Sport

Danny Hughes: Schools and county boards can work hand-in-hand in developing players

St Patrick's, Downpatrick capped a good weekend for Down football by winning the MacLarnon Cup on Monday Picture by Hugh Russell

I CANNOT recall a more tragic weekend and, before any discussion on the relative triviality of sporting matters, my heartfelt sympathies are extended to the families and friends of those individuals who died in Carlingford and Cookstown respectively.

At the Athletic Grounds on Monday, St Michael’s, Enniskillen lifted the MacRory Cup after an emphatic victory over Omagh CBS.

Fermanagh football has been riding the crest of a wave for some time now. Even as far back as the late ’90s and early Noughties, St Michael’s were upsetting the natural order in schools’ football.

The credit for their success in that period must go to Dominic Corrigan, amongst others. Corrigan and his teams broke my heart on a few occasions at MacRory Cup level, having narrowly beaten Abbey CBS in both quarter-final and semi-final replays.

In all of those matches, Corrigan produced a tactical masterclass. I always admired him for that.

When you consider Fermanagh’s various inter-county teams, especially the one which came close to an All-Ireland football final in 2004, it’s not hard to notice that most of the players who were the backbone of those sides were expertly tutored under Corrigan’s guidance at St Michael’s.

As long as the players keep listening to Corrigan, I feel that St Michael’s, Enniskillen will hold the key for future inter-county success in Fermanagh.

It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the standard of schools’ football holds the key to future inter-county success.

I know that in Down we have struggled to produce the type of players required to compete at inter-county level.

Both Abbey CBS and St Colman’s, Newry have sporadically produced teams capable of winning MacRory and Hogan Cups.

St Colman’s have quite a unique record in the competition, having been blessed in the past with coaches like Ray Morgan,

Pete McGrath and Declan Mussen.

To say this doesn’t make a difference in a teenager’s footballing development is akin to questioning the validity of global warming.

I am enthused by St Patrick’s, Downpatrick’s win in the MacLarnon Cup final despite the challenges and, from a Down perspective, it is potentially something the school can build on.

For many grammar and secondary schools, the PE departments and football coaching unfortunately operate in an autonomous environment, in many cases with little to no input from the respective county boards within which the school jurisdiction is operating.

The lack of joined-up thinking is very frustrating for both county

and club supporters.

Developing better players, with better tactical awareness and skill levels, is the key to improving the nature of our game.

In the melting pot of schools’ football, the players experience more competition and the standard of play is generally higher as they are pitted against better players of varying standards.

Unfortunately, at underage level, various club teams may be tiered at various sections according to their overall collective strength, thus players can fail to develop adequately in some cases.

Exposure to better players lifts standards. Exposure to better coaching improves players.

A simple example is the nature of Down’s victories to date in their Allianz Football League matches this year.

Winning a game in injury-time builds character. I would rather win a game by one point than 10 points if you learn something new about yourself.

Paddy Tally has had an immediate and positive impact on what is a young and relatively inexperienced Down squad. He has had the autonomy to slowly turn things around and arrest the slide.

His coaching experience lends itself to excellent management potential.

I believe that at inter-county level, given that the players tend to be of a higher standard anyway and more importantly want to be there, big gains can be made relatively quickly.

Promotion and a game at Croke Park, albeit a Division Three final, is a key component of any player’s development. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

This is exactly why Tyrone’s result against Dublin on Saturday night at Croke Park was so satisfying for the Red Hands.

That game was won not just on the scoreboard last Saturday night, but psychologically too, in no small part helped as a result of playing the Dubs on numerous occasions over the last few years from Healy Park to Croke Park.

It was an important milestone.

Cathal McShane (inset) was excellent at full-forward and, when I saw him earlier in the League against Roscommon, he was the one player in the first half who had created problems inside.

The problem on that occasion was the lack of direct ball coming his way and, when it did, he had very little space and little to no support off his shoulder.

In the wide-open expanse of Croke Park, the latter issues were significantly improved on.

Like everything else, though, it is only in the white heat of Championship football, in a final, that you can truly enjoy beating this Dublin team.

While I still maintain they will win five Sam Maguires in-a-row, three defeats in a League campaign

would indicate that Dublin may

be slipping, or other teams are getting stronger. Either/or, it bodes well for football generally.

So too does the Mayo v Kerry result, which again threw up an unpredictable Mayo win.

In psychological terms, I would describe Mayo as having a split personality. You just don’t know what you are going to get.

The return of James Horan, has definitely given them a lift, however, I can’t make my mind up as to whether they are actually contenders for an All-Ireland or

not.

When Aidan O’Shea plays as he did on Saturday night, not only is he the best player on the field, but he is the best in Ireland.

The questions as to whether he has the bottle for the big occasions has been levelled against him for many years now, however, I think this isolated narrative has been unfair on O’Shea.

In ‘those matches’ with Dublin in 2017, I thought he played well, maybe not man-of-the-match performances, but without him, Mayo certainly would not have been as close to the Dubs.

I am sure at this stage O’Shea will have grown a thick skin, the same one that is required at all levels of football by any player.

Moreover, with performances like that of last week, all teams need to

sit up and take notice.

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