Not so long ago, the tales were rare enough to startle us. For instance, around the millennium, Kevin Walsh’s knees faced inwards, a stairs was a mountain and his Galway teammates reckoned he’d be wheeled out for jubilee teams of the future. Meanwhile just over five years ago, Bernard Flynn wrote to the late Jimmy Stynes and said: “Hey, Jim, we have lost practically everything that we worked hard for over 20 years. We’re starting all over again, it’s hard.” Days later, at just 42, he had a hip replacement because for too long he’d been taking six to eight pills just to play a round of golf.
It seemed unbelievable stuff. But these days, you’d better believe it. Rugby may have a concussion crisis hurtling down the tracks, but burnout of body and mind has already pulled in at the station for Gaelic games. For great footballers like those above, it was the high price of huge successes. But for more and more, they’re now questioning an ever greater cost and just walking away from it all.
It’s not just future considerations either, but present-day pressures. Back in June, Barry Owens of Fermanagh spoke of having to train every night of the week and said before Fermanagh opened their Ulster campaign, “At the end of the day, it should be a hobby”. Nobody listened and it’s the major factor why we’ve lost top-level names like Kenny, Kernan, McVeigh, Keenan, Penrose, O’Sullivan, Lennon, Meade and Armstrong this off-season when all had more to offer. Not that it should come as a surprise either and there’ll be many more to slip away early across the coming years.
Back in 2011, three-time All Ireland-winner Philip Jordan walked off at an age that not long ago would have had him as a leader with miles left on the clock. But at 32, he’d enough. When he started in 2003, Tyrone were doing one training session a week up until April and never more than two at any stage when there was a game that week. Yet by 2012, they started the season by doing four a week, more than he’d ever done even in the lead up to September finals. “But Donegal coming along took it all to another level still,” he says. “It’s not just the amount of sessions either, but the time. Like Saturday for them, I’ve heard it’s a full day. Not just training but walk-throughs, video analysis. And the season never ends; so much training and so few games, the body just can’t take it really.”
Jordan has already had two hip operations and is told the chances are he’ll need a hip replacement. But there’s no chance as far as Kildare’s Brian Flanagan is concerned. Just 29, he’s not only had to quit football this winter, but he’s had to do so in the knowledge he can never run again after a chance collision in training ruptured his cruciate ligament. “I’ll need a knee replacement and there’s no way around that,” he says. “It could be five years, it could be 10, but I’ve come to accept that. But look, that was a freak, but there is a growing workload and it’s at breaking point. It’s already started as it’s too much for many lads even in their late 20s. It’s very hard to balance training, recovery, diet, games, work. I could never progress in my career like I am now with all that.”
By the time Kildare reached their peak under Kieran McGeeney in 2010 and 2011, the side were doing either eight or nine “modules” of work a week, depending on one or two training sessions at the weekend. That was merely to keep up with the top eight to 10 counties says one player. But these days it goes beyond even that. We’ve heard of the 6am training sessions, but two Ulster sides this year are even using a software programme where they’ve to log in sleeping hours as soon as they wake up for starters. Those over Gaelic games may have forgotten the amateur ethos and like to play at being pro but players haven’t forgotten. It’s why this month Denis Glennon spoke out about finishing a graveyard shift as a Garda and getting three hours sleep before Westmeath played Meath. Experts won’t be surprised to hear he ended up injured after 20 minutes.
That’s an area Paddy Keenan can relate to. He’s 30 now and has just quit despite being one of the game’s premier midfielders. “It’s hard to get across how exhausted I was when I left, the mind and body were totally spent. As a person I was just drained of life. College was hard to get through; with work I couldn’t give what I wanted to go places. Lately I was working in Dublin and Cork and there’d be two hours in the car commuting and straight out to the training field with no warm-ups and my back would be giving problems. Now I’ve been lucky in a way, I’ve had disc problems but I look at guys I know; with the workload, one will need new knees, another has hip and back damage and I’d always have had one eye on that. It made me think what my life could be in 10, 15, 30, 40 years’ time. I said to myself I’ve a life to live and I’ve given up a life for a long time because of football.”
Yet it’s not just those whose bodies are bent and broken that are exiting the stage. Last week, Bernard Brogan talked of players building their careers around football. When Aaron Kernan heard his words in Armagh, he nodded because he knew. At 30, his retirement will hurt his county hard, but not as hard as it was hurting Kernan’s real life. “Physically and mentally I never felt as good as last season but with a young family you have to realise suddenly there are people more important than you. And it’s gotten to the stage I wanted to be seen as a respected businessman, not a businessman that was respected because he was a footballer. And I say that having stayed healthy.”
But unfortunately, he’s slowly becoming the exception and the experts back that up. Tyrone physio Louis O’Connor has been researching the number of hip, knee and groin injuries in football and believes it’s due to committing to one sport meaning repetition of the same movements across life. Others have set off warning lights as well. Alan O’Connor, a backroom member with the Wexford footballers said “the situation is not sustainable”. And John Casey who worked with the Tipp hurlers as well as the Munster rugby team said GAA players were being put under too much pressure.
“Of course they are,” concludes Jordan, who now must think about his own physical future seriously due to his service. “I remember reading about Bernard Flynn and he said if he could give back his All Ireland medals to get his physical health back he nearly would. I never understood that before but now, I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t give mine back. Maybe someday I’ll think exactly like Bernard.”
It’s become clear Gaelic games have gone too far and someone needs to say stop, even if for many it’s too late.
Sunday Business Post
18 January, 2015