MUCH like how players subscribe to the mantra ‘next ball, next game’ the same goes for the back-room team.
“The challenge is the next training session or the next game,” said selector and trainer Michael Dempsey. “There’s never been a difficult time – the players are exceptional to work with while Brian (Cody) and Martin (Fogarty) and the back-room team are brilliant and share a common goal.”
Dempsey, who has toiled at the senior coalface for the last decade, is a key component in Kilkenny’s almost annual assault on the Liam McCarthy Cup.
Although coming from a football background Dempsey has worked the oracle on a hurling front since his days with the under-21 set-up, helping turn Kilkenny’s players into a finely-tuned unit.
However, he is quick to make sure many others get their share of the credit.
“A player’s maximum fitness isn’t achieved in one season but is accumulated over a number of years in all of the different aspects,” he said. “There is an overemphasis on fitness – so many things adds to it like our medical back-up, nutritionist and physios who all help to keep the players healthy and achieve their maximum potential in terms of fitness.
“When training you have to take into account things like their training age (how young/old they are) and injuries.
“So many things feed into fitness,” he added. “Generally it gets simplified in the press and public but there are a lot of components in terms of helping players get their best. These are the psychological aspect, nutritional aspect, medical back-up, physio back-up and training as well as strength and conditioning. It’s a complex area.”
Listening to Dempsey reel off the list of people involved reinforces the belief that Gaelic games have almost become professional in all but name.
“When I talk about what Kilkenny have been doing, and they’ve been doing it for a good number of years, every other county has been the same,” he said. “It often gets into the public arena that one team is physically stronger or fitter than another, but I would assume that all the top inter-county teams have an equal level of fitness. After that it’s down to skill and attitude.
“Yes, it’s almost become a professional approach, but it’s what players want,” he added. “They are hugely committed, they give up a lot of time for a sport where the stakes are so high.
“If you compromise any aspect of your preparation your performance will suffer. The key to it is training, but if the other components aren’t being addressed you’ll be way off the mark. It’s more of an holistic approach than it is just running players into the ground for three or four months of the year.”
The challenge is there to help players realise their potential, but the trainers are often tested as well!
“The attitude of the players does drive us all on,” he said. “The players require leadership while we feed off them. Their passion and dedication is incredible, so it works both ways. We have to set the agenda, but they set it too because of their approach!
“The players are serious when it comes to training,” he added. “They know what’s going on in other counties and other sports. They expect the best and want to be at their best when it’s important.
“Training and training sessions have to be right,” he added, “otherwise players will feel they’re not right and it could affect their performances.”
Gaelic football was Dempsey’s first port of call when it came to management - he led O’Hanrahans to three Carlow and one Leinster club titles while also coaching the Laois senior and under-21 teams. Although different to hurling, he agreed that some elements could be brought across the sporting spectrum.
“There is a lot of cross-transfer in terms of all sports,” he said. “A lot of the principles of sport, whether it be conditioning, skill development or tactics – they have to modified – are common.
“If you have a knowledge of a sport you can bring some elements of it, but hurling is a fundamentally unique game which can’t be affected by a lot of the tactics which happen in football.
“When you come to a county like Kilkenny you have to be respectful of their culture and how they play the game,” he noted. “While things may get tweaked over the years I don’t think the game can be changed dramatically.”
But what about a small percentage, it was argued. Anthony Cunningham brought the Garrycastle footballers to the club All-Ireland final while also looking after the Galway senior hurlers. Did it help the Tribesmen?
“What they brought to our game in the Leinster final was a huge intensity and physicality,” Dempsey reviewed. “That’s what you’d be looking for from any team. They outfought us on the day – they do appear to be slightly more defensive, but they can also alter that depending on the team they’re playing.
“I think all sports are constantly learning from each other,” he added. “You’re always looking for an edge and something a little bit different, but 90-odd percent of the game is still the same. You’ll be looking for that little bit to unhinge your opposition.”