players will have had a frustrating season making several ‘come backs’ only to fall away again.

Absolutely critical for them is prolonged rehabilitation and preparation for the new year.

The off-season affords the chance to carry out proper rehabilitation as there is no imminent match pressuring early returns or spikes in effort.

There hunger should be such that they can sustain a winter of significant work, often on their own, but still be ready to drive on in the summer driven by the season past watching from the side-lines.

Often however these players can fall into the trap of just enjoying a complete break to shower their heads and hope that next year will be different.

If they are hoping to achieve proper top form this is a luxury they cannot afford.

For managers, there is now the need to manage their teams down time as much as anything and doing so wisely could be key to summer fortunes.

Take for example the county managers facing into the McKenna Cup in these coming weeks.

Games pre-Christmas have surely limited value if being viewed from the perspective of impact come summer.

Given how competitive the National League is there has been a trend among counties, especially up here, to use the McKenna Cup to get the players fully ready to go for the League.

With the League, as with last year, starting in January, and with a seven-game format, a sluggish start cannot be afforded if relegation battles are to be avoided hence the need to get big names out early.

However, with the first experience last year of the ‘Super-8s’ for Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone some early-season re-calibration will likely be done.

For top teams with a better than average chance of making that stage, the glut of major football in a short spell mid-summer warrants some rethinking of early season activities.

Some managers will choose to let their main championship names rest up, hoping to get repaid the conserved energy come summer.

The balance of using the McKenna Cup to test new names or rest old names will differ from team to team.

The pressure of finding a few additional new options will be great in most counties but in the likes of Down and Cavan with new management at the helm, they must use these games to work on their systems of play and formations and so will be looking all players out. These counties management teams will be trying to use every game possible to get the teams up to good levels in the hope of gaining a bit of precious momentum from the early rounds of the League and capitalise on any new manager bounce.

Rest in these set-ups may be a luxury not afforded this time round.

Where top counties are adjusting to the impact of the Super-8s and the bearing it has on the timing of team and player development plans, clubs are also adapting to the new calendar and a definite two-stage season.

Early season between the ‘club month’ of April and to a lesser extent May and June will see the vast amount of club league games played. There is then, in many counties, a significant gap with limited matches over the summer before a headlong rush into condensed make or break championship formats come the end of August and September.

This is much more difficult to build a season plan for than the county teams’ season.

Clubs early-season momentum can be lost but equally weak starts can sow discord from where it is hard to return.

The sense of trying to keep up with the Jones’s and the paranoia at looking over the shoulders at what rivals are doing or where rivals are at form wise is hard to avoid being influenced by, yet each team and management set up must make their own plan and believe in it enough to stick to it.

What is clear is that at both county and club levels, the old form lines rising gradually during the year to peak in late summer is not necessarily the way now to go.

Coming good at the right time has always been critical but more than before this is a matter of timing than season-long consistency of effort.

Where it is successful, early-season management decisions will undoubtedly be found to have been key and it won’t necessarily be those that seem to be doing the most that will be doing the best winter work.

Working hard never equates to working smart but then again neither matches working both smart and hard.

My feeling is the top managers most valuable work this winter will be away from the match day side-lines.

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