‘Where in Tralee did ye stay last night?’, we asked a member of Galway management before their Allianz League Division 1 game in Kerry last Saturday.
‘We didn’t. We left Loughgeorge (GAA Training Centre) at half nine this morning. Stopped for a leg stretch on the way down and were in our (Meadowlands) Hotel by lunchtime.’
It’s something of a trainspotters’ curiosity for us saddos how teams travelling the previous day pass the hours ahead of an evening throw-in/kick off - like 7pm.
Indeed we feared we were alone in this fascination until a conversation with an inter-county manager a few weeks back preparing for a road trip to a Saturday night game.
‘A nightmare’, he said. ‘Saturday night games are great for the home team - not so good for the away’.
Over 15,000 crammed in Castlebar last Saturday, and 11,000 plus in Tralee’s Austin Stack Park, both attendances swelled by travelling Dublin and Galway support. I met some Galway families lunching around Tralee on Saturday. Said they had been looking forward to it since the League fixtures were confirmed as it’s Galway’s only floodlit fixture of 2020.
Truly, the Allianz League has become a Spring Championship.
Kerry won’t have too much sympathy for visitors to the Kingdom - even their west coast equivalents in Donegal. The geographical remoteness of the county means that in a League schedule as this one - when they have four away games - logistics plays a fundamental part in game prep.
At a cost of between €10,000-€12,000 per trip, inter-county set-ups try to keep overnights to a minimum during the League - first, and obviously, the cost is a consideration. Secondly, it’s a night extra for players and management away from their routine, family and own beds.
And it shortens the available hours for post-match recovery and rehab.
Kerry, for instance, flew to Dublin last Saturday week for the opening round of the League when, ordinarily for a big game in the capital, they would travel on the eve of the fixture. Then again, not every county has an airport and an air service between it and the capital.
There’s no such happenstance for the away games in Tyrone on Sunday, in Monaghan and in Mayo. For each of those they will travel on the eve of the game - including a Friday overnight for the game in Castlebar.
That particular one raises the crux of filling time on the Saturday. And there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for how best to solve it. Different counties use the hours away in all sorts of ways. For instance, the night before the game can be used for a video review session from the previous game - shortening at least one of the training nights that week.
On matchday, after breakfast, players are free to go their own way til lunchtime when a briefish (20-30 mins) team meeting is called to run over the game plan. That can often be broken up into groups, ie backs in one group, forwards another. Thereafter, some players favour an afternoon nap (or stroll) before the pre-match meal after which the squad gathers around 5.15pm for a 5.30pm departure to the ground (7pm throw-in).
A garden variety top-tier team might plan thier game day as follows: 10am: Breakfast followed by quick updates; 12.45pm: Lunch; 1.45pm: Team Meeting; 2.30pm: Players at leisure til 5pm. 5.30pm: Departure to stadium. 7pm: Throw in; Post-match meal: 9.30pm.
Donal Barry of the excellent kerrysportshub.ie website produced an interesting piece of research before the league on the mileage Division 1 football teams will rack up this spring (see above image). At this point, it is appropriate to point out that the GAA affords counties a per-mile allowance for road trips.
Of course, that does diddly squat in terms of how deep die-hard supporters have to dig to ‘Be There’.
While Donegal’s trip to Tralee in March is the longest single piece of travel (862kms round trip), Kerry fill four of the six longest journeys to Croke Park, Omagh, Inniskeen in Monaghan and Castlebar. It’s why Saturday’s ‘smash and grab’ home victory over Galway was so important in terms of getting points in the bag.
Getting the small details right is paramount. The one or two-percenters you hear about from managers. Galway decided to stay in Tralee Saturday night with good reasons - it would foster a good vibe amongst squad and management (even allowing for the frustrating loss) but more importantly, no-one felt comfortable arriving back to Galway after 1am and putting a further road journey on some young players who would, understandably, be very fatigued at that stage.
It’s an added issue for counties with a considerable rural hinterland. Cork got back from Leitrim around 9.30pm last Sunday night after bagging their second win of the Division 3 campaign. But for many of the travelling party, there was at least another hour on top of that to get to their own bed. Ronan McCarthy’s side chose Athlone as their Saturday night base camp but this year’s League schedule has been kind to the Rebels with four home games - and only trips to Longford and Tipperary to come - the latter a day trip.
Kerry manager Peter Keane referenced Tralee’s Bons Secours hospital after Saturday night’s game. Kerry GAA has a commercial agreement with the hospital, launched by David Clifford last year. It benefits Kerry when the occasion of a prompt scan for a player is required - ie with Tadhg Morley and Adrian Spillane after the Dublin game.
Keane is acutely aware how critical it is for his players to have prompt and expert medical counsel/treatment. Gone are the days when the Kingdom used to have to call in favours from Dr Con Murphy in Cork to get a player in for a scan. The Bons agreement has undoubtedly helped in that regard. A healthy player is a happy player.
Every little step. Every little mile. Every little detail.