Aaron Kernan: We'll never lose that Championship buzz
BETWEEN now and June 12, when Donegal become the final team to join the action in Ulster, and with possibly the exception of Tyrone and Cavan as they prepare for this weekend’s NFL Division Two final, all counties will be ramping up preparations ahead of what they all hope will lead to an extended summer’s action.
Training schedules will have been planned well in advance to allow teams to maximise the most of their time over the coming weeks. Whether you’re on the pitch, in the gym, playing challenge games or resting, every last detail will be accounted for.
It was this time of the year that I really enjoyed the most while playing for Armagh. The arrival of the longer evenings, improved weather and better playing surfaces all added to sense of excitement around the squad.
Championship has for me, always been the place to shine, when you know the opponents you face will be in peak condition but getting the better of them brings with it a respect that winning no amount of league games could achieve. Up until then, everything else was just pretend.
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In late 2003, I was fortunate to join an Armagh set-up which had been in the previous two All-Ireland finals and consistently competing at the highest level for the previous five years. They had won the All-Ireland in 2002, the previous four years they had been knocked out of the All-Ireland race by the eventual champions. It didn’t take long for me to realise the standards expected of me from management, senior players, county officials and supporters. It is daunting when starting out as a novice but more often than not, being thrown in at the deep end is when you learn the most about yourself.
Following our final National League game in 2004, we embarked on an gruelling programme which peaked on an intense week-long training camp in La Manga before tailing off ahead of the final fortnight in the lead-up to our Ulster quarter-final against Monaghan.
I had only managed one start in the league campaign but, as we had just won the Ulster U21 Championship, I had hoped that during the week away, I would have been able to put myself into the minds of our management as a potential option come Championship.
La Manga proved I couldn’t have been more wrong as I struggled to stay awake in the evenings long enough to eat my dinner, let alone trying to force myself into the reckoning. Physically, I was struggling with the training load each day, throw on top of that the sheer desire of the senior members to hold onto their jerseys and it became a humbling experience.
Looking back now though, it was an amazing learning experience for me as it showed me just how much tougher I needed to become physically and, more importantly, mentally if I wanted to compete at elite level.
A typical day in La Manga consisted of: 8-9am: Breakfast; 9-9.30am: Physio; 10-11.30am: Pitch session; 12pm: Pool recovery; 1-2pm: Lunch; 2-3pm: Rest; 3.30-4.30pm: Gym/speed/fitness; 5pm: Pool recovery; 7-8pm: Dinner; 9pm: Video analysis
I made the most of the lessons learned in 2004 and took the opportunities I was presented with in 2005. Once I had a starting jersey, I made sure I would do everything I could to hold onto it. By the time we returned to La Manga in 2006, I was a different player altogether. I had fully adjusted to the demands of inter-county football.
After having a good breakthrough season in 2005, I was determined to use the week away to bring my conditioning to another level for the upcoming Championship campaign. The aches and pains were no longer an issue as mentally I was in a much better place to be able to deal with them.
One of the highlights of the La Manga trips would have been the late arrival of Benny Tierney for the final few days. Benny had informed his wife Nicola that he had been summoned by management to take care of the ‘goalkeeping sessions’, when the reality was he was lowering his golfing handicap in a sunnier climate than his home course in Mullaghbawn. He was also well able to boost morale among the weary bodies by being his witty self.
I don’t think we’ll ever lose the buzz when Championship is looming. Injuries clear up, anxiety heightens and intensity goes up a notch as the stakes get higher and absolutely nothing regarding your preparation is a chore.
ONE of Armagh’s pre-Championship clashes will see them pitted against Donegal on Saturday at 5pm at St Killian’s GAC, Whitecross.
Most pre-Championships games are used to open new pitches or facilities in clubs across the country but this game will have a greater significance for the Whitecross area as it marks the 40th anniversary of the tragic death of the three Reavey brothers on January 4, 1976.
For as long as I can remember, the Reavey family has been synonymous with GAA in Whitecross in playing, administration and refereeing capacities. This unique occasion will no doubt show the GAA family at its best. I hope huge numbers turn out to show support for the Reavey family this weekend, just as they did 40 years ago.