John McEntee: U20 change is snow joke for players and their clubs

Donegal celebrate after beating Derry in last year’s Ulster U21 Football Championship final, the last ever provincial decider at that grade, which has become the U20 championship for 2018 and beyond Picture by Cliff Donaldson

MY eldest daughter is in first year of secondary school where her history lessons are about the Norman invasion of Ireland.

She talks with great interest of how the ports on the south-east coast were invaded by English soldiers and Norman mercenaries and how Connacht's High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair provided the last line of defence. I'm sure those were difficult times when the name King Henry was derided – unlike his Kilkenny namesake 900 years later.

In a strange sort of way, history has repeated itself this week. Storm Emma combined forces with a Siberian snow storm, aptly named ‘The Beast from the East', to bring the province of Leinster to a standstill before roaring across the remaining 20 counties.

Curiously, the name Emma was first introduced to England at the time of their Norman invasion. As Yogi Berra would say, that's too coincidental to be a coincidence.

From the GAA's perspective, its visit was most unwelcome and its duration overstayed.

The master fixtures schedule is in disarray so early in the year. Millions has been invested in improving pitch drainage but when Mother Nature decides to empty the lining of her pockets and cover the land in snow there is no solution.

Give credit where it is due, it was the correct decision to cancel games. Player safety is paramount, not to mention the welfare of the travelling supporters.

It needs to be asked what impact a tight schedule will have on the remainder of the season and who will be most impacted. Inter-county football games are being rescheduled for this weekend. I've no issue with that – it's a free weekend in the calendar.

What is happening, however, is that some counties are obligated to reschedule their club matches to accommodate the inter-county fixtures chaos. It is a small example of how clubs are immaterial in the bigger picture. I haven't heard anyone including the new President say as we reschedule these matches we ought to think about what impact, if any, this might have on the club scene.

In Ireland we awaken to rainfall, we dose off to its drip, drip, drip. We take umbrellas to the beach in case it rains. We camp out indoors such is the intensity of rain. It is endless and inevitable. An English farmer who doubles up as an amateur weather expert predicted snow in January and snow last week. He suggested on morning TV that further snow is likely later in March and we are likely to experience a wet, disruptive summer.

As we look beyond the April showers towards the busy months of May to August I fear that the club scene will be squeezed into its little box of insignificance.

One competition which has received little attention thus far is the U20s championship. Sixty-eight percent of Congress in 2017 agreed to replace the U21 competition with an U20 competition from this year. It formed part of a move to change the minor grade to U17, the rationale being that unrealistic demands were being placed on our young players, particularly at a really important developmental stage of their careers.

So now, rather than preparation for undertaking three A-levels being affected, kids are trying to study 10 GCSE topics while participating in U17 training. This hardly constitutes easement.

The U20 competition was also moved to later in the year to prevent clashes with university football and League games, yet there was no mention of its impact on clubs preparing for league and championship.

While it was hoped the changes would invigorate the competition, you now have the situation where players who are the correct age but excel and play for the senior team can't take part in the underage championship. It has become a sub-standard competition.

Young men in small numbers are training three times per week for six months to play one game. These players would be much better served by playing with their schools and universities in January-February and then playing with their local team-mates in their clubs for the remainder of the season.

The U20s is a development stage on one's progression into senior grade. The assertion is that they are granted access to specialist training, nutritional advice, and so on. The reality is somewhat different.

These young players we've identified as being most at risk

of burnout are being asked to make difficult choices between serving many masters, training

six times a week and somehow fitting in time for school and study.

Until this competition is removed from the calendar, huge pressure will remain on these young men and the rate of injury and disillusionment will continue to rise. Is there a temporary solution?

These young men ought to be club men first. U20 managers, as development officers, ought to place the needs of these young men before success at this grade and with some innovative thinking can incorporate development training around the club schedules.

Weekend training camps could replace three sessions per week. These kids are technically savvy. Strength and conditioning, nutrition and so on can be digitally monitored. Their time is precious, it should not be wasted, otherwise their participation will disappear just like this fall of snow.

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