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GAA at county level is now a lifestyle choice involving a near 12-month round commitment

Of course it is not against any rule for a player to roll up to their local gym and lift a few weights.

David Clifford celebrates Kerry's All-Ireland final win. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Sean McGoldrickSunday World

OFFICIALLY inter-county training resumes in 20 days’ time – but only those who still have faith in the tooth fairy actually believe counties are adhering to this regulation.

Granted there are no field sessions - but one suspects the major amount of inter-county players are back in the gym.

Of course it is not against any rule for a player to roll up to their local gym and lift a few weights.

Playing at county level is now a lifestyle choice involving a near 12-month round commitment.

Newly-appointed Longford manager Paddy Christie said recently one of the reasons he accepted the job was when he learned the players were back in the gym since August.

Former Tyrone All-Ireland medallist Sean Cavanagh indicated on radio recently that the Tyrone squad were also working in the gym.

One of the excuses for Tyrone’s woeful performances in the championship this year was because they were playing catch-up, having missed a big chunk of their pre-season preparation due to the extended club season, which was followed by the team holiday late last year.

Missing part of the pre-season due to a team holiday didn’t impact too much on Limerick hurlers, who comfortably retained the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how Kerry cope with missing a chuck of their pre-season due to their December team holiday.

I imagine Jack O’Connor is fretting more that there is no end in sight to David Clifford’s season.

Clifford scored 1-2 for Kerry in their demolition of Limerick in the first round of the McGrath Cup on January 5 last.

Apart from his Kerry commitments he has also featured for the University of Limerick in the Sigerson Cup, his club Fosses and divisional team East Kerry during 2022.

He also inspired East Kerry to a comfortable win over Mid-Kerry in the Kerry county final last Sunday.

He will be back on the field on Sunday, assisting Fosses in the Kerry junior semi-final against Ardfert. In the event of Fosses winning the title there is a Munster and All-Ireland campaign to come.

No player needs a holiday more than the 23-year-old All-Star.

At the other end of the football chain the weaker teams have to work so much harder just to stand still in the rankings.

Long gone are the days when fitness was the cornerstone of the occasional shock win for a minnow over one of the Goliaths.

Nowadays, strength and conditioning has replaced basic fitness as the essential building block towards achieving success.

Players can attain premium levels of aerobic fitness in a relatively short space of time however it takes much more time to build up optimum levels of strength and conditioning.

The structure of the inter-county season meant the chances of the weaker teams ever catching up was remote.

They exited the championship early and there was no appetite among players to continue to go to the gym over the summer months.

Furthermore, the majority of counties didn’t have the resources to employ a full-time strength-and-conditioning coach who would provide programmes for players during the off-season.

It was the classic vicious circle which meant that literally the strong got stronger and the weak became weaker.

Next year’s new-look season ought to be a help.

All the counties competing in the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup are guaranteed at least three games in the series in addition to whatever number of games they will play in the provincial championships.

All but nine counties – four in the Sam Maguire and five in the Tailteann Cup – will have at least one more championship game. The downside for most counties is this is squeezed into late January, February, March, April and May.

Meanwhile, the new Allianz League is set to begin on the last weekend in January. The publication of the provisional fixtures list will have focussed the minds of managers, players and fans.

The stand-out round one Division 1 tie is the visit of beaten All-Ireland finalists Galway to Castlebar on Saturday, January 28. This will be the first serious test for the home side under new manager Kevin McStay.

Last season Mayo had no league matches at home due to the MacHale Park pitch being upgraded. They still comfortably survived in the top-flight – and actually qualified for an ill-fated final appearance against Kerry. This season four of their seven league ties are at home.

The other first round Division 1 fixtures are Donegal v Kerry, Roscommon v Tyrone and Monaghan v Armagh.

There are no Leinster teams competing in Division 1. Dublin and Kildare, who were both relegated from the top-flight, meet in round 1 of Division 2 in Croke Park on January 28th .

One of the stand-out fixtures in Division 2 will be the first league meeting between Dublin and Meath for 35 years in Navan on Saturday, March 18.

Never mind Christmas, roll on January 28!

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