Jim McGuinness: Focus on fitness needed for counties to keep up with the best

Physical conditioning of Kerry last week was striking to see and needs to be replicated

Kerry’s Killian Spillane looked noticeably fitter and stronger last week. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Kerry’s Killian Spillane looked noticeably fitter and stronger last week. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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As I drove down the road from Donegal to Killarney last weekend ahead of the Munster championship match I was excited to see Kerry after the reputation they built up over the national league.

David Clifford was at the forefront of my mind and it wasn’t lost on me either that it is a privilege to attend these games and to see these players up close when so many GAA people are locked outside the grounds. The game ran upon expected lines. And on reflection, what struck me about the day was not Clifford - although he was excellent. No, what grabbed my attention was the overall physical condition of the Kerry team.

They were immense. From player one to 15 you could see the common themes. Speed. Strength. Agility. Power. Killian Spillane, in particular, has transformed his body shape since last season. Tommy Walsh warmed up in front of us and it seemed to me he is in better shape now than he was when he returned from Australia - which tells its own story.

The Kerry defenders were very tight and aggressive and physical in the tackle. They are very big athletes but they are lean as well. They can get around the pitch and that leanness allows them to be clean and disciplined in the tackle - and contributes to the agility which facilitates close marking.

There have been question marks over this Kerry defensive unit. And the strength and conditioning battle is one area where they have been able to squeeze percentages quickly. It is like soft skills versus close skills. To create better decision making in your number 11, for instance: that is a slow process in terms of developing patterns of recognition. But strength and conditioning is just that: it is gym work and it’s a close skill. You lift the weights, you stick with the nutrition, you repeat.

Systematic approach

So going home I began to think about this entire evolution within Gaelic football. When I was playing in the 1990s, we in Donegal were frequently at the receiving end of Armagh’s faith in strength and conditioning as a central tenet. They had a trainer there then, John McCluskey, who was also in Queens University and was exposed to other sports and ideas. And he brought a systematic approach to strength training in Armagh.

John McCluskey brought a change to training and fitness at Armagh. Photo: John McAviney/Inpho
John McCluskey brought a change to training and fitness at Armagh. Photo: John McAviney/Inpho

I was 18 when I went into the Donegal set-up and without sounding like a dinosaur, most fellas then were involved in physical work or in trades so we had some naturally, very powerful big men. Teams had a sort of natural composition: they also had small men, they had fast men - and slow men, too, who were nonetheless there because they were exceptional footballers. It was a sprinkling: the guys who happened to be the best in the county - not players who were developed to play for the county. We had naturally better footballers in Donegal in that era - in my opinion. And yet Armagh beat us consistently.

That was always going around in my head. Where were we in relation to Armagh? We were as fit as them. But did we have comparable strength? No. In terms of skill and technical ability, I felt we were certainly on a par. They probably pushed the boundary of tactical awareness - they implemented the sweeper system with Kieran McGeeney and they used the early diagonal ball to their inside forwards brilliantly. So they had a jump on us - and most other teams. Improved mental strength is the culmination of those things. If you know you are stronger and more organised, then that will lend to a mental edge.

Kerry are now trying to get a young group to become men as quickly as possible. The quicker they hit that bench mark, the quicker they win All-Irelands. If they don’t win it this year it will match their longest streak without the Sam Maguire. So this is a huge season for them - and for Dublin. Can Dublin keep them at arm’s length for another summer? Can they increase Kerry’s frustration?

For the past decade, Dublin have been the fittest, the strongest, the most skilful and tactically creative. That was a response to what was happening elsewhere. I remember reading that Pat Gilroy went into the dressing room to wish Kerry well after the 2009 semi-final. Most of the players were togging off and heading for the shower. Pat was taken aback by the physical size of the Kerry men. It was a light-bulb moment.

When I was in college in Kerry, I noticed how professional the set-up was in the approach to strength training. Pat Flanagan was the strength coach for Tralee IT while he was training the Kerry seniors so for the Kerry guys playing in both teams strength training was systematic and routine. They were always the leaders in that aspect of the game - until Dublin stole a march.

Alarm bells

So go back to last weekend where we saw the stronger teams putting up spectacularly big scores against their opposition. It should set alarm bells ringing within the GAA. It felt to me that if those games were played 10 times, the results would be the same. That is a huge departure and I think strength and conditioning is at the heart of it. Right now there is a tier: Dublin. Then The Teams Who Responded to Dublin - maybe six or seven counties. Then the rest.

And it leaves the vast majority of county teams in a precarious situation. They need to radically improve in this basic area of strength and conditioning. It is not going to happen- without intervention. Teams need support. County boards are losing the will to live because the divide has become so big. Whatever romance about how the championship used to be- the underdog having its day and all of that - doesn’t exist anymore.

An intervention has to come from a central source. There needs to be a high performance manager in every county working on a pathway for players to develop from under-14 (or earlier) through to senior. That is precisely what is happening in the strongest counties.

Every player in every county should have the best chance. It is deeply unequal just now. The tactical side of things is up to the coaches. Every county will produce exceptional footballers. But they need to be given an equal chance to compete.

Otherwise, we are going to see the gap continue to expand. A few coaches might come in and transform the culture within a county through force of will and personality. But overall the game is in trouble. That old ideal of picking the 20 best players in the county is over. The strongest teams are concentrating on developing the best. In order to live with that, other counties are going to have to match that approach or fall further into oblivion.

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