Eamonn Fitzmaurice has challenged growing assertions that the demands placed on inter-county footballers are both unreasonable and unsustainable.
The argument that the excessive commitment required in order to survive at inter-county level is fast reaching a head has gathered pace this month, following the decisions of Dublin’s Rory O’Carroll and Armagh’s Jamie Clarke to sit out the 2016 season. Adding further fuel on the fire, then, was Denis Connerton’s remarks that 40% of the players he approached to play for Longford shot him down.
Fitzmaurice agrees with the assertion inter-county football is “all-consuming”, but simply cannot buy into the perception that what is being asked of inter-county footballers is unfair and driving them towards early retirement or year-long sabbaticals.
Quite the opposite, in fact; the 2014 All-Ireland winning manager insisting that the queue of players wanting to pull on the green and gold is two squads long, irrespective of the so-called unsustainable demands.
“I’d love to be playing football in the current set-up,” he says.
“When Pat Flanagan got involved under Jack (O’Connor), we trained the same amount of times in a week as we do now. There is a perception there now that fellas are doing more. They’re not.
“We did three pitch sessions a week, including a game. We did two gym sessions as well. We were out five days a week too.
“With the science that is there nowadays, I think the training is better.
“In Kerry, we have 26 on the bus going to Dublin on Saturday. If I went on the phone, I could get another 26 on the bus.
“The illustration of that was the Clare (McGrath Cup) game when the lads were away on holidays. We sat down and put together a squad and every fella we rang was full of enthusiasm and wanted to wear the Kerry jersey.
“Sometimes if you are in the bubble, like Rory O’Carroll, he felt he needed a break and wanted to go away travelling. He has had a lot of success the last few years. If the hunger for success is there, the lads enjoy it.” The Kerry manager holds the viewpoint that inter-county footballers are a “privileged” bunch.
“Most amateur sports (import professional practices), most amateur sports people are like that. I know if I wasn’t managing Kerry, and if I was trying to get my golf handicap down, I’d be spending a lot of time out in Ballybunion. I think, in many ways, in GAA, we are in a privileged position. We play in front of big crowds, there is huge media interest and huge profile. Of course, there are issues and of course fellas are over-stretched. But I definitely see a lot of it from the positive perspective.
“If you look at professional rugby players in Ireland outside of the top tier, when they get to 31, 32, they have to start their careers then. They have to build a career at 32, 33. Whereas when our lads retire, they have a career built at that stage. They are able to transition back into normal working life which is a good way to be when the game is amateur. We can make too much of it. We can be overly negative.
“100% it is all-consuming. If you don’t want it, walk away from it.
“There is a perception that fellas are being driven against their will. They are not. They want to be the best. It is human nature that ambitious, young people, if they weren’t playing football or hurling, they’d be playing something else and they’d want to be the best at that. When you step away from it afterwards, you realise what a privileged position it was to be in and what a great thing it was to be part of a group that is trying to get the best out of themselves and everyone pulling in the one direction. That is a very powerful and infectious place to be. And when you are in that bubble and you want to be the best you can be, you’ll do what you have to do. I don’t think it is a bad thing. I think you could be doing a lot worse.”
Of those living in the “bubble”, evidence suggests a certain portion are pushing themselves beyond what their body can tolerate in order to preserve the status of inter-county footballer.
Kildare manager Cian O’Neill recently revealed that eight members of his panel are currently on the treatment table having played through injury when attempting to impress their new boss.
Fitzmaurice has a similar number on the sideline; James O’Donoghue, Colm Cooper, Paul and Mikey Geaney, and Anthony Maher all going under the knife since the conclusion of last year’s championship.
“It is a concern when you’re having that many fellas having surgery. I think that players, at times, and it’s human nature, I did it myself, are slow to admit that maybe you are a bit tight or maybe you do need a night off.
“I think that possibly ten years ago, fellas just didn’t have surgeries to correct issues. If you had a bad hip, you had a bad hip and that was just it, you played. Fellas retired earlier as a result at 30/31/32, whereas now the way medicine has gone and sports medicine, in particular, there seems to be more of a prevalence for fellas to get the issue fixed immediately and that prolongs careers. I think there’s a bit of that, but undoubtedly players have huge training loads and particularly at certain times of the year. In Kerry anyway, we play an awful lot of football in the six worst months of the year. In October, November, December with the clubs and with Kerry in January, February and March.”
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