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Enda McGinley: The challenge of taking the big step up from GAA youth to senior grades

Tyrone U21 side of ‘00/01 joined into a team that included players of the calibre of Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher, Gerald Cavlan, Colin Holmes and Chris Lawn.
Enda McGinley

This weekend sees Tyrone take on Cavan in a stand-alone game.

It's a fixture that for me holds particular interest due to the fortunes of the respective underage structures within both counties and the consequent ability to transfer this to senior level.

The whole concept of concentrating on youth and the cliché of creating a mythical ‘conveyor belt of talent’ are dominating features of GAA psychology in terms of long term planning for success.

The respective progress of Cavan and Tyrone as well as others show that it is not a guaranteed route whilst I’m sure every club could look to a trophy-winning underage team that maybe didn’t come through how they hoped.

When the bulk of the two teams on Sunday were Under 21, Cavan were the dominant team. They won four Ulster U21 titles in a row between 2011 and 2014 accounting for Tyrone along the way in the Ulster final in 2011 and ‘12.

There was talk of the rejuvenation of Cavan football and the potential return to their past Senior glories. There was good precedence for this.

The last team to complete a 4-in-a-row of Ulster U21 titles was Tyrone back in 2000-2003 and of course this was followed by a decade of unprecedented success for Tyrone where they won four Ulster titles, two NFL and their three senior All-Irelands.

Cavan's U21s of this era are now 24-27 years old. Prime senior age yet they have not won a senior title of any description.

On Sunday, Tyrone will be the big hitters and are widely spoke about as potential All-Ireland challengers or at least the team that could run Dublin closest.

Cavan will not feature in such conversations in fact they, along with Roscommon, are favourites for the drop back to Division 2.

What has happened? Is our faith in the conveyor belt ill-founded?

Have the Cavan players not come through?

The wise man, leaning over the railing will comment on ‘the big step up’ between underage and senior football and state that underage titles count for little when it comes to senior ball.

For me, youth will always correlate at the very least with improvements at seniors.

Critically though, youth coaches can have a major impact on the mental approach of players.

Looking to achieve success purely in that team for that year is too short term and doesn’t create the hunger for senior success.

The seeds must be planted for the bigger target, the bigger test.

Success at U16 or U21 etc. does not make a player.

I remember clearly Mickey Harte continually telling us as county minors that, in 10 years time, only two of us were likely to be playing for Tyrone Seniors.

His message may have been to make the most of the here and now, but on some level for all of us it made a mark.

We wanted to be that player.

We knew it wasn’t success at U18 or in time U21 level that would count.

Success at those grades gave the team the confidence and belief that we could defeat anyone but it was the throwing down of the challenge to be in this for the long haul that made long lasting impact.

Ten years later there was 10 of that team still involved as we won the Senior All-Ireland in 2008. Co-incidence, I don’t think so.

Other factors must be considered too. History plays a role.

Those coming into a team with a tradition of success are more likely to see dreams of senior success as a rite of passage and realistic goal.

For those coming through without that tradition, the underage success will certainly boost their confidence but the nagging doubts about whether it is possible to get across that line at senior level can remain.

A critical factor is also what the successful underage players are joining into.

That much-referenced Tyrone U21 side of ‘00/01 joined into a team that whilst not challenging for the All-Ireland, were already in the top flight.

It included players of the calibre of Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher, Gerald Cavlan, Colin Holmes and Chris Lawn.

In contrast to this, Cavan in 2011 finished mid-table in Division 3 and were almost relegated to Division 4 in 2012.

Whilst they have as yet won honours at senior level, their efforts at U21 level have obviously still paid off.

They sit in Division 1, and whilst I predict a defeat on Sunday for them which will raise further the spectre of relegation, they still have moved up the ladder significantly due to their efforts at underage.

The key for them and Mattie McGleenon is whether they can reverse the trend and overtake Tyrone again.

Accepting that there is obviously no guarantee that U21 titles will result in a respective senior title in the years to follow there is good evidence of a strong correlation with.

On top of Tyrone and Cavan’s trends, Jim McGuinness took the Donegal U21 to a surprise All-Ireland final in 2010 and in doing so changed the attitude of a county and earned himself the Senior job.

The rest as they say, is history.

Down won back to back Ulster titles in 2008 and ’09 giving them the impetus for their remarkable All-Ireland final run in 2010.

On Wednesday night Monaghan defeated Antrim in the preliminary round of the Ulster U21 Championship.

Next week the rest of the teams get going in the first round proper; Tyrone v Donegal is an eye-catching one.

The teams could all do with tuning into Sunday's senior game.

Maybe a few more seeds could be planted for future senior success.

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