OUR warm-up ended abruptly when the majority of players couldn’t manage more than a couple of stretches.
Gathered in a circle out on a pitch ahead of a throwaway junior D league match, my team-mates and I waited patiently for our captain to issue an inspirational speech.
The order was given to straighten our legs and slowly bend forward before touching our toes. Once that manoeuvre was completed, the next step was to straighten our backs whilst taking deep breaths before returning to a standing position.
What followed was a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Hollywood blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. One by one, we struggled to bend over let alone touch our toes. Loud grunts, red faces and over-exertions caused some individuals to keel over. Others were left transfixed in a perilous body shape. That was the cue for one participant to light up a cigarette whilst another searched for a quiet place to relieve the tension.
Everyone else fell about laughing, gave up on the attempt at a pre-match stretch and just got on with the game. I have no recollection as to whether we won, lost or drew the particular match in question but that wasn’t the point.
A collection of ageing GAA players mixed with those who rarely got a game at underage or adult level plus a few minor and U21 upstarts were togged out because we loved playing Gaelic football. Representing our club was important, yes, but the dressing room banter, pre-match laughs and post-match analysis are the reasons we turned up. The post-match analysis could be cruel.
‘That fella you were marking was half your age. Actually, his father would be half your age.’
‘There’s no point in kicking it in to him, he only starts moving in the second half.’
‘The next fella who attempts a solo run is getting a slap. Let the ball in long. We are not able for chasing after it at this hour of our lives.’
I played junior D football towards the end of a less than stellar GAA career for one reason: to enjoy myself. The camaraderie of a group of people intent on having a bit of fun whilst playing Gaelic football was the attraction. We wanted to win but the result wasn’t the be all and end all. Laughter, camaraderie, togetherness and having some fun was why we were there.
The memory of that failed warm-up drifted into my head as I listened to strength-and-conditioning coach Mike McGurn and former Tipperary senior hurler Shane McGrath debate a question on RTÉ radio over the past weekend.
At the highest level, has the GAA become too serious, too professional in its approach and lost sight of what made it is a success in the first place?
McGurn made the point that, nowadays, many inter-county GAA footballers train more often than the All Blacks! McGrath added his concern that an increasing number of skilful players are being lost to inter-county panels simply because they (a) don’t possess a huge physique or (b) are no longer willing to train six nights a week.
I am not cricitising any inter-county panel for pushing themselves to the limit in their efforts to attain All-Ireland glory. Every man and woman knows exactly what they are signing up for at the beginning of each inter-county season. Good luck to them.
Yet, Shane McGrath’s point that, for many, the craic is gone out of GAA, especially at the top level, is a salient one. McGrath admitted the fun element is still present, to a certain extent, within clubs.
More and more inter-county players who don’t feature at the business end of championships are beginning to question themselves when it comes to sacrificing so much of their personal lives. Why wouldn’t they?
That opinion is borne out by an increasing number of players in their mid to late-20s choosing to take a year out and travel rather than go through the rigours of another year’s training.
Coming out of Covid-19, it will be intriguing to see how many business owners or self-employed individuals return to club and inter-county setups.
Mike McGurn also expressed the opinion that an increasing number of injuries is making players think twice about committing, long-term, at GAA inter-county level. Hardly surprising for an amateur organisation that appears, in some instances, to be operating at a semi-professional level.
As a player, winning at all costs is fine if that’s what you have signed up for. Increasingly, coming back year after year to chase that goal takes its toll both on and off the pitch.
GAA players of varying abilities will return to pitches all over the country in the next few weeks. For some, gunning for All-Ireland glory is all that matters. For the majority, enjoying social interactions and playing the game they love are the reasons they will lace up their boots.
Whatever your point of view, GAA should be enjoyed and not endured, irrespective of the number of toe-touches you can manage.