I was invited to Crossmaglen training the other night. Standing in Oliver Plunkett Park in the freezing cold reminded me that success is horribly unglamorous. Just after winning a medal in her last ever race at this summer’s Olympics, British Gold medal winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton was asked by a BBC reporter how she felt.
“Relieved. I’m just so glad it’s all done.”
Or world renowned rower Sir Steve Redgrave, who immediately on winning his last, epic Olympic race announced to the world that if anyone saw him approaching a boat again, “Would they please shoot me.”
During the warm up the other night, as the balls fizzed over our heads like exocet missiles, my son Rory started laughing.
“I’ve never seen such brilliant kick-passing Daddy.”
Pin-point 70m passes were drilled onto men’s chests. The man taking possession barely had the ball in his hands before he was driving it to the next man. As the session developed they ranged through their entire repertoire, all at 100mph, all in near silence. Seamus McGeown, their renowned running and fitness coach put them through their paces. Then they were back kicking again, starting with a beautifully worked drill that mirrors their style of play. To see it at close quarters was stunning. The accuracy, the pace, the movement. It looked simple, but it was ingenious. As the lads tore into it, sometimes sprinting 100 yards in support, I asked Seamus if they weren’t pushing it a bit hard given it was the week of such a big game.
“Look at them closely Joe” he said. I did.
I gave up.
“None of them are out of breath.” And they weren’t.
In the Irish News this week, Jim McCorry, the normally astute Kilcoo manager, having noted that McGeown was solely a running and fitness coach (Cross don’t do weights), said that ‘this wasn’t rocket science’ and went on to say that he himself took that side of the training with Kilcoo.
There is an old saying that if you find yourself with your head inside a lion’s mouth, you shouldn’t waggle it. Jim’s comments will go down like a lead balloon in Cross. It is something that never ceases to amaze me, underdogs chiding great teams.
Galway’s Joe Canning did it after the hurling replay this year, criticising Henry Shefflin and implying that Galway would let their hurling do the talking in the replay. Cody didn’t need to bother with a team talk. The angry lion bit down, decapitating Joe and his team mates. Or what about the day Davy Fitz sent his Waterford team out to intimidate Kilkenny before the throw-in by kicking their ankles. Seventy minutes later, the scoreboard read: Kilkenny 3-30, Waterford 1-13. They were lucky the margin was only 23 points. Perhaps it is something borne of nervousness or fear but it invariably backfires when the opposition disrespects great teams.
Crossmaglen’s fitness, after all, supervised religiously by McGeown, is one of the wonders of modern Gaelic football. At 8.30am on the morning of their Armagh championship semi-final this year against Carrickcruppen, the senior team assembled at Gosford Park in their running gear and on McGeown’s signal, began a 70 minute fartlek run. For the older reader, fartlek is a mode of training which involves running at different speeds over a continuous period. So for example, you will run say 30 seconds at 80% of your full capacity, then 30 seconds at a shuffle and repeat that five times, then change the speeds and times as the run progresses. It is a difficult thing for a coach to get right since as McGeown puts it, “I have 30 individuals and all of them have different needs and capacities.”
He was a professional runner on the American circuit and having trained the Rangers for seven years, it is obvious he sees what others can’t. Anyway, that morning in August, they finished their 70 minute fartlek run, went back home to Cross, showered, had some lunch, then it was up to the park to get the bus to the semi-final. In a league game earlier this year, McGeown was dissatisfied with the team’s attitude in the first half, so burned their arses at half-time with a sprint session. The week before the recent St. Eunan’s, Letterkenny game they turned up to training, ran 50 (yes 50) 200m runs, each inside 33 seconds, then went home.
“What was that like?” I asked Aaron Kernan, who sports the body of a gymnast and the fashion sense of an english aristocrat’s son.
“Joe, near the end I could feel my ears popping.”
After the session, as the freezing mist descended, one man was still out there, swerving improbable kicks over the bar with both feet. Jamie Clarke. I dandered over to him with my son.
“Do something special for us, Jamie” I said. “Send us home smiling.”
He smiled in that shy way of his and said an interesting thing. “You know Joe, I was thinking that some day, I’d like to score a goal like Ibrahimovic.” “You know what Jamie,” I replied, “I believe you could.” And with that, he whipped the ball over his shoulder without looking, straight over the black spot.
Then, it was upstairs into a dingy room above the changing room where the physio works and where Mrs McConville makes tea beside the only heat source in the place, a three bar electric heater. There was no pasta, or boiled chicken or spring water. Instead, plates of ham sandwiches and big packets of those buns that you only ever see at wakes.
“The lemon ones are great,” said Aaron, “Have a couple.”
As the lads slagged each other, (Danny O’Callaghan’s ample arse was attracting a lot of attention!) I sat on an old sofa, sipping black tea and basking in the atmosphere. As we were leaving I said goodbye to Mrs McConville and wished her luck on Sunday.
“Please God they’ll do it,” she said. The perfect night was capped when Tony McEntee (above) insisted on giving my son Rory his brand new Rangers training top, with the great man’s name inscribed on the back.
“Nineties football Joe,” Damien Cassidy said to me last week. “They’re playing football from the 90s.”
On Sunday they will take us back to the future once again. From the whistle, they will kick long and early, fizzing those balls into their lethal full forward line like exocets. Go see them in the flesh while you can. I guarantee it will put a smile on your face.
Crossmaglen, rolling back the years......