Kicking Out: Changing age grades will make retaining players even harder
STEPHEN is 16. He’s just started into his first year of A-Levels.
Despite the voice starting to thicken and the arrival on his chin of strands of fluff that he knows not how to contain, he’s just a boy.
University still seems a long way off. Just delved into another two years of Mr Ashmore’s crap jokes in Biology, there are times when it seems like a longer road.
But the thoughts exist. He’ll have to start his applications next year, and that means having an idea of what he wants to do in life.
Right now, all he wants to do is play football.
It’s become a harder pull for him. The club has been motoring rightly at senior level, pushing up from junior to the top end of intermediate.
But at underage, it’s a struggle. At times, they barely scrape a team together.
It was grand at under-12, but as they’ve climbed the grades, the numbers have fallen off. Amalgamation seems inevitable.
A lot of Stephen’s friends have already quit. They’re glued to their iPhones during the day and then sit all evening at Fortnite or FIFA.
There’s no real culture of outdoor. And no big history of success in the club that creates a flame around which the youth congregate. It’s just a game.
Stephen loves it though. The family always goes to games. His father played and coached, and his mother was a great camog. His brother is on the senior team, and his sisters are handy too.
Their parents drilled the importance of the club into them from they were no age, and all Stephen’s ever wanted to do was play football.
Problem is that he’s not brilliant. He knows he’s not brilliant. The lack of numbers means he’ll always play now, but in the younger days, he dipped in and out of the ‘A’ team.
The father and brother were the same. Late bloomers. Slight of build, it took them both until they were 21 to make the club’s championship team.
The filling out process is often a slow one in the family. Stephen’s not much over 9 stone. He could be 21 before he has the natural gait for senior football.
His is a December birthday. In just over six weeks’ time, the new year will start and he’ll be ineligible for the new U17 grade.
The GAA has forced counties down this route. The old U14-U16-U18 age grades that have worked forever have been disbanded, replaced by U13-U15-U17.
There are only four clubs who could actually field a proper U19 team without it being raided by the seniors, but that’s not enough so the county board decide against a competition.
Three months into lower sixth at school, Stephen is ineligible for underage football.
The club’s senior team has eyes on a championship next year. They reached the semi-final last year, losing by two points to the eventual winners. The age profile is perfect. A few grizzlies, a couple off a decent minor team three years ago, but most of them are between 24 and 27.
A half-back by trade, Stephen doesn’t really see an avenue into the team. The two wing-backs, where he’d normally play, are strong, quick and established. The wing-forward positions are that wee bit looser but there’s a queue of men can fill them.
That’s the difference. They’re men. He’s a boy.
2020 is a lost year. The natural step is into the reserves, but it’s a shambles. The manager washed his hands of them this year, hung about for the first 15 minutes of games and then headed off inside with the seniors. There’s no-one there to impress.
In a league of 12 teams, two pulled out before it started. Another three didn’t field, and one week they couldn’t field themselves. Five league games and one championship game, in which they were hammered, is the year’s football.
The gym’s grand but there’s no real culture of it in the club. A few of the lads go but all they want to do is bicep curls so that they look poured into their top on Saturday night.
The year passes and next thing, he’s enrolled as a trainee quantity surveyor at university. Far too light to go near a Sigerson team full of county men there. Tries out for the Freshers, hangs around that for a while.
The club’s going ok at home, but it’s 45 minutes each road on a Tuesday and Friday evening.
Two friends that had played reserve last year have already cut their losses. It’s just him now. The changing room has its cliques and he’s not sure where he fits. The new manager demands his attendance at Tuesday evening sessions.
As he climbs into the car, the music’s pumping, his housemates are getting their carry-out and the girls from next door are coming over for pre-drinks.
He heads up the road for training as they head for the Hatfield. He’ll join them in Thompson’s if he isn’t completely zonked by the time he gets back.
And driving up the road for what? He’s 19 now, and since he turned 17, all there has been is two years of meaningless reserve football.
The senior grade is at least another year, probably two, out of his reach. There might be a run off the bench here and there, but is it worth the run up the road for that when you could just cave in and join the rest of them in living the student life?
He’s never going to play for the county, but he could have followed the father and brother, and made a decent club player.
In the end, Belfast got him. With the change to the underage grades, it would have been four years waiting to make a breakthrough into a senior team.
Four years with no meaningful football, and no guarantee that it would ever come.
That’s just too long.
If the change to the age grades is made, there’ll only be more Stephens - lost to the game because there's no game for them to play.