FOR football coach Christian Streich, the return of the Bundesliga was both complex and reassuring.
The Freiberg manager, known as the philosopher of the Black Forest for his slightly different take on football, did an interview with The New York Times recently and shared his thoughts on the return to training from lockdown.
The idea of football as big business was brushed aside, he said, by the joy of the players to be back training, playing the game they’d grown up with. He was reminded that it’s not just for financial reasons that players are professional: They love playing football.
Two, the notion that sport is an escape from reality is flawed, he said.
Sport is more than that: It is life for many people, and Streich described how he had spent more of his life playing and watching football than eating; that for fans, going to the game with friends, talking about it, thinking about it, is cultural.
Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, made a similar point about his players having grown up playing football with their friends in the park, in the playground, away from the fans and crowds; how playing football was more natural to them than anything else.
The GAA is different in that football and hurling are not the players’ jobs, but a similar principle is in play. Sometimes, we dismiss sport as unimportant or as something to be put in perspective, as if it were not a real thing, but maybe there’s something in Christian Streich’s analysis that is just as relevant to GAA people and athletics and soccer and golf and, yes, OK, even rugby people.
There’s a lot of talk about lads being careful not to be defined by being an intercounty player and making sure of a balance, but I remember asking a few players separately about this, and each made the entirely relevant point that they loved having that purpose, that they loved the games and the training and the group, and that, yes, their sport did define them for that period, but maybe that wasn’t the worst thing to be defined by.
Darragh Ó Sé mentioned, a few weeks ago, how the initial message from the GAA — when any chance of playing games for the year was more or less stamped out — got the tone completely wrong; that even if the intention to be conservative and safe was correct, that people really just needed some kind of hope to keep the thing going.
On an Off the Ball podcast, Michael Verney described the excitement of heading out to training with the club this week; just the thrill of being able to take a shot at a proper goal and move with a ball around an actual pitch, rather than running a road or a beach.
One senior club player sent a message saying that the energy from the group the first night out was like a bunch of children playing their first match, given the sheer enthusiasm for the game after a time away.
Some play for that pursuit of excellence in themselves which sport provides, some play to be part of something bigger, some play for competitive purposes, some play for social reasons. Sport gives people that opportunity and it becomes part of who they are; how they’re known and remembered.
And so, we have a programme of games. The county championship calendar rolled out this week is as ambitious and progressive as you’d expect, where maybe the easy option to return to knockout to free up time/resources/allow inter-county activity has been ignored and club players will still get their three games across six weeks.
These are proper, meaningful matches, too, with real relegation and standards that need to be maintained to even survive, not to mind develop or make a breakthrough.
From a pure perspective of football watchers in the county, there is a crazy first weekend of group action. It has one West Cork derby that could easily be a county final (Ross v Haven), city (Douglas v Bishopstown) and West Cork (Newcestown v Ilen) derbies, other potentially interesting, defining clashes (Barrs v Ballincollig and even Nemo v Valleys look tasty), and that’s all just at Premier senior football level on day one.
If it was in a normal summer, we’d be wondering how anybody could get around to enough of these games to stay in touch with things.
Players who have kept going through group WhatsApp challenges and lone runs for months, and who would have been fairly demotivated by the idea of one game, now have three definite games and with proper notice.
Sure, it’ll be a tough ask for any dual clubs sharing a lot of players — let’s say Newcestown or Kanturk, for example — to make a go at both competitions, but, then again, these clubs have gotten used to these kinds of hurling-football-hurling-football runs of games. Certainly, an inter-county player who makes the final stages of the club competition will have a busy autumn/winter.
A footballer who reaches a county final will have six games in 10 weeks or so, which isn’t unlike a national league campaign, so it’s not unprecedented from a physical-preparation point of view, with two weeks off before two national league games, and then another two weeks off before Kerry. Again, this is probably the kind of game-every-fortnight schedule that players are actually looking for anyway.
An inter-county hurler who also plays football for his club, so adding at least three games to that initial timeframe, would obviously be in a more difficult position.
It’s hardly the ideal cramming of games for now, but with an awful lot of unnecessary negativity going around about county teams ruining the ideal, the Cork championship is stacked towards the club players, if anything.
The responsibility for not overloading players falls to club and inter-county management, but if it’s games that players have always wanted, then it’s games they are after getting now.
The games will make us all a little happier in ourselves.