No team wants to lose a final before a ball is kicked or pucked, writes Tony Leen
To play or to train? Keep it in-house or keep the squad in competitive mode?
Such are the critical questions facing the four All Ireland club finalists less than three weeks out from March 17. Critical because in any losing inquest, one of the first objects of finger-point is the pre-final training programme.
Ye didn’t train enough.
Ye did too much.
Not enough ball.
Not enough hard graft.
Dr Crokes, the 2017 All-Ireland football kingpins, beat themselves up in previous years for taking time off in December after securing the provincial title. It cost them semi-finals, they suspected. It may or may not have been a factor but last December, Pat O’Shea was taking no chances.
He took his players walking, running, playing soccer, playing basketball – anything to keep their eye in.
Nemo Rangers were the last of this year’s semi-finalists to seal their St Patrick’s Day involvement in Croke Park, an extra-time epic against Slaughtneil in Portlaoise on Saturday giving them a priceless gut-check for the decider. “Absolutely impossible to put a value on that,” Nemo forward Barry O’Driscoll gushed in the aftermath.
The question now for Nemo - and Corofin manager Kevin O’Brien, plus their Na Piarsaigh and Cuala counterparts - is how to periodise the squad’s work over the next three weeks. Win on March 17 and you got it right, lose and the post-mortems know precisely where to start.
Interesting that so many Nemo players on Saturday referenced the intense block of physical training they undertook after beating Dr Crokes in the provincial final at the end of November. Driving the wire to wires was Robbie O’Dwyer, the youngest son of Mick, though initially Nemo manager Larry Kavanagh was of a mind to taper things down for a bit.
“The players trained in December when I didn’t want them to. And I was wrong! They ran hard before Christmas, I thought we’d be better with a break but they organised their own stuff, and we only tapered it off once they started getting games in January. They have confidence in their fitness, which was a help in extra-time.”
Kavanagh will meet this week with his fellow selectors to shape their schedule for the next two weeks, and they have a Kelleher Shield (SFL Division 1) game scheduled for the weekend of March 10 against fellow high-flyers Ballincollig. Wise to take the game or not?
“Do we need another game in the three weeks?” mused Kavanagh.
“I don’t know. We will have to sit down and discuss that as a group. I haven’t seen Corofin. I didn’t look at them at all before the semi-final, but there’s no doubt that Saturday’s Slaughtneil game will stand to our lads,” said Kavanagh.
“There was a bit of a gathering on the pitch after the game Saturday, fellas were understandably a bit high after coming out on the right side of it after extra-time. I am not doing a ‘bah humbug’ on it, but we don’t celebrate semi-finals.”
The players won’t fault that approach. “You’re there to win All-Irelands if you’re a Nemo player,” said Luke Connolly. “That’s what you are remembered for. Counties are great, Munster titles too, but for us to approach Paddy’s Day like a great occasion for the club - well, it’s not about being part of the day.”
The irony is Corofin have a lot more March 17 Croke Park experience than Nemo’s players, winning the title two years ago against Slaughtneil. Barry O’Driscoll reckons only Paul Kerrigan, Colin O’Brien and himself were around the last time Nemo were in the final a decade ago. “There’s a lot of excitement for this group of players now,” he smiled.
Even for the one who has played in Croke Park more than anyone, Tomás Ó Sé: “It’s good for a lot of the Nemo lads because there’s a new crop who wouldn’t have played in Croke Park, so it’s a big thing for them. I never thought I’d see Croke Park as a player again so it’s a chance I’m glad to take,” Ó Sé told Radio na Gaeltachta, adding: “This is definitely going to be the last time.
“Having been there with An Ghaeltacht in 2004, I didn’t think the chance would come around again.When you’re 39 years old anything like that is fantastic.”
Ó Sé is a voracious trainer and loves slugging it out with his own psychological limits. So when he says the December sessions were “very hard”, it’s a reliable barometer of their intensity - just as his man of the match award Saturday was of his ability to come through them.
Corofin still has a 2017 league final against St James’ to play, but whether Kevin O’Brien - a selector under Stephen Rochford when they won the title in 2016 - will want a competitive fixture before March 17 is open to debate. The Connacht champions qualified the week before Nemo, so hitting the mark with their preparation will be a delicate balancing act. The county league in Galway will not start until April but either way Corofin will go into the final now - fixed yesterday by the GAA for 2pm - as underdogs.
Tomás Ó Sé understands the bookmaker’s logic: “I’d always like to go into a game without the pressure of being favorites, but I don’t think that affects Nemo in a two-horse race, “ he said.
“Without being cocky, they’d always think they have a chance any time they go out on the field. I suppose Nemo may be the favourites now going into the final but that’s something we’d have happily taken on Saturday morning.”
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