GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Underage success doesn't always make the grade

Lámh Dhearg’s Michael Herron celebrates after his club’s win in the Antrim SFC final on Sunday. Herron experienced some heartbreak and near misses before this year’s victory but do underage structures need changed to ensure younger players are not lost to the game before senior level? 


NATURALLY enough, Lámh Dhearg’s success in the Antrim football final was quite quickly put down to, among other things, the eventual development of their Ulster minor-winning team from the 2010 season.

It had taken seven years to bear fruit but in providing Aaron McAufield, Ryan Murray and Kevin Quinn – who was a sub in the Ulster final against Magherafelt almost seven years ago – it was a success that has bred more.

There is no doubt that successes like those are hugely important in terms of retaining and encouraging players, particularly in the urban areas of west Belfast.

St John’s know it every bit as well, having enjoyed minor and U21 glories of their own in recent years, wins that have helped them produce a side capable now of challenging in Antrim for a few years to come.

While the Lámhs had three of that minor team in harness on Sunday, it’s perhaps more telling that they started with 12 of the team that were well beaten by Cargin in the decider two years ago.

Their win bore more a stamp of the experience of that defeat, and the other heartbreaking losses suffered by the likes of John Finucane, Michael Herron and Paddy Cunningham down the years, than that minor success.

Largely, there is too much stock placed on underage glories. You could point to any number of examples from down the years.

The most striking is Laois. In winning back-to-back All-Ireland minor titles in 1996 and 1997, backing it up with another in 2003 and winning six Leinster titles in all between ’96 and 2007, they seemed set for a golden age.

They did get over the line for a first ever senior provincial title but it was a poor return from such a sustained period of producing good underage teams, and they’ve dropped off to the point of relegation to Division Four in the spring.

Naturally a strong production line will mean decent teams full of good players that stand a reasonable chance of success. But winning has long been the obsession, and all too often at the expense of participation.

The best proof of that is found by looking at U21 and reserve competitions in any given county. Teams not fielding for games, even of the championship variety, are a regular occurrence.

U21 football will literally become non-existent from next year, replaced by the new U20 grade, but it has effectively been a non-entity for a long time.

The inter-county competition runs in the early season, a knock-out competition played week-on-week. For half the counties in Ireland, it starts and ends in the space of 60 minutes.

At club level, it’s an equal afterthought, if not a greater one. This is the time of year when the county boards throw an U21 championship fixture at clubs.

This has become the iron-clad time in the calendar for it since Creggan Kickham’s inventive introduction of an Ulster championship at the grade.

Counties want to tie into their timing and give their representative clubs the best opportunity to become provincial champions, which is understandable.

And in itself it is a fine competition, one that does help with keeping young lads attracted to the game.

But even that can’t mask the wider issues within the grade.

Success is only attractive to those that can realistically attain it. For others, the prospect of regular competitive football would be much more effective.

In an ideal world you would run a separate U20 league and championship parallel to the senior competitions, but this is not an ideal world.

Senior games, even training, would take priority and dilute the U20 honours. And yet it is in that window between finishing minor and making a senior breakthrough that the GAA has always suffered from losing vast amounts of players.

That comes largely down to the lack of football on offer, which is pretty unacceptable really.

The reserve grade has become almost wholly unattractive in most counties and while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, counties still seem afflicted by the old GAA disease of doing something because it’s what’s always been done.

A rethink is required.

What about a developmental competition where teams are mostly made of U23 players, say a minimum of 11 out of 15, completely separate of senior games, played on a different day and with a unique set of fixtures?

Rid ourselves of the tag of ‘reserves’, which is off-putting in itself, and offer those lads that aren’t yet ready for senior football a competitive outlet that might just keep them playing through the wilderness years.

It might not provide any more reliable a conveyor belt of success, but it won’t do any harm and it will keep more men in football.

There is the further issue of a complete lack of social football for fellas who have had their day competitively, who lack the ability to match their enthusiasm or even simply don’t have time for competitive football.

Reserves and U21 are supposed to cover for those men but they’re failing in that duty, so it’s time to stop doing what we’ve always done and do something different.

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