After a Tommy Murphy Cup game between Antrim and Kilkenny several years ago, I had a pint with one of Kilkenny’s footballers in the Casement Park lounge. He told me he wasn’t feeling the best as they had been on “a major rip” the night before. We both burst out laughing. Being a dual player in Kilkenny sounds like fun, not that there are many of them. Mind you, when DJ Carey was in his glorious pomp with the hurlers, the footballers found themselves short a few bodies for an O’Byrne Cup match. The bus stopped at DJ’s house and he gamely agreed to tog out. The little wizard ended up their top scorer, finishing with five points from play! Sadly, they couldn’t persuade him to stick at it. Winning hurling All-Irelands is an all-consuming business, leaving no time or energy for anything else.
When the Derry football team I played on was going strong, I played a bit for the hurlers as well. They had a very different scene. We had a nutritionist, a psychologist and a rigorous training regime. The hurlers, who had none of the above, lived in a happier and better world. I cannot recall training with them. I can however remember a couple of trips away in the lower divisions of the NHL. For them, an away game was like a stag night. We would catch the bus in Dungiven outside Kealey’s Shop, kitbag in one hand, carry-out in the other. After a few cans, the sing-song got going and by the time we got over the border we were onto ‘Sean South’ or ‘The Men Behind the Wire.’ Once we hit the hotel, we got showered, dressed in the glad rags and headed out on the town. I remember one away game where I was unlucky enough to be picked on the starting line-up. After 15 minutes of hell, Liam Hinphey, the manager, summoned me to the sideline, took a long, slow drag on his cigarette, blew a cloud of smoke in my face and said, “Do me a favour Joe, kick the f***ing thing.” Not to worry, by the time the bus reached Newry on the way home, we were belting out, “Come Out You Black and Tans.” In those days, being a dual county player was feasible. Not any more.
When Cork’s Eoin Cadogan announced last week that he could no longer play both codes for his county and would in future concentrate on football, it signalled the death knell for the top flight dual player. I know Eoin. He signed hurls for my children when I spent an evening in Cork a few years ago. Leaving the Cork hurlers will be a huge wrench for him, ruining one of his boyhood dreams. It was inevitable it would come to this. As his football team mate Aidan Walsh said at the weekend in response to the news, “Eoin used to be crippled coming to football training. Some days he wasn’t physically able to train at all. He wasn’t doing himself justice in any sense.” Walsh, himself a superb hurler, should know. According to the great Tomas Mulcahy, the young All-Star is well capable of hurling with distinction for the Rebels. However, as Walsh says himself, the shame of it is that “hurling is my first love. But nowadays it is impossible to combine both codes at senior level.” Where on earth would the coaches fit the second GPS tracking system?
County level is now an exhausting, mind and body shattering process. The current football champions, Donegal, have no distractions. They train in the mornings before the cows are milked. Then in the evenings for up to three hours. They wear GPS devices which transmit all sorts of data to the coaches. Diets are monitored. Rest and sleep is carefully prescribed. The current hurling champions are in an identical position. No dual players, no distractions. Normal life is suspended for the foreseeable future. The club football champions are Crossmaglen, who seem set to win without interruption until they die. They are barred from playing University football. Neither are they permitted to play county football while Crossmaglen remain in the championship. After Crossmaglen, they have nothing left to give. The morning of their Armagh semi-final six months ago, the squad – under the guidance of their renowned fitness coach Seamus McGeown – met at 8.30am at Gosford Forest Park outside Armagh. They proceeded to do a high intensity 70 minute fartlek run (running at various speeds). Afterwards, the bus took them home, they showered and were back at the clubhouse in time to catch the bus to the match. One of their regular training sessions is to run forty 200m runs, with each run having to be completed inside 33 seconds. No one takes longer. Well, no one apart from Paul Hearty, the keeper.
Anthony Cunningham’s Galway hurlers reached the All-Ireland final last year. Their regular post match ritual at this time of the year is a gruelling sprint session. Their training regime – like the other heavyweight contenders – takes everything you have. The tank – as managers like to say – is emptied. It is the same story everywhere.
The Dubs in particular have a serious problem coming down the tracks. Their underage coaching system is beginning to produce superb underage hurling teams. Their minor hurlers have contested the last two finals. Their minor footballers likewise. The problem is that they are producing squadrons of superb dual players, capable of starring in both codes. But when they hit senior level, they are going to have to choose one or the other. The tug of war is already beginning. If their best hurlers (the likes of Ciaran Kilkenny, Cormac Costello etc) are not available, they cannot make the big breakthrough. Likewise, if their best footballers are not available, they will struggle. Their system has stimulated massive levels of participation. But it is inevitable that this remarkable hurling revival will damage the fortunes of the senior footballers. Cork, a GAA giant, has underachieved for years because of this friction.
Liam O’Neill wants to see lads playing both sports and enjoying them. This is a worthy sentiment but it is wholly unrealistic. Each year, the burden on county players increases. It is the human way, as we strive to be faster, stronger and fitter. The traditional ideals of recreation and enjoyment have been replaced by the cold pursuit of victory.
Beer on the bus and singsongs died just outside Newry about 20 years ago.