GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: Pre-season draws to a close and the games never felt so important

The Cavehill in the distance, north Belfast Picture: Mal McCann.
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (

MANY moons ago our pre-season training consisted of a weekly run to the top of the Cavehill – that imperious, beautiful mountain that overlooks north Belfast and whose jagged edges pierce the skyline.

We’d run from O’Neill’s Road up onto the Antrim road, dodge the busy stream of traffic, puff out our chests, look bleakly upwards to its peaks and begin the murderous ascent straddling the outer rim of Belfast Zoo as we went.

We probably all had a love-hate relationship with the Cavehill. It was always hellish but exhilarating at the same time once we reached the top – or at least near the top where it was safe for 25 young men to run.

And when we got there, our manager would have us doing sprints. Two at a time. All uphill. Each of us cursed the beer we drank the previous weekend, and the late nights and takeaway food.

In those insufferable moments when our lungs were on fire, we would all whisper to ourselves, 'never again'. Running up the Cavehill every week always held out the promise of being our rehabilitation.

Looking back, I don’t know if running up the narrow paths of the mountain improved our fitness, especially when it wasn’t complemented by good diet, sleep hygiene and less beer.

But what it did do was build remarkable camaraderie among us. In your playing years, your team-mates were your blood brothers.

So, while pre-season was generally horrific, there were so many other benefits to it, so nobody could actually say they hated it.

During a visit to Tullysaran Primary School last year, vice-principal and Armagh footballer Aidan Forker probably summed it up best.

“I enjoy pre-season. I love going to the well with the boys.

“The thought of it is worse than itself. When I get going I’m fine. It’s all neck-down stuff anyway and there’s very little thinking involved.

“When you’re in game mode you’ve a lot more mental preparation to do. So this period is kind of a break when we start pre-season. It’s just about getting it in the legs so you can trust it later.”

Most players are pragmatic about pre-season and what it entails. Patrick McBride of Antrim said: “Every team is doing the same, they’re just trying to get their work done so that it’s all banked when you play the matches - and it will stand by you if you do the work.

“You just know with Andy: this has to be done. You need that bit of mental toughness to do all the work and the sessions on your own. We’ll be a hard-working team under him.”

To want to play Division Three and Division Four National League football for your county, you must have a burning desire. Gaelic football, not just at elite level, has become a bit of a Darwinian pursuit.

When we started pre-season training, it was to play games on balmy August evenings and sunny Saturday afternoons. Winter felt a long way off.

What inter-county footballers and hurlers are doing right now is winter training to play winter football and hurling.

As new Antrim football manager Andy McEntee said earlier this week, inter-county teams are playing in the kind of inclement weather where you wouldn't put a milk bottle out.

Last winter, I covered Donegal versus Tyrone in an Allianz NFL Division One tie in Ballybofey when the goalposts swayed wickedly in the wind.

So many games in January and February are the proverbial “game of two halves” because sheeting wind, rain and sleet can play such a decisive role in the outcome of National League fixtures.

“You’re looking at games that are going to have the biggest influence on your year, potentially, the best matches of the year being played at a time when you wouldn’t put a milk bottle out,” McEntee said.

And spare a thought for the new inter-county managers who are on unfamiliar terrain – like McEntee - trying to get to grips with the playing resources and cursing the time-frame afforded to scheduling games and the ban on challenge matches in December.

If the information was readily made available, it would be interesting to survey the amount of pulled muscle injuries in different camps in January.

Given the tight turnaround and mid-week college games, little wonder the O’Byrne Cup didn't run as smoothly as it should have.

But all the hoo-hah of pre-season is drawing to a close now as some of the most important games of the entire calendar year take place this weekend, particularly in the lower echelons of the Allianz Leagues.

The Division Three encounter between Antrim and Offaly is huge as McEntee opens his account with the Saffrons.

A trip to Thurles for the Down footballers never felt so important.

It won't gain many headlines, but Fermanagh and Longford down in Ederney is of equal significance to both sides as they try to engineer some momentum and run with it, with promotion sitting like a glowing pot of gold at the end of March, just when the pitches are playable.

Cavan and Meath. Division Three is definitely where it's at for Ulster.

Oisin McConville's Wicklow heading to Carlow. Tony McEntee looking for a sprint start in Markievicz.

Likewise, Mickey Harte and 'Horse' Devlin with Louth down in Ennis. How will a post-Michael Murphy Donegal go against the All-Ireland champions in breezy Ballybofey?

And what of Tyrone’s rehabilitation from a disastrous 2022 down in Dr Hyde Park? How many TV cameras do The Sunday Game have?

Pre-season, with all its niggles and frustrations and umpteen injuries, is officially over. Mountains were climbed, trees were chopped, damp sand dunes were overcome and players made friends out of the dark.

It’s time to see what foundations were dug during the depths of winter.

IN yesterday's back page story, it stated the Louth footballers 'pulled the pin' on the O'Byrne Cup. This was incorrect. They opted to withdraw from a 'dead rubber' round robin fixture but continued to compete in the pre-season tournament, reaching last Sunday's decider with Longford. 





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