Arid Environment

Kerry’s bonding days of hell en route to All-Ireland

SO much is new and unusual for us when it comes to the 2022 football championship. Most significantly it will be run off in 15 weekends, finishing with the All Ireland final on July 24th.

The condensed season and the short gap between league and championship equates to an important change for most teams. That gap would have previously afforded teams – particularly the top teams – an invaluable opportunity to physically top up to be ready for the summer road. While some teams, most notably Kerry, still have that luxury, many counties are straight into it. How the sports scientists manage this will be telling.

When I was involved we were lucky enough to go on pre-championship overseas camps (when they were still permitted), to places like Portugal and London. I always throughly enjoyed these camps. As a player, it was an opportunity to live the life of a professional for the week. No work, no family commitments, just football. As a management team it was an incredible opportunity to have your players together, distraction-free, to do work both on and off the pitch. Striking the balance between too much and too little was always tricky but, in general, we benefited massively from these excursions.

While this aspect of our preparation was widely known and well documented at the time, a lesser-known but no less important aspect of our preparation would have been the team-bonding days we spent together. Those physically and mentally challenging days were incredible to help further foster that unbreakable team spirit. Think a version of ‘Hell Week’ in a single day. Over the years we did many different things as repeat events tend to lose their effect.

In 2014, when we won the All Ireland, Kerry headed for the Galtee mountains the previous May. Cian O’Neill had contacts within the Ranger Wing of the Irish Army and he organised Ed Holland and a few of his mates to put us through our paces at the foot of Galtymore. The players had no idea what lay ahead. They were merely told to be in Fitzgerald Stadium Saturday morning at 06.30. We provided them with the details of the gear required but more importantly, they were given a list of materials by the army lads to bring.

On the morning in question as we approached our destination there was a jovial atmosphere on the bus. That quickly evaporated when we pulled into a forest and our welcoming committee consisted of three fit and serious-looking men. They immediately began barking orders at the lads to get off the bus and get organized in lines. As an observer, it was hilarious to watch the change in dynamic. The lads then had to do a quick mile run with their bags on their backs. When we got to a little farmyard, which was our base for the day, a few of the players were randomly picked out and had to empty their bags to prove to the Rangers that they had everything on the list.

Poor Dáithí Casey was missing a few items from the list and the Army lads were only too delighted to make an example of him and he had to wear a gas mask for the morning session. Marc Ó Sé also got pinged, which was very unlike him, both in terms of his professionalism and also the fact that he was usually far too cute to get caught out.

One of the items on the Rangers list was a tin of Bachelors Beans. Marc had brought the Heinz variety. In fairness to him, he didn’t raise the white flag straight away, as he quickly took the wrapper off the can when he realised his mistake. He wasn’t fooling the boys though. He too had to wear a gas mask.

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AT this stage, I was struggling not to burst out laughing and had to stand at a distance. If I did start laughing I was worried I would end up with one of the gas masks as well. Needless to say that would have made the lads’ day. For the rest of the morning, the players were seriously put through their paces. They had to do a series of physical and mental challenges while all the time working together as a team. Donnchadh Walsh was injured but there was, so we gave him a video camera and he documented the day’s activities. I later used some of this footage for a motivational video prior to the All Ireland.

While the lads were eating lunch, Cian and I set off with one of the Rangers for the top of Galtymore. This was to get a start on the lads. We wanted to be waiting for them on the summit. Post-lunch, for their next challenge, the lads ran up the mountain, with everyone staying together and helping each other up. At the top we had a brief chat about what our plans were for the summer and we promised each other we would win Sam Maguire and return here with it as a group. I proceeded to open a bag I had brought with me. Inside were a set of Kerry jerseys, numbered from 1-15 and a Kerry flag. There were two jerseys for every position, two number 1s, two number 2s and all the way up. I presented each one of the lads with a jersey representing the position they were in possession of, or fighting for. The message was simple. To win the All Ireland we would need at least two players competing for each position and the selections would be based on form, not reputation. We followed through with that promise for the summer.

The lads left the jerseys on and ran back down the mountain, which was quite the sight to witness. When we all got back down the Ranger lads debriefed us as a group. They spoke about the importance of strength in adversity and highlighted that the lads were exceptional when on task but also that when they lost focus, they could be ordinary. These were messages we took with us for the rest of the season. The weekend prior to the All Ireland I invited Ed Holland down to Kerry to speak to the squad again and to tie our experiences back to that spiritual day on the mountain.

Another year we went out to the Blaskets for an overnight stay. We had the place to ourselves and trained like dogs out there on the Saturday. We ran the circuit around An Blascaod Mór before repairing to An Trá Bhán where Padraig Corcoran put the lads through every kind of a physical torture known to man, with the primary aim of building mental fortitude.

Johnny Buckley was carrying an injury at the time, and a little-known fact is that he is an exceptional amateur chef and he took control of food duties. Having trained hard all day the players deservedly ate like kings that evening. Marc brought his bosca ceoil and after dinner we had a bit of a sing song.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry management team on the Blasket Islands off the west Kerry coast. From left: Diarmuid Murphy, Fitzmaurice, Padraig Corcoran and Liam Hassett

The following morning I wanted us to be down on An Trá Bhán as dawn broke, to represent the symbolic dawning of our championship season. Jason Foley had just joined the panel and like any new recruit he was just trying to survive and to fit in. Liam Hassett took it upon himself to call everyone at 05.30 to be ready for sunrise. For the craic he wore a child’s Halloween mask to give the lads a fright. Most of them were either up already or wise to the gag but poor Jason was sleeping like a baby and got the fright of frights when he opened his eyes to see this mask a foot from his face. He thought some crowd was after attacking us!

Later that afternoon we organized a big feast of food for the lads in the Skellig Hotel in Dingle when we returned to the mainland. As I came out the door afterwards I noticed Jason being picked up by his dad to take him home to north Kerry as he didn’t drive at the time. I was thinking to myself “Oh Jesus, what is his dad going to think of us? Between the hard training and a mask-wearing lunatic waking his son that morning I wondered will he be at training at all on Tuesday?” But there he was and the antics and the retelling of the story meant he was a part of the group from the off.

From the management perspective getting to see players in a totally different environment and how they react to being completely taken out of their comfort zone in unorthodox situations is also an invaluable exercise. It is amazing how often this can play out on the football pitch afterwards.

With the short lead in to the championship, I’m not sure many teams will have the opportunity to do things like this anymore.

More’s the pity.

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