Sport

John McEntee: Clubs are suffering from demands being put on U20s

Derry captain Conor Doherty was the first man to lift the eirgrid Ulster U20 Football Championship trophy last June. Already, 17 weeks until this year's championship starts, clubs are feeling the effects as their players involved in that grade are havin excessive demands placed on them Picture by Seamus Loughran

THE significance of the U20 county championship should not be understated as a measure of a county's progression towards potential success at senior grade.

A quick scan over the past eight years shows that the teams who've had U20 All-Ireland success are the same teams who are omnipresent in Division One and are the main challengers to Dublin.

Even Roscommon's rise to the top table is built on a solid foundation of reaching two U20 finals in the past six years.

Many great players at minor grade may never rack up a Championship appearance at senior grade. Jack Ferriter from Dingle is one guy who instantly springs to mind. He was Kerry captain in 1994. His team, managed by one of the greatest ever goalkeepers in Charlie Nelligan, romped to victory over Armagh in the semi-final before railroading Galway in the final.

Jack was star of the show on both days. He reappeared on the hallowed turf of Austin Stack Park, Tralee in 1998 to guide a star studded IT Tralee to Sigerson Cup success and claim a man of the tournament award in the process. However, soon after he went into relative hibernation.

Rumours of recurrent shoulder injuries and disagreements with the county management team brought severance to a promising, though unfulfilled, county career.

Perhaps a better known Ulster example is Armagh's Des Mackin. Des was a bear of a minor; big, strong, unstoppable and goal-hungry.

Along with Diarmaid Marsden they were feared the length and breadth of Ireland and were popularised as Armagh's mighty ‘M&M' as minor players in the Orchard county's run to the 1992 All-Ireland final.

History shows that Diarmaid went on to excel as one of the finest senior players of his generation, while Des's senior career fizzled out after a few comparatively unsuccessful years.

Of course, there are many reasons why this may have occurred. My point is that players whose development continues on an upward trajectory from minor into U20 (formerly U21) and on to seniors are likely to experience long careers and to demonstrate their best when it matters most.

So, if success at U20 generally correlates to senior success, does it signify that counties should expend huge energy and resources into U20 grade?

This grade is seen by many as the final stage of a development pathway. At no stage in the GAA's development pathway does it say that players who engage in this process are removed from club activity and engage solely in the activities proposed by the county development officers.

Their very existence is designed to fit around club activity and, where relevant, around their school or college experiences.

So the burning question is why are clubs in numerous counties not having access to players who have been called up to U20 squads?

Who has given permission for U20 managers to extract these young men from their clubs, particularly when the U20 championship does not commence for 17 more weeks?

Are county boards seriously turning a blind eye to training three to five times per week or by supporting wildcat challenge games in January and February?

Continuation along the path currently travelled by many counties is further expansion of the professionalism agenda purportedly shunned by the Association.

Many county teams have adopted an approach taken by the successful counties of appointing a high-profile or successful manager for their U20 team.

This brings with it a sense of responsibility to support them in whatever approach they adopt. Power and control is assumed by the manager. Conversely, the added pressure felt by the manager to win leads some to suggest their participation is more related to ego-boosting rather than player development.

The training-to-match ratio at senior grade is frequently quoted as being heavily weighted in favour of training sessions.

This is within a calendar year which has a pre-season provincial competition, a National League and a Championship inclusive of a Super 8 league format, which gives counties a minimum of 11 matches and a possibility of 16 or more.

Compare this to the U20 competition in which teams train from late November through to May/June for possibly one championship match and at most five. Somewhere in the middle of that calendar there are a few meaningless provincial league games which could be easily overlooked.

For most clubs, June 21 (provincial U20 quarter-finals) or July 7 (semi-finals) can't come quick enough because, as depressing as it is to have no contact with their inter-county senior players, it is soul-destroying to have their U20 representatives sucked out of the changing room and from the training field.

As I see it, the only people who can stop this trend are the county board executive committee members and the many club delegates who attend county board meetings.

They are the people who have the real power to enact change and to stop the nonsense. Club teams cannot take many more hits.

Every day these young men are away from their clubs is another day they grow more disengaged with their clubs and their community values.

In the same way that the impact of success at U20 grade should not be understated, the impact on clubs should not be ignored.

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