GAA Football

John McEntee: More must be done to harness U20 grade

Callum Brown wasn't allowed to play for Derry seniors in 2018 because he was too young under GAA rules. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE recent rule change which lowered the age limit of minor footballers to 17 has created some interesting conundrums for the GAA. 

You may remember Derry’s Callum Brown falling foul to the rule change. At inter-county level, the ruling says that a player must celebrate his 18th birthday prior to January 1 of that year to gain senior inter-county eligibility. Callum was 17. 

Unfortunately he never played for Derry and probably never will if the soundings from Australia, where he has signed for AFL side Greater Western Sydney Giants, are to be believed. At club level, a player must celebrate his 17th birthday before January 1 of that year to play senior. Confused? Me too.

The age for inter-county eligibility is older than for eligibility to play in adult club football. Minor grade, when it was for players under the age of 18 on January 1 produced many young men who were physically strong and conditioned to progress into senior grade. 

In the past, some of these young men were required by their clubs to feature on their senior team prior to leaving minor grade.

Putting it in simple terms – if they didn’t play, many clubs would have folded as every number counts in rural clubs. It seems as though the GAA hierarchy has listened to their club delegates when creating the new age ranges, so I give credit where it is due.

However, there is an inevitable impact on player welfare I cannot ignore. 17-year-olds are just kids. Acne-ridden and emotionally wobbly, still maturing physically, they are continuing to form strong friendships and are exposed to the perils of unnecessary risks in the absence of parental guidance.

The 17-year-old GAA player wants to impress his coach, particularly his senior coach. He may attempt gym programmes for which his body is not yet conditioned. He may be naive to the dangers of running into a seasoned player’s shoulder – which nothing prepares you for until you’ve been lined up and truly nailed. 

At this age the desire to please can often be the overriding emotion which trumps common sense. Far too many good 17-year-old players fail to realise their potential at senior grade due to the emergence of injury or from falling out of love with the game by their early 20s.

This brings me to my next concern: the development gap between 17-20 years. Inter-county teams consider U20 grade to be a development grade, club structures do not. The U20 grade is a nuisance for many. At county level the best players are creamed off to play with the senior team and are then ineligible to play with their own age group. 

I’ve lamented on this anomaly before so I am focussing this discussion at club level. 

U20 competitions are slotted into the GAA club calendar after the senior championship concludes. 

It is rushed through over a few short weeks when neither manager nor player is really interested in training in dark, frosty autumn evenings for limited recognition. 

Realisation is slowly setting in that this age group is a greater barometer of future success than underage (U17 and below) successes yet the pathway to development is virtually non-existent in many clubs.

There are exceptions. For example, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny were beaten in the 2015 Ulster minor final by Crossmaglen.

Roll on three years and a fistful of those players will feature in Declan Bonner’s plans this year, and at the same time they carry the favourites’ tag to win the provincial U21 tournament hosted by Kickham’s Creggan.

Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that Gaoth Dobhair were the provincial U21 champions earlier this year and were crowned Donegal senior a fortnight ago, while the team they beat in the Ulster U21 championship final, Lavey, are back in the mix to win the Derry senior championship.

This age range is an ideal time to optimise physical and psychological development. By this stage, they have committed to Gaelic games and are mature enough to know what that entails. It is the perfect time to make them bigger, better, faster, stronger. 

In the Scottish Rugby development model they refer to this stage as being the stage when players train to compete and progress into the final stage of training to win. 

In Gaelic games, when we work with young men their focus is not always on training to compete. It may be they train to look good in super skinny jeans and t-shirts or for other health or social reasons. 

In many ways those reasons are fine, but if a club wants to progress and achieve at senior grade the training must be designed specifically to develop the person as a player.

Lowering the minor age limit from 18 to 17 means that this age range requires a specific focus, otherwise more young men are going to be lost to other sports or, worse still, they will drop out of the sporting sphere entirely. 

U20 club competitions ought to be afforded an enticing slot in the GAA calendar before the senior club competition commences.

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