Sport

Enda McGinley: Tweaking of the GAA's underage structure is a concern

Delegates at the forthcoming GAA Congress might not be acting in the best interests of the association by going ahead with a re-structuring of the underage format

MY wee fella loves reading and, as with all children, goes through phases where he is really into certain things, only to completely change tack a few months later.

His current fad is reading the newspaper. He’ll sit up like a man 50 years his senior and leaf through every page, reading intently.

Today he headed off to school with yesterday’s paper in his bag. His teacher, Mr Canavan, appeared delighted and told him he’d kindly keep it as the class were going to learn about reading articles. Some things never change. Unfortunately, I hadn’t even got to read it yet.

When I told my son, he said it was okay and give me his comprehensive summary: ‘Chimpanzees escaped from Belfast Zoo and too much money was spent on Portaloos’.

Extra marks for a unique sentence, but absence of sports news was a concern.

His narrowing in on points of interest made me reflect on my own reading of the GAA’s document for motions up for debate at Congress.

Forty-three motions, the vast majority of which most of us wouldn’t understand, and would have zero interest in even if we did.

Exhibit A: “Motion 4: Official Guide Part 1 (page 46) be amended by deleting the words “in accordance with representation.”

Not likely to spark much debate round the dinner table, that one.

A few, though, did grab my attention:

Motion 28, proposing the realignment of all grades to odd rather than even divisions i.e. U12, 14, 16 and 18 would be replaced by U13, 15, 17 and 19, and Motion 36, clarifying age spans for the respective age divisions and allowing counties to change the cut-off points in terms of date of birth for their underage competitions.

Motion 28, submitted by a Central Council sub-committee – thus presumably with the weight of Central Council votes already behind it – is a challenging one as it is changing the underage structure which we have always used (U14, 16 and U18) and changing it to U13, 15, 17 and

U19.

I can only assume these changes have come about due to the fact that the county competition changed from U18 to U17 last year.

There was some moves to align club underage competitions similarly, but thankfully this never came to pass as opponents realised the gap between U17 and senior was simply too great and risked losing significant number of players.

Someone with a touch of OCD must be still twitching at the mis-match between county minor being U17, while many club minor competitions remain U18, hence bringing forward this proposal. Learning from the previous concerns of the gap between U17 and senior, they have included an U19 grade.

One of the main points requiring clarification is whether the changes represent a change down in age, i.e. U14 becomes U13 and so on, or whether it is a move up where U12 aligns to U13.

While this may seem pedantic, to me it is important. U12 is non-competitive in many counties with local leagues rather than championships. U14 often brings with it the first championship and is associated with the beloved Feile competitions.

I think 13 would be too far a step to keep things on the lower competitive level.

Proper competition is not a bad thing and, for me, it is something that can excite and motivate. It would be important then that this alignment is made from the U14 to U13 direction.

If this follows then U18 becomes U17 and a new grade, U19, is introduced, with future removal of the U21 grade likely.

It is at this level that things become very important to get right. Drop-out from participation is a key worry for many clubs in getting their youth through to senior level.

It is a critical issue for the whole association in terms of the health of our games.

The creation of the U19 grade will only correct the previous concerns of the U17-to-senior gap if it is treated akin to the current U18 grade and not like the U20/21 grade currently is.

In nearly all cases, current U20/21 competitions are squeezed in over a condensed time-frame of one-two months to avoid clash with adult club teams.

It is a useful additional level for players at the start of their senior careers, but it is not really a full competition series allowing proper player development. Taking into account the previous concerns of the average U18 who is not ready for senior football, giving them a few months of

U19s is unlikely to decrease any of the previous concerns of drop-out.

On the other hand, it poses difficulties regarding the 18- and 19-year-olds trying to participate in both it and their senior and reserve teams.

From a fixture calendar point of view, creating a full additional competition level would pose very significant challenges to an underage calendar which is already straining to give the current grades sufficient space.

Given these issues, one goes back to the old truism of ‘if it ain’t broke...’

The county U17 grade came about due to the potential for burn-out which was found to be a particular risk among high-level young 18-year-olds.

At club level, however, this is not the main issue. The main issue here is the progression from underage to senior level. When all is said and done, U18 still feels the most appropriate grade for managing this issue and barring the mis-step with county level, there is no other reason to change.

Motion 36, from Tyrone County Board, is long overdue and a move in which I see only positives.

While dealing with clarification of age spans at the various grades, for example 14-18 for minor which appears good sense, it also carries a sub-section allowing county boards to move the normal January 1 cut-off point for age limits.

It is this stipulation that creates the infamous ‘bad birthday’.

A ‘bad birthday’ exists due to the split of the school year across calendar years and thus the split in a bunch of friends between those who can play at a certain underage level and those who can’t.

If all of a certain year group was allowed play on the same teams, for example by moving the January 1 cut off to July 1.

While having a few children in the ‘bad birthday’ category myself means I have an interest to declare, this rule appears so straightforward that it’s no struggle to think ‘Why not?’. Experience would, of course, suggest it is rarely this straightforward.

While the handpass or mark rule proposals spark much discussion and debate, issues like the changing of the underage levels described above are of much greater significance and need to be given the appropriate serious discussion and analysis to increase the chances of getting things right.

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