One of the country’s top sports science experts has warned there is a “great danger” rival counties will be unable to compete with Dublin in the years ahead unless they overhaul their development structures.
As the drive for five edges closer, Dr Liam Hennessy, an exercise physiologist who has worked with All-Ireland-winning teams and various international sportspeople, has called for a revised approach in smaller counties to help close the gap on the champions.
“You’ll have a segregated community of teams, ones that are well supported with high populations and others that are poorly supported because of numbers,” he said.
Hennessy was fitness trainer to the Tipperary hurlers when they lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1991 and worked with the Dublin footballers in the mid-90s.
Over the last three decades he has witnessed a rapid professionalisation of support structures in the GAA: “In 1991 we had nine in the [Tipperary] backroom team, now it’s up to about 30.”
Hennessy believes more counties need to implement long-term solutions and funnel resources to younger age categories to be able to eventually compete with the well-resourced Dublin team.
“Challenges are something we’ve always faced, but with some creative thinking you could make an impact on a strong support staff provided you don’t just give it a year or two.
You’ve got to align it to the growth and development pathway of the player because what you do at 12, 13, 14 and that transition period after, that’s your emphasis for development.
“Instead of pumping all the resources into the senior squad for two years, why don’t we sit back and see how effectively and efficiently we can manage a development programme for younger ages?”
Hennessy conceded that Dublin’s population and their generous allotment of games development funding have contributed to their dominance, but he believes there’s more to it than that.
“They had the population for many decades but it takes commitment from the grassroots right up. The people involved — Jason Sherlock, Dessie Farrell, Jim Gavin — are names who have for years been in the developmental process. This didn’t happen overnight.
“I’m delighted they are doing what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I hope they win on Sunday, but Dublin are setting a standard with the organisation, administration and commitment to supporting players.
“Other counties can’t just complain: We’ve got to be proactive. There are a lot of lessons you can take from their principles and the change in systems.”
Hennessy was a student at Thomond College in the ’70s as Dublin and Kerry took the game to new heights and, given many of his classmates were high-level footballers, he saw how the country’s first physical education programme influenced the game.
“In that Kerry team of the ’70s you’d Micky [Ned O’Sullivan], Pat Spillane, Ogie Moran, Jimmy Deenihan — four PE teachers on the team and they’re bringing that knowledge into their own set-up. Even going back to the ’40s and ’50s, players appreciated circuit training, pull-ups, sit-ups, press-ups.
The whole emphasis on strength was already there — it didn’t just appear in the last two decades. The [training methods] are not new, they’ve evolved and they’re being exploited in a far more effective way.
Hennessy believes an increase in the size and importance of backroom teams is down to GAA teams emulating the methods in professional sports. “When you look at Dublin and [high-performance manager] Bryan Cullen: He spent his formative years with Dave Fagan in the Leinster Rugby Academy and you can see the infiltration of the rugby view in the GAA.
“Those conditioning methods are based on very straightforward principles: Let’s get fitter, faster, and stronger and I don’t think that’s changed.
The S&C coaches probably spend more time with the players than any of the other support staff. Out of that you’ll have new methods, but as the great AK [Alan Kelly] says: Methods are many, principles are few, methods regularly change but principles rarely do.
"Some of us bemoan that the game is changing rapidly but every game and every sport is changing rapidly, whether we like it or not. It’s up to those involved to keep abreast of what’s happening outside that sport."
Liam Hennessy, fitness coach to Pádraig Harrington, will host a golf fitness masterclass alongside Mike Carroll on September 3rd in One Arena, Pouladuff, Cork. Full details are available on the Setanta College website.