Sport

Enda McGinley: Beware turning a county solution into a club problem

The All-Ireland U17 final between Tyrone and Roscommon and the All-Ireland minor semi-final between Derry and Dublin, played consecutively at Croke Park in August, showed the difference a year of development at that level can make

WE are an interesting bunch in the GAA. We can be very sensitive regarding any sign that the top brass is in some way taking the grassroots for granted or in any way jeopardising the cradle of life itself that is our clubs.

The obvious, big controversies such as fixture lists, TV deals or county player availability are endless sources of anger and concern.

Rightly so, but by constantly looking at such things we can miss possibly much more important but less attention-grabbing issues. One of those is the proposed changes of the underage structures.

From what feels like time immemorial, underage competitions in the GAA have primarily ran in the U21, minor (U18), U16, U14 and U12 categories. The elite underage level at county lined up with this at minor and U21 levels.

In response to concerns regarding burn-out of our elite young players, reports were commissioned which advised changes in the underage structures.

Consequently, last year we saw the inaugural U17 county ‘minor’ competition which will completely replace the traditional U18 county competition.

Meanwhile, the U21 competition has had its final fling and will be replaced next year by the U20 grade which will involve ‘developmental’ squads, ie anyone who has made it to the senior panel will not be eligible.

This has a benefit in that it allows the competition to be played off alongside the senior inter-county competitions, thus limiting any disruption of club competitions as occasionally seen with the U21 grade.

It should also achieve its primary aim of reducing the playing load on that elite 20-year-old who would be playing both county and club senior and U21, very often along with university football.

The big decision now is whether to transfer these changes in grade across to clubs with knock-on changes down the underage ladder, creating U15, U13 and U11 levels.

This was a motion at the Special Congress in September which was under most people’s radar and which thankfully got dropped from the agenda at the 11th hour.

It is an issue which merits some serious thought.

While the changes at county level will be of benefit to our young players who have busy schedules, we shouldn’t necessarily change underage structures to simply bring them into line with the county game.

If we do we could see a remedy for elite player burn-out exacerbate problems regarding club player retention.

While the elite players aged between 17 and 21, playing for multiple teams, can arguably have too much football, this same age group represents the age where the biggest numbers of players walk away.

The gap from being an overage ‘bad birthday’ 17-year-old to senior football would be huge. Only the very best players with advanced levels of strength for their age would have a realistic prospect of senior football within two years from this stage.

For the rest, what is there to attract them to remain fully committed to our games at this age, an age when so many other opportunities, interests and priorities open up?

Are we seriously thinking that this will not lead to greater numbers stepping away from the game?

Even from a player development point of view, it doesn’t make sense. Comparing this year’s U17 All-Ireland final between Tyrone and Roscommon and the U18 minor All-Ireland semi-final between Derry and Dublin which was played after it, I was struck by the difference physically between the two levels.

I expected a difference but the pace, power and strength of the minor teams far exceeded the U17 squads, showing just how crucial that additional developmental year is for these players.

The step-up between minor and senior is known to be huge but between U17 and senior it simply appears too big.

In the county game, the gap has been addressed with the creation of the U20 level and I think this could work well for players at this level.

At club level, however, the U21 grade is another issue. U21 competitions are often shoe-horned into the middle of the season in between senior and reserve competitions. This is simply out of necessity as there is no other obvious place to put it.

Given that nearly all U21 footballers who are out of minor grade will be playing with either senior or reserve teams, one really must question its worth in the modern game.

Certainly, some clubs with good teams may take it seriously but many will struggle to even arrange training sessions and quite often it is a gather-up of players who take the field in the early stages of the competition as it is almost impossible to formerly gather the team due to their other team commitments.

I am the holder of an U21 championship medal – two in fact – and I am certainly proud of them, but in the ever-squeezed fixture calendar where cuts and refinements must be made, I would much rather see the minor grade retain its U18 status and let the U21 grade go at club level.

Earlier, I mentioned the ‘bad birthday’ – where two schoolmates can’t play in the same team for their club because one was born in December and one in January. I would love to see team levels corresponding with school years – minor would be upper sixth, U16 would be fifth year, etc.

The ‘bad birthday’ only exists in our mind because we are in the same school year as people, yet half can play for an underage team and half cannot.

We don’t talk of students having a ‘bad birthday’ if they are born in June. In one fell swoop the ‘bad birthday’ would be consigned to the bin you identify with those in your school year group as your age.

Getting back on topic, it is clear that we are living in an era of significant change within our games. This can be a great positive but with we must be careful not to be over-zealous.

Burn-out is not an issue for most club players, so why entertain changing all our grades just to be in sync with county when the same changes may increase the much more real problem of drop-out?

At present it is apparently being left up to county boards to decide their own arrangements. It’s critical that clubs ensure this topic is given as much discussion as the more publicised debates within our Association.

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