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All-Stars of The Sunday Game era: Football goalkeeper

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Over the last 40 years, The Sunday Game has brought the GAA football and hurling championships into your homes.

And now, we want you to help us choose the best XV in each code of the TV era – picking the best XV from All-Star winners of the Sunday Game era (1979-present)

Cast one vote for your All-Star football goalkeeper of choice below or email teamselection@rte.ie to make any more considered contributions. We will be debating these teams across our platforms in the coming weeks.

***

He is still the last line of defence, can often be the hero or villain, and across the span of this quest the goalkeeper’s role has certainly evolved.

In 1979, Paddy Cullen played his last game for a Dublin team that were on the wane. That said, the Dubs reached a sixth All-Ireland final on the spin and while Kerry had it all too easy in the decider, Cullen had a solid season between the posts and picked up a fourth Al-Star.

After winning successive All-Ireland’s with Offaly in 1971 and ’72, Martin Furlong was still on the scene as Eugene McGee was reviving the Faithful in the late seventies. Furlong was Mr Dependable between the posts and his shot-stopping ability was evident when getting down well to keep out a Mikey Sheehy penalty in that famous ’82 All-Ireland final. The Tullamore native won the last of his four All-Stars in 1983, aged 37.

On the Kerry team that won seven All-Irelands in the period from 1978-86, Charlie Nelligan was the constant presence between the posts, with many lauding him as the best the Kingdom have had in that position.

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John O’Leary captained Dublin to their 1995 All-Ireland win

For 17 seasons, John O’Leary was a key member of the Dublin squad. When he made his debut for Dublin in the 1980 Leinster final, manager Kevin Heffernan said to the then 19-year-old: “Stop the shots, drive your kick-outs as far as you can and keep talking to the backs”. In an era, when defences weren’t as tightly packed, O’Leary, certainly had a lot more saves to make against forwards who  certainly had more freedom and space to execute goal chances.

The O’Dwyer’s clubman has two All-Irelands and five All-Stars to his name and lifted Sam Maguire in 1995 – in a campaign where he kept a clean sheet in the All-Ireland semi-final and final.

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Finbar McConnell won his All Star in 1996

The late 80s saw an intriguing Cork-Meath rivalry emerge, with John Kerins and Michael McQuillan coolness personified between the sticks. Ulster’s emergence in the 1990s saw Donegal’s Gary Walsh and Tyrone’s Finbar McConnell rewarded with All Stars, while on the cusp of a new millennium Declan O’Keeffe offered a commanding presence on a Kerry side managed by Páidí Ó Sé.

And so the 2000s and the goalkeeper was becoming a more influential presence in setting up attacks from deep or the man to call on to nail that free from distance. In 2005, the kicking tee was brought in; the goalkeeper had to change his boots. No more ankle-high, steel-toecap rugby boots. The goalkeeping evolution was just part of how Gaelic football was changing – coaches with different approaches to how the traditional game should be played. 

Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton has been key in bringing a new dimension to the number one jersey, to the point that you also view him as him an outfield player. His early promise was identified with his first All Star in 2002. And he’s still at the top of his game, chief orchestrator in much of what Dublin do well, while also their saviour when things get nervy.

Other’s central to this goalkeeping revolution are Laois’ Fergal Byron – an excellent shot-stopper, who played his part in the county’s memorable Leinster championship win in 2003 and Diarmuid Murphy from Kerry. 

Westmeath’s Garry Connaughton was an authoritative presence and his prowess as a soccer goalkeeper stood to him as the Lake County enjoyed a golden period in the noughties. Connaughton got his All Star in 2008. 

Brendan McVeigh, Paul Durcan, David Clarke and Rory Beggan also come into the reckoning as keepers who excel in both their distribution and shot-stopping.

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All-Stars of The Sunday Game Era: Hurling goalkeeper

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Over the last 40 years, The Sunday Game has brought the GAA football and hurling championships into your homes.

And now, we want you to help us choose the best XV in each code of the TV era – picking the best XV from All-Star winners of the Sunday Game era (1979-present)

Cast one vote for your All-Star hurling goalkeeper of choice below or email teamselection@rte.ie to make any more considered contributions. We will be debating these teams across our platforms in the coming weeks.

***

It takes a special kind of madness to want to put yourself between a lump of leather travelling at 100mph and a net. And we have some special candidates for our goalkeeping position.

Remarkably, the winner of the first two All-Star awards of our chosen time period only played one Championship game each year. But Tipperary’s Pat McLoughney impressed enough in successive defeats to Cork and in the League (clearly a time when the focus was less obsessively on the latter stages of the Championship), to claim the keeper’s spot in 1979 and ’80.

Kilkenny great Noel Skehan was coming towards the end of his hugely successful career at that point but was still sharp enough to be named at No 1 in ’82 and ’82, the latter when he was almost 38 years old.

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Ger Cunningham didn’t have a face guard when he made a brave save in the 1990 All-Ireland final

The role of the last cúl báire has evolved in hurling over the last four decades.

For a long time, the key attributes were simply to be able to belt the ball as far down field as possible from your puck out and try to stop any goalbound shots.

Cork’s Ger Cunningham was a master of both skills: he won the Poc Fada title seven years in a row from ’83 to ’90 – and was a four-time All Star in that same span, claiming the honour three years in a row from ’84-’86.

In 1990, he quite literally used his head to help the Rebels win the All-Ireland title with a crucial stop from Galway’s Martin Naughton in the final. Talk about saving face.

Cunningham was only the third (after Skehan and Ollie Walsh) and most recent goalkeeper to be named Hurler of the Year.

John Commins was also a two-time All-Star in the 80s, his save from Cormac Bonner in 1988 particularly pivotal to Galway going back-to-back that year.

Kilkenny’s Michael Walsh and Limerick’s Joe Quaid were both recognised twice in the first half of the 1990s, the latter succeeding his late cousin Tommy (father of current Treaty stopper Nickie) in goal for Limerick after Tommy won an All-Star in the penultimate season of an 18-year career in ’92.

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Damien Fitzhenry scores a penalty against Limerick in 2001

Yet for many, thinking back to the 90s will evoke memories of the goalscoring goalies Damien Fitzhenry and Davy Fitzgerald.

Those joyous dashes back toward their own goal after burying a penalty feature as strongly in the decade’s highlights reel as Ireland’s World Cup adventures or the chart battles of mouthy Britpoppers.

The Clareman won his first All-Star in the Banner’s breakthrough year of 1995 but was still making memorable saves, particularly from Cork’s Joe Deane, as he won a third in 2005.

Donal Óg Cusack succeeded Cunningham in goal for Cork in 1999 and won both the All-Ireland title and All-Star recognition in his debut Championship season.

He went on to lift Liam MacCarthy twice more but the tactical innovation that was the short puckout (lambasted on its emergence in the final of 2003) is arguably Cusack’s greatest legacy.

The evolution of goalkeeper into quarterback/outfield option was carried on by Cusack’s own successor Anthony Nash in the following decade and culminated in Waterford’s Stephen O’Keeffe scoring the first Championship point from play by a ‘keeper in 2018.

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Brendan Cummins

Tipperary stalwart Brendan Cummins was another in the Cunningham mould. A rocket of a puckout (eight Poc Fada titles) and a repertoire of spectacular, athletic saves that brought him five All-Stars between 2000 and 2010 when he pointed a free as Tipp stopped the Drive for Five.

 It would probably have been six but for PJ Ryan’s match-winning display for Kilkenny in the ’09 decider.

The ultra-consistent Tipp man adapted his restarts to more fluid patterns outfield over the course of his 73 Championship appearances (the all-time record until beaten by Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh in 2018) and conceded just 81 goals in those games, an average of 1.1 per match.

His superb double save from Paul O’Brien and then Paul Flynn against Waterford in the 2004 Munster semi-final and an acrobatic leap to turn a Henry Shefflin arrow away from the top corner in the ’09 League final particularly stand out in the memory.

Moving into the noughties, another crop of top-class keepers emerged, with Nash (whose combination of oversize hurl and a jab-lift a JCB would be proud of led to the rules on penalties being changed) and Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy the only two-time All-Star winners.

Murphy has had the relative misfortune of nailing down his position on a Kilkenny team whose trophy cabinet is not quite as swollen as in recent years but that certainly can’t be laid at his door.

The Glenmore man’s lightning reflexes and gymnast-like flexibility have helped him to prevent certain goals – even when not fully fit as in the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat to Tipperary.

He was my goalkeeper of the decade and at 29 could yet go on to match Cummins in terms of All-Stars but, for now, the Tipp man stands tallest between the sticks.

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Paul Broderick on FIFA & Ulysses

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With the Irish public being urged to maintain social distancing and self-isolate if required, we are increasingly looking for movies to watch, books to read and rooms to clean.

RTÉ Sport is speaking to our sports stars and asking how they’re using their time and tweaking their training routines to stay fit and healthy.

Today, it’s the turn of All-Star nominated Carlow footballer Paul Broderick.


What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Sometimes it’s early afternoon these days but I make a good breakfast/brunch. Rashers, poached eggs, pesto and onion on some nice bread.

What’s your favourite exercise?

Running. Anything from sprints to 5k.

Is there one particular skill you practice every day?

I kick a ball off a wall somewhere at home every day. Mostly for enjoyment but it keeps the eye in too. If it’s not the big ball, I’d be chipping a golf ball into a bucket.

Netflix and chill or a nice evening jog?

I’m a fan of both but I enjoy the Netflix much more when I know I’ve earned it. 

Name one book you want to read.

I recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear. Would recommend. Ulysses has always been on the list. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, how good are your DIY skills?

Optimistically, I’d say a 3.

Do you have a favourite pre-training meal to help you through a tough session?

Brown pasta, salmon, pesto, lime and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Name one movie you want to watch. 

LA Confidential.

What’s the best way to stave off boredom?

FIFA, GTA V or long walks with the dogs. 


CHECK OUT MORE SPORTS PEOPLES’ TIPS ON SOCIAL DISTANCING

Have you any tips for training at home?

Plan it out beforehand, stick to it and keep a log, e.g.: total weight lifted or total distance covered. It’s rewarding to look back on.

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The late Ayrton Senna was the subject of an acclaimed 2010 documentary

Name one documentary you want to see.

I’ll watch anything from Louis Theroux or the 30 for 30s (ESPN sports series). But Senna is top of the list. 

Have you discovered any new music or podcasts?

Chasing Scratch (golf podcast).

Is there one piece of housework you can no longer avoid?

Tidying the bedroom.

Favourite room of the house to spend time in?

Sitting Room. 

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Conor McManus on pups & podcasts

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With the Irish public being urged to maintain social distancing and self-isolate if required, we are increasingly looking for movies to watch, books to read and rooms to clean.

RTÉ Sport is speaking to our sports stars and asking how they’re using their time and tweaking their training routines to stay fit and healthy.

Today, it’s the turn of Monaghan footballer and three-time All-Star Conor McManus.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Get porridge or Daniel Davey’s pancakes into me!

What’s your favourite exercise?

Going for a run, outside and clears the mind!

Is there one particular skill you practice every day?

Not one particular skill as such, but you would always just have the ball in your hand when you’re outside.

I do enjoy going to the field in Clontibret with a bag of footballs. But that’s gone now too.

Netflix and chill or a nice evening jog?

Both!

Name one book you want to read.

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Andre Agassi’s autobiography is on the hit list. Currently reading the Godfather.

On a scale on 1 to 10, how good are your DIY skills?

Oh 10!

Have you a favourite pre-training meal to help you through a tough session?

The pancakes are a real go-to for me. 

Name one movie you want to watch.

The Irishman. Not got around to it yet but I’m going to have plenty of time for it now.

What’s the best way to stave off boredom?

I have eight-week-old black Labrador pups at the house right now, they keep you occupied!

Have you any tips for training at home?

Set out a plan for the week and stick to it.

Name one documentary you want to see.

None in particular, watching a few of the 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN at the minute.

Have you discovered any new music or podcasts?

Keep it simple, Bruce Springsteen and Luke Kelly.

Is there one piece of housework you can no longer avoid?

Cleaning up after these pups!

Favourite room of the house to spend time in?

Living room in front of the fire.

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The amendment to Rule 42 in 2005

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The amendment to Rule 42 in 2005 001403df 800

At the GAA’s Annual Congress in 2005, the organisation voted to amend Rule 42 and so allow for soccer and rugby to be played at Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was been redeveloped.

Central to the historic move was the then GAA president Seán Kelly, who certainly had to use much political skills that no doubt would later help him as an MEP, to sway many to make what was an historic decision.

Many of the GAA’s top brass at the time were against any changes, but when the votes were counted the motion to amend Rule 42 was passed comfortably.

So, how much do you remember about that time?  

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Former Roscommon player Conor Connelly passes away

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Former Roscommon player Conor Connelly passes away 001403e2 800

Former Roscommon footballer Conor Connelly has passed away at the age of 44.

Connelly, from the Creggs club, played senior football for Roscommon in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was a member of the Roscommon team that won the Connacht championship in 2001.

A former student of St Mel’s in Longford, he won a Leinster colleges title with the school in 1994, and was bestowed with the Fr Manning Medal, the school’s highest honour which recognises a student’s sporting efforts, academic performance and overall contribution to student life. 

In addition to his home club, Connelly also represented St Jude’s in Dublin and more recently Ballycumber in Offaly.

He had worked as a solicitor since 2004. 

His death was confirmed in a statement by Roscommon GAA this afternoon.

County Chairman Seamus Sweeney extended his own sympathy and that of Roscommon GAA to the Connelly family.

“I extend my sympathy and the sympathy of Roscommon GAA to his wife Claire, their three young children and to Conor’s parents Jimmy and Nora.”

“I always admired Conor as a footballer, he was a fine tenacious player who gave his all when wearing the primrose and blue. Like Rossies everywhere I really am saddened by the news”.

County Assistant Secretary and Creggs Club mate Gerry Keegan extended his sympathies to the family and said:

“It’s heart breaking news, Conor was such a popular figure in Creggs GAA club and was always there to lend a hand when needed even after his playing days came to an end”.

“In our successful junior championship winning year in 2016,  Conor brought us up to his current Club in Ballycumber Co Offaly for a midweek training session the Wednesday night before the replay. His speech to us that night helped us clinch our first county championship in 33 years.”

“Conor was a fantastic footballer and his work rate for the county jersey was unquestionable, he was also a great person off the field and was always on hand to give you good advice when you’d need it.”

“The thoughts and prayers of everyone here in Creggs GAA club go out to his father and mother Jimmy and Nora, his wife Claire and three children Cara 11, Rossa 9 today, and Eoghan 6, his brothers Robert, James and Daragh and his sister Sharon.”

“Conor will be sadly missed and will never be Forgotten in our club”.    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam “. 

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You just have to do it, it’s my calling

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One of the highlights of social distancing has been the various sports stars who have taken to social media to show and share their talents, and from a Ladies Football point of view, Cork’s Orlagh Farmer has excelled.

For the last five days, she has posted a daily video for aspiring and current footballers to work on the basic skills of the game. As well as working the core skills like passing, kicking and movement, she even delved into the world of Chinese martial arts with Tai Chi Thursday.

Like every sports team in the country, the Cork ladies footballers are on a break from collective training due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but with four wins from their five league games, Cork finished joint top of the Lidl NFL Division 1 with Galway and face into TG4 senior championship with confidence.

But now Farmer (27) has put her full attention into completing her PhD – the Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation of the Gaelic4Girls intervention – as well as the five-day online challenge.

“My research is heavily involved in promoting sport, particularly for girls. I’m nearly finished my PhD in UCC. I’ll be submitting in the next few weeks,” said Farmer.

“I have always tried to be as creative as a I can. After my years of working with young girls and doing my research, I said I put together the five-day challenge to get everyone out and about.

“Tai Chi Thursday was just something different. I gave it a try and I got a great response. We could all do with a bit of relaxation these days. We’re all a bit overwhelmed and a bit stressed.

“People are more open than ever now – they are all going off their heads at home – so I brought a bit of football into it too and it went down well.”

With her brother Kian – a software development student at CIT – and sister Sinéad on camera duty, Orlagh has produced this week’s video content, which has attracted thousands of individual views all week, and her drawing board is already populated with plans for next week’s sessions.

As part of her PhD research at UCC’s Department of Sports Studies and Physical Education, Farmer came to some staggering conclusions though, which underline the importance of sport in the lives of young girls. With an estimated 50 per cent drop out rate by the age of 12, keeping girls in the game can be tough, but according to the Cork forward, it’s vital that coaches and parents tap into their interests.

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“I focused on eight to 12 year old girls. Working with Gaelic4Girls (an LGFA programme that targets girls who are not already registered players) one of the main conclusions I reached was that young girls aren’t reaching the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. Only about 20 per cent of girls reach that target.

“We also noticed a skills deficiency when it came to fundamental movements: running, skipping, hopping, jumping. Less than two per cent were fully proficient and met the criteria.

“Then there is the psycho-social well-being side of things. The big motivators for young girls are friendship and fun. On the other side of it, a lack of enjoyment and coaches being too strict were big turn offs for girls.

“Confidence was also a big issue. They wonder, ‘Am I able to do this? Can I kick the ball? Do I feel good about myself?’ Girls need confidence to be physically active. That is so often the most important aspect.”

Like the rest of the sporting population, Farmer has had to be happy to try to stay fit in her own back yard or on the green in front of her home in Midleton. After a hectic few months of the season it is tough to press pause, but she has big plans for later in the year.

Once Cork’s inter-county season is over she has pencilled in a spell travelling abroad, where she hopes to introduce her ‘multicultural movement mission’ to the world.

“I was in my car one day and suddenly I realised how I could get more girls active: merging the skills of Ladies Football with basic fundamental skills and a movement dance, which is accompanied by music. Girls love to dance: it’s a perfect form of expression in terms of skills and confidence.

“After chatting it through with my supervisors, Dr Wesley O’Brien and Dr Kevin Cahill, I went out to my back garden with my speaker. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do, but I followed my gut feeling. I started to choreograph the dance to the song Galway Girl. I even fell through my decking doing it and nearly broke my leg!

“When I put it together we then did it for 20 minutes before each session at Gaelic4Girls and performed it at the end of the eight weeks. The response was great, they really enjoyed it. It created a positive buzz for the girls and boosted their confidence.

“As a result I want to develop this further. I am hoping to eventually hit schools and clubs, but also to bring it over to other sports. When I go travelling I want to trial it out in different cultures. While I’ll be travelling South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand the plan is to record a documentary on how I get on with different sports and cultures. How it can be translated from football to other sports is key.

“It’s a common goal across the world: how can we impact girls all over the world to stay in sport. You know when you have a fire in your belly, you just have to do it.

“It’s my calling. I’m going to go for it. I’m going to go down the business route with it eventually, that’s my goal.”

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If we don’t it take it seriously people will die

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Friday evening saw more drastic measures introduced in our efforts to fight the coronavirus. A ‘stay at home’ order is now in effect and the importance of adhering to such a request now deemed more important than ever.

“We have never seen times likes this”.

The words of Dr Stephen Lucey – a GP in Limerick city. For 17 years, Lucey played football and hurling for the Treaty County. He still togs out for his club Croom, while also acting as a team doctor for the county’s football teams and minor hurlers.

In keeping with his colleagues in the medical profession, Lucey is keen to stress the all-encompassing approach that must be in play if we are to stem the impact of Covid-19.

In conversation with RTÉ GAA correspondent Marty Morrissey, he said: “Everybody has to take responsibility. It’s not just the healthcare workers. If you don’t think about social distancing, washing your hands and so on and take it seriously, then people will die. That’s the reality. 

“There are only 255 ICU beds in the country, there are already 39 people in ICU. We could become overwhelmed very quickly – and that’s a frightening scenario for patients with any underlying health conditions and for the healthcare staff on the front line particularly in the hospitals and in the ICU. 

“One quarter of the infections so far have been in healthcare staff.”

Dr Lucey also gave us an insight into what life is now like for a GP.

“We have taken precautions in our own surgery, we have the door on the latch so people can’t come in,” he revealed.

“We are hardly seeing anybody face to face, mostly done by telephone consultation and trying to manage people that way.

“We have our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) equipment. I know they have a shortage in hospitals, but supplies are coming on Sunday. 

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Lucey in action for the Limerick hurlers in 2009

“I feel like I’m working in a call centre, it’s just non-stop phone calls. The staff take their numbers and we call them back and we go through the algorithms. Most of the work we did last week was referring people with nothing more than a sniffle for testing. Now that has been refined and so it made all phone calls last week completely redundant. And now we have to go through them all again. 

“A lot of people don’t fit the new criteria so they don’t require testing – but it’s not all about testing as Tony Holahan (Chief Medical Officer) and Ronan Glynn (Deputy Chief Medical Officer) have spoken about. It’s about self isolating and that’s key.

“For us as GPS, we got video training for PPE. I had to look at it three or four times before practicing it.”

Lucey’s wife and brother also work in the medical profession and naturally Lucey is concerned for their well-being.

“My wife Fiona is a physiotherapist in the University hospital in Limerick. She is on the front line and has been re-trained and upskilled by the anasthetic staff because they’d be responsible for the positioning of patients with respiratory problems.

“My brother Mark is an ICU consultant in Sydney. I’d be worried about them, given the high-risk nature of their jobs.”  

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London GAA manager pessimistic about 2020 involvement

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London senior football manager Michael Maher is not optimistic that his team will be able to play in the 2020 All-Ireland Championship.

On Thursday, it was confirmed to RTÉ Sport that Roscommon’s visit to face London in Ruislip on 3 May in the Connacht Championship has been indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus but with hopes for the match to be played at a later date.

Following the earlier postponement of Galway’s trip to New York, Maher had expected the Ruislip clash to face the same fate but he also feels the nature of the current global pandemic means any plans for re-scheduling is “out of everyone’s control” at present.

“It was obvious it was going to get called off, especially when the Galway-New York game got called off,” he told RTÉ 2fm’s Game On.

“But when we saw the situation evolve over here, it didn’t take a genius to work out that our game didn’t have a chance of going ahead.

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Michael Maher during a London Football Squad Portraits session at McGovern Park in Ruislip

“I personally thought it could be a situation where New York and London would be kind of discounted for this year if the kind of situation in Ireland and England is obviously going on two different paths at the moment and London itself is on a different path to the rest of the country.

“So I think it can’t be managed or guessed by anyone at this moment in time. The good news for us is Croke Park have said they still want London to be involved but I think it’s totally out of their hands.

“We would still obviously like the game, the lads would like the game, the lads are still preparing as if there is going to be a game but whether there will be a game or not is completely out of everyone’s control.

“It’s something that you can’t get too worked up about because if everything was normal and right, we would be involved. But if it it’s not, there are far worse things that could be happening to the lads and ourselves at this moment in time and you have to accept that.” 

When asked if he believes London will play Championship football this year, Maher replied: “I don’t think we will. It’s such a scary situation and numbers have cranked up massively here day by day and you look at the numbers here compared to Ireland, they’re astronomical.

“Listening to Croke Park, they would like the Championship to resume middle of June and stick to the dates as a rough guide to what they’ve got at the moment and get it played out to the end of August, early September.

“I still think it will be very, very difficult for games in London to resume in the middle of June, the way things are going.”

Maher discussed the challenge they face as a panel in London amid the current lockdown situation in the UK.

“The thing is we’re so spread out over here, there’s probably 100-150 miles in between all the players,” he said.

“So that network of support that the clubs are able to give at home to each other, I guess we can’t do.

“But we’re staying in touch with all the lads. They’re doing kind of their own individual workouts and we’ve been in touch with them to see if they need any support in terms of anything.

“All they have to do is shout and we’ll obviously help them ourselves or we’ll access the help that they need.

“But I’m very much aware this could have an impact on some of the guys, [they] might end up going home if the situation affects their work and I think it might have an affect on clubs in London in general.”

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‘Getting Irish player is last 10%’

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No sport was spared from the bombshell that was the Covid-19 pandemic, but the AFL lasted longest in its holdout, finally succumbing last weekend to suspend the season after only one round of games.

Some 35 Irish players across the men’s and women’s programme play in Australia. Sport itself may well be relegated to a trivial standing in times like these but it has significance for its participants: livelihoods, mental health and wellbeing have all been put under strain.

A man in the eye of this storm is former Cavan footballer Nicholas Walsh. In his role as mental health program manager for the AFL Coaches Association, he is painfully aware of the impact recent measures will have on his fellow countrymen. 

“It’ll really hurt the younger Irish lads,” he says with a sigh. “You hear talk now about players taking a 75-80% pay cut. For the young players who are on about $80,000, taking 80% of that is a lot of money. The question will arise now, can they come back and survive on minimal figures?” 

Walsh’s previous role was with GWS Giants as a defence coach. He joined the Sydney outfit shortly after they were founded in 2012 and moved across roles, including strength and conditioning coach to player development manager. Then the AFL Coaches Association aligned with Zurich Insurance and were allocated a grant for a new position.

The Cavan man was identified as the man for the job. As such, the stark lack of a framework to follow during the current pandemic is nothing new. He has navigated the last nine years without any designated structure. Now his main concern is moving the programme online and connecting with those affected. 

“We run a programme called Tackle Your Feelings. It is for community coaches but now we have it open to any coaches that want to use it. There is a similar programme in Ireland as well, the Irish Rugby Players Association run it. 

“All the coaches have been let go. The only person being kept at the moment is each club’s head coach as part of a skeleton staff. Coaches, physios, high performance staff, everyone has been stood down. 

“All we can do is provide content to people to keep a positive, upbeat tempo during this moment in time. If our programme can reach coaches in the AFL community and help there, it is doing a good thing.”

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Aaron McKenna is one Irish AFL player who decided to travel home

Between the season disruption and flight upheaval, the prospect of prospective recruits travelling over for trials this year is remote. But that only scratches the surface. The impact this will have on the Ireland-to-Australian Rules pathway over the next few years will be significant.

Signing a player from Ireland was an attractive option for clubs because those recruits can sit outside of the salary cap. For those that could afford it, it was essentially a free hit. The question now is who will be able to afford it?

“Getting an Irish player is the last 10%. A lot of these AFL clubs have course business that is 90%. Once they have their house in order, they look outwards. For Irish players coming over, depending on the financial situation in clubs, we may not see that happen for the next two to three years.” 

Walsh’s AFL affiliation began in 1999 when he was just 15. The Cavan Gaels club man was selected on the U17 Ireland International Rules team for two tours. In 2000, he applied for a grant from the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce and was successful. As a result, the teen spent time travelling the country visiting AFL clubs as well as six weeks in a Melbourne school.

By the time he attended an AFL camp in DCU that year, the sport was second nature. Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of interest in the athletic 17-year old. Melbourne made an approach and he gratefully accepted.

So it was that Walsh became one of the few to make the trip Down Under. Another participant of the Irish experiment. When working with the Giants he saw the process from the other side of the fence. Now he knows exactly what they are looking for.

“Recruiters from Australia look at a specific profile of a player in Ireland to bring over. You can call that a hard edge or whatever. Obviously, they need talent as well but when you look at GAA, it is just the norm to work hard. When I played with Cavan, we drove from Dublin to be at training at 7.30pm in Breffni Park. You wouldn’t get home until midnight or later and get up for college or work the next day. That was standard. 

“Work hard. That attitude will thrive here. They are grateful too. When you take a player to Australia and tell them to sleep in because sleeping is the most important part of recovery, that Irish player laps that up. They have the feeling that they have a real opportunity now.”

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Derry’s Conor Glass has been a successful recent AFL import

“Obviously, they look at the athlete, but they also look at their psychological makeup, their family background, what sort of person they are. In a one v one conversation, are they showing any signs of leadership? Are they quiet and shy? Are they coachable?

“The second thing is in an interview process. I know many clubs have people that are skilled in the art of questioning. The Giants for example, they have Emma Quayle involved in the recruiting team. She is a current journalist. She basically works off the art of questioning in a one-on-one setting, seeing how players respond to build a profile of assessment.” 

A mirage of injuries prevented Walsh from ever making his AFL breakthrough. Come 2003 he was out of contract and the call from home was deafening. Eamon Coleman was in charge of the Cavan footballers and had been in contact.

Before he returned, he had to make sure he could play. The toll of professionalism had taken left its mark on the youngster. This was an era far removed from the sports science and load management of modern-day outfits.

Thankfully, Ireland not only offered a calling, it had the solution as well.

“I had major groin issues at the end of 2003. Then I was in Adelaide when the international rules were on. I was going to be part of the squad, but I couldn’t. While there I met Gerry McEntee in a lift. He is the groin surgeon from Meath. I had never met him before. He looked at me and said ‘you are young Walsh. Come see me when you are in Dublin.’ He assessed me there and then.

“He just said you need Gilmores Groin repair. He could feel it when I coughed. I went back to my club physios and told them this story. I got assessed and I ended up having the Gilmores Groin surgery done. That was November and I made my senior debut for Cavan in January.” 

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Walsh enjoyed his Cavan career upon return to Ireland

The issue of the AFL combing Gaelic games for players is an age-old one. There is less discussion about the solution. There are many strands to coaching but one of the most important ones is player welfare.

Why did over 50 players opt out of inter-county action at the start of the season, wonders Walsh? With or without AFL assistance, players will leave. A viable resolution could be found in offering them every incentive to stay.

“I remember meeting John Horan the time of the hurling competition in Sydney. He was just in office and I asked do the GAA have an issue with players coming over? He said, ‘Yeah look, it is an issue.’ I said I think a lot will come over in the next few years. The AFLW will open the floodgates as well. I feel the GAA should have done something but there was no solution. 

“The GPA have come a long way. They don’t have the same funding or resources as the AFL Players Association. There has just been so much ambiguity between the GPA and the GAA in recent years. I hope now Paul Flynn, as someone with a good relationship with the GAA, can find that good balance and look at the reasons why players are opting out.

“As I said before, you must get your 90% in order first.”

It was men like Eamon Coleman at Cavan and their then consultant Bart McEnroe that stoked the devotion of coaching within Walsh. He remains eternally grateful for all the GAA gave him when he left, returned and left again. Like many before him he departed Ireland to give something to Australia’s game and he harbours hopes of returning to give something back.

“I recently applied to take on the director of coaching role with the GAA. I wasn’t successful but I was willing to come back again and take on that role. I wanted to bring my expertise and what I learned back. Shane Flanagan got that role. He is a great guy who will do a terrific job.

“I always tried to feed back into the game of Gaelic games. This morning I was texting Ciaran Kilkenny about what you can do at home with training methods. I like giving back to the game in some shape and form.

“I am very much for opportunity. I love the GAA. Absolutely love them and what they stand for. It has been a big part of my life and I am very grateful to have worked for them in several roles.

“If a role that interested me ever came up again, I’d definitely throw my hat in the ring.” 

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