Isn’t it a long season for our inter-county footballers when you consider they had their first match of the year last Sunday week, and some or most of them will be involved at either club or county level for another nine or 10 months. I know that the footballers who take their preparation seriously rarely take a week off, and during those two months of so called inactivity at the end of the year will undertake a maintenance programme so as to not lose their superior levels of fitness. It is very easy to pick these guys out if you attend early season matches as they are normally the players that catch the eye. Pat Kelly, Austin O’Malley, Alan Dillon, and Peadar Gardiner are players that spring to mind immediately when I think of players that live as close to a monastic lifestyle as is possible for young men these days. That is one of the primary reasons why they are right up there when it comes to selecting man of the match performances in the FBD league and early rounds of the National Football league.
When the FBD League was introduced over a decade ago it was introduced as a competition that would provide games for the counties within the province during the break in the national leagues. The sponsors FBD came on board and were very enthuastic supporters in the early days. It was anticipated that a provincial league would produce enough attractive games to ensure big numbers of supporters turning out to see some good football from counties that had sufficient excuse to spare nothing in trying to get an advantage over their near neighbours who are, in most cases, their greatest rivals. Needless to say the Connacht Council were all for it too as large gates would yield some much needed revenue for the council’s coffers.
There were no colleges participating in those early years and counties used the competition to bridge the winter break to keep their first choice players sharp for the return to what was a very competitive National League. However in recent years the number of attractive games the FBD League has produced are few and far between. So far this year we have been subjected to some pretty ordinary fare. Teams playing in the FBD League perform, at best, only slightly above half throttle, and consequently there is a challenge game atmosphere surrounding the competition, which is a shame.
When a county team is denied a number of its first choice players, supporters are just not that interested in travelling to see matches similar to the one played last weekend in Ballinode, between Sligo IT and Mayo. That said, I do believe we will have a much better match this Sunday in Ballyhaunis when Mayo get their first opportunity to play inter-county opposition in their final group match. It will be interesting to see how some of the young pretenders get on, but equally it will be crucial for some of our senior stars to get some much needed game time before we play our first national league match in Ballina on February 1. This Sunday’s outing will, I suspect, be our last competitive outing before we play Derry in the opening round of the National League, as I cannot see NUIG losing to a very poor Sligo IT side in their final game. So it will be they that will advance to play (probably ) Galway in the FBD league decider for a ‘freebie’ in New York later in the year.
Keeping the best in the country
Meanwhile, I can understand why Connacht Council secretary John Prenty has this week defended the present format of the FBD competition. After all in the current economic downturn the last thing he needs right now is to lose FBD as sponsors, as they have proved exceptionally loyal in their sponsorship of this competition.
One of the first things I requested help in establishing when I got involved in senior inter-county football management was to enlist a group of influential people that could assist in providing jobs for inter-county footballers. I was lucky in this regard in both Clare and Mayo in the early to mid-nineties.
Remember we didn’t have the kind of affluence back then that we experienced here in this country from the late nineties up to 2007. I saw it as being critical that a county could hold onto good footballers, preferably within their own county, if it were to achieve any kind of success on the football field.
Frankie Griffin was an exceptionally talented wing back that was part of the Clare football team that I managed from 1990 to 1994. He was commuting from London to tog out and play for Clare when I was appointed manager in 1990. I would ring Frankie on a Monday or Tuesday to establish his work schedule before booking a flight for him into Shannon later that week. It was a bonus to have him home on a Friday night before a National League match as it meant we would have him for a kick around on the Saturday preceding the game. He was often listless and tired looking during games, and I was convinced it was the hectic schedule of running and racing to trains and planes in order to get home in time. It was frustrating for me as a manager, but it was more so for the player concerned as he was substituted in several games where he played way below his standard.
Thankfully there was a handful of people around who bent over backwards to secure employment for Frankie in Shannon. He went on to establish himself as one of the very best defenders to tog out for Clare and I can say, without hesitation, that Clare would never have beaten Kerry in the Munster final were it not for the fact that employment had been secured for him in Ireland. Now more than ever we need mini task forces, not just here in Mayo, but in every county to ensure that inter-county players don’t have to emigrate to find work. In a time of recession, of doom and gloom, we need something to lift our spirits on a Sunday afternoon. And I cannot think of a better way than heading off to a match, be it hurling or football, to witness some of our best talent entertain us.
Laying down the law
I see where Pat Gilroy, the recently appointed Dublin football manager, laid down the law with one of his footballers during a recent warm weather training camp in La Manga, Spain. Apparently Diarmuid Connolly, a talented under-21 player, failed to turn up for an early morning training session and was sent home to Dublin ahead of his team mates. Pat was very obviously laying down a marker that he wouldn’t tolerate any form of indiscipline during his tenure. I can understand fully why he would make an example of the first one that stepped out of line. It was unwise of young Connolly to be the one that slept in, and pretty stupid to be caught off guard, but I am sure Pat Gilroy was relieved it wasn’t one of his more senior established players that breached the code of discipline. It may not have been as easy to send Ciaran Whelan packing!