Player power: GAA has become no country for old men

Players are finding it harder to stay playing as injury, burn-out and life get in the way

 

The revolving door of intercounty stars is spinning off its hinges. Exiting this week was Kilkenny hurling forward Richie Power. Power is one of the lucky ones: he leaves without cartilage in his knee but with garlands and medals only few could dream of.

Power is 30: young in life but senior in the coda of Gaelic games, which places an increasing premium on youth. That was why the sight of Rory Kavanagh re-entering the lobby of elite Gaelic sport was greeted with near astonishment. The Donegal man is 33 and retired in 2014. Hadn’t he put himself through enough? Hadn’t he achieved enough? And wasn’t he too old?

Kavanagh will, at least, help to prop up the average age profile of intercounty footballers, which seems to fall with every season. Two years ago, GPA chief executive Dessie Farrell noted the trend and observed that “at this rate [the All-Ireland championship] could be an under-23 competition. There is a lot of experience, talent and wisdom being lost to the game.”

As the championship approaches, that statement seems more valid than ever. There are examples of “veteran” players out there: Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony of Kerry; Stephen Cluxton of Dublin; Andy Moran and Alan Dillon of Mayo. Seán Cavanagh (32) has committed to a 14th season with Tyrone.

But more than ever, the GAA is no country for old men. It is a rare for players to keep going beyond 34. Maybe the reasons for that are down to plain physiology. Maybe it is just that your 24-year-old self will always beat your 34-year-old self.

“Yes, that’s true,” says David Hare, who is strength and conditioning coach with the Offaly senior football team. But he sounds dubious that it is that simple. For Hare, the causes of retirement through injury or burn-out are rooted in the habits and conditions imposed on players when they are just starting out in the game.

“I saw Cian O’Neill, my old lecturer, use the term ‘legacy injuries.’ Certainly in Offaly we inherited a heap of legacy injuries. But it went deeper than that. It went down to a lack of cultural awareness from the clubs right up to the senior team of regeneration protocol, of world-class physiotherapy or deep tissue massage. The psyche of the GAA is: ice baths. The old cliche applies, I think; it comes down to education. Will the age profile continue to go down? It will until they address that issue.

Right direction

“The Dubs have made a big step in the right direction by getting Bryan Cullen involved in their squad. Firstly, he will get player buy-in as an All-Ireland winner. But also, he is at PhD level qualification so he just can’t be a bluffer: it is impossible. And it will save Dublin GAA in terms of invoices from physios and strength coaches. But a lot of what happens is the fault of the players too. Not the minor or under-21 who is getting flogged. They are just trying to survive. It is the established guy who is told not to play a club game and plays anyway. Or a guy who doesn’t stick to the programme he is given.”

It is no secret that one of the big pressures on any up-and-coming GAA player is that he is pulled in several directions simultaneously. He is wanted by club, by county minor, by county under-21, by college and sometimes senior during a demanding, compressed time frame in his life.

These teams revolve around independent entities, with coaches and managers who have their own ideas. The Minor Review report of 2014 contained statistics which were damning of the reality of life for young, elite players. Some 24 per cent of players reported to training once, if not twice every day; 62 per cent played injured at one stage or another; 42 per cent reported feeling chronic fatigue. By the time they enter senior squads, many are already suffering from so-called legacy injuries.

“Hamstrings are the most common, with lower-back issues,” says Hare. “Hips are rearing their ugly head. And groins, normally among the most dedicated players who run all the laps.”

Family ethos

Injury isn’t the only reason players get out early. Andriú Mac Lochlainn finished with Kildare in 2012 at 29. He retired with a heavy heart because he knew he had several good intercounty seasons left in him.

Mac Lochlainn’s case is interesting on two fronts. When he was still a teenager, he declined an invitation to join the Kildare seniors in what was Mick O’Dwyer’s final season. Mac Lochlainn’s grandfather played with the Lilywhites and his father was a jockey. While there was no family pressure to make the grade, those closest to him were taken aback when he told them he had passed on the opportunity.

“I just knew I had too much going on at that time,” he says now. That didn’t hinder him but when Mac Lochlainn married young and became a father, he soon discovered the difficulties of trying to juggle parenthood with an intercounty career.

“What I learned is that football and family don’t mix. I think the GAA is missing a trick because they are big into the family ethos but the dots aren’t being joined between the player and his family.”

In the past few seasons, Mac Lochlainn has done commentary work for Kildare games and in Croke Park he was struck by the ease with which he could park near the ground and get into the stadium with his accreditation. When he played with Kildare, his wife had to get their two children ready, find parking and then wait until long after the final whistle to see her husband. “And then it might be just 10 minutes.” Just the small gesture giving a players’ family parking and player’s lounge passes would have made a difference.

The Mac Lochlainns had three children when he retired and now have a fourth. He and his wife run their own businesses. He set up Mac Lochlainn Financial Solutions in Kildare but had to wait until he retired in order to grow his business because he didn’t have time as a player. His wife was the main earner during his Kildare days.

He says he was blessed to have Kieran McGeeney as a coach during his final years as the Armagh man took a keen interest in the overall welfare of his players. “What our plans were in life or for careers, maybe putting a few younger lads who didn’t have great Leaving Certificates in the right direction. Because playing with the county doesn’t last that long and the old days of the bank job or a rep job are long gone.”

In his first season, Mac Lochlainn shared a dressingroom with the remnants of the 1998 side which reached the All-Ireland final. Mac Lochlainn was 19 and felt like the kid in the group. By the time he finished, the squad was peppered with teenagers. He remembers Eoin Doyle asking him about his plans for the weekend. He mentioned bringing the kids to a park. Doyle thought for a second and said: “Oh yeah, I used to go there when I was a kid.”

Mac Lochlainn was both amused and shocked at how “senior” he had become even though he was just 28.

“It is a hugely different dynamic. That balance of age and experience and life experience and characters; without that, I think teams do suffer. You look at the age profile in a lot of teams now and the football is there but the life experience is not. When I started playing with the older crew, we would have pints after league games,” he says.

“And it wasn’t from a drinking point of view but as a social point of view that it mattered. Families went as well and you might have a meal and a few pints. Young players now can’t really go out so the rewards are fewer. Only a handful of players in three or four counties reap any kind of material reward for their commitment.”

There is no question that life gets in the way of elite GAA players as they progress. “Priorities change,” says Hare. “Mortgages, marriage, promotions: all of these are in the equation.” But he believes well-managed players can prolong their careers. While he was with Longford, Paul Barden suffered aggravated back pain but through a rehabilitation programme and tailored training, his last three seasons were among his most rewarding.

Mixed message

If Hare was given the run of things, he would end the under-21 championship and ban county ball players from playing Sigerson Cup. “The colleges are producing a lot of valuable material on player burn-out and injury. But then they have intercounty players involved in what is a highly demanding tournament. So there is a mixed message there.”

The combined pressures which intercounty players absorb have long been acknowledged: the GAA produced its first comprehensive review on player burn-out in 2007. But fingers are still being drummed over what to do to ease it. There have been a few positive steps.

At a conference in Croke Park last year, Cathal Cregg, the Roscommon forward who works as strength and conditioning coach with the Connacht Council, gave a presentation on Smartabase, an application which provides a comprehensive digital data system to monitor the training regime and injury history of all young players. It was piloted in 2013 and introduced across Connacht a year later with a full national roll-out intended for 2015.

“These young people are not mini-adults or machines. They are children and we can’t keep training and training them without recovery,” Cregg said.

Smartabase is just a start but it demonstrates a recognition of the need for shared knowledge as a player passes from under-16 to senior grades. One of the joys of working with Offaly for Hare has been watching how methodical and dedicated Niall McNamee (debut season 2003) is in his training. “Turns up 40 minutes beforehand. Stretches. Foam-rolling.”

Natural fitness

Hare believes there is no need to have a player like McNamee running “crazy laps” in the early season: that you manage individuals according to age and fitness requirements. You make allowances for experience and previous injury and natural fitness reserves and when they are likely to be called into the first team rather than the old one-in, all-in approach.

It still pains Mac Lochlainn to watch Kildare knowing that, in different circumstances, he might be out there. “It was very difficult in the beginning. Most people step away when the body is beginning to give up or it has gone stale. I was fortunate to be still starting in most games. So that made it more difficult. There were some tough games for Kildare that season and knowing I could help and plug a hole: that was hard. I felt in a way that I was letting team-mates down by not being there.”

In July, it will be 16 years since Mickey Linden played in an Ulster final for Down at the age of 39. He was still playing Ulster club football at 45. Linden is a rarity: an out-and-out athlete whose body never seemed to betray him. But the prospect of anyone emulating his feat has never been more remote.

The traditional make-up of teams was always veteran players, a cohort in its prime and promising young ones. The guile and experience of the senior players was always as much a part of the equation as irrepressible speed or athleticism. That element of craft and know-how has been eroded as players bow out earlier. There has always been a tendency in Gaelic games to bemoan the fact that fun has gone out of it.

“I went as hard as I could for as long as I could,” was Tomás Ó Sé’s memorable summation of his magnificent 15-year career with Kerry. It might well be the epitaph for the last generation of veteran ball players.

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