For others the start of the New Year means business as usual as preparations for the summer begin in earnest.
Much can be gathered from a teams approach to cup competitions. While each inter-county team has constants, each season can be classed as a new group of players. Each group has a maximum nine month life span. With such a short window managers may want to immediately put their strongest side in place and begin implementing and executing their preferred game plan.
Lets take Kildare as an example. 11 of those who started in last summers All Ireland quarter final against Cork played some part in Wednesday evenings victory over DIT. This is Kieran McGeeney’s sixth year in charge and there is a ‘Now or never’ feel to it. There is only a certain number of competitive games available in a calendar year and the mindset here is to utilise these to prepare for the summer.
McGeeney also has the luxury of having a large proportion of his players available to him. The participation of third level colleges in the early season competitions often means that management don’t have access to the majority of their squad. Wexford were beaten by Carlow IT on Wednesday. A shock – yes. The architect of their downfall – Carlow IT’s corner forward Ben Brosnan. The Wexford man is unavailable to his own county. With these kind of situations it is hard to gauge progress in January.
Momentum is a strange beast. No matter what competition, winning equips the players with a belief that they can compete. If they are better than the opposition in late January what better motivation then to stay ahead of them for the rest of the year. In 2011 the Dublin hurlers beat Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup Final. Early season sloppiness and cobwebs were blamed for the Cats lacklustre display. They met again in the league – a draw was the outcome. Come April the two sides found themselves against one another in the league final. Dublin won well. The fear of playing Kilkenny had been wiped with those early season performances.
Offaly are a team building early season momentum. After struggling for a number of seasons now – losing has become the rule, winning is the exception. New manager Emmett McDonnell has led them to victories over Athlone IT and Laois. A victory over Westmeath will see them into the semi-final. Small victories, but victories all the same. Progression must be implemented to gain success. If anything the positivity of January will create a much needed buzz around the county, dare I say restoring faith in the faithful.
In their first game back since Septembers All Ireland, Donegal were well beaten by Fermanagh. The lack of depth in their panel was exposed by Peter Canavans charges. Circumstances must be taken into account however. Training restrictions mean Donegal and Mayo were the two latest teams back training – only allowed to begin on January 1st. The squad only returned from a well earned trip to Dubai in early January.
Forget ‘Jimmy’s winning matches’, ‘Jimmy’s not attending matches’ is the new jingle. McGuinness has handed responsibility to his subordinate Marc ‘Maxi’ Curran for the pre-season matches. The McKenna Cup is not of much value to McGuinness. He’s signalled that he plans to use a similar squad to last season. His hope from the tournament is to unveil one new player who could strengthen his current group of players. Injuries and third level means McGuinness will struggle early season to re-enforce his precise strategies.
A modern day sporting cliché “peaking at the right time”. Victorious managers have attributed success to a perfectly executed training plan which allowed them peak in the latter summer months. Does this mean they held back earlier in the season? Not really it just means that emphasis was weighted more towards non-footballing aspects such as fitness and gym work etc. Once these have been achieved then teams can fine-tune skills, tactics and game plans. A manager once said “They can play football once they are fit enough to play football”
This weekend we will get a mixed bag of action. Full teams, half teams, fresh faces, pretenders, contenders. It is trying to grasp meaning and decoding plans from these early season games that makes it all the more interesting.