Andy Watters: Let’s see our young GAA players and let’s hear them

Is there any need to hide the light of talented youngsters and silence them on great days?

Electric Ireland All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship Final, UPMC Nowlan Park, Co. Kilkenny 29/6/2024
Kilkenny vs Tipperary
Tipperary’s Cathal O’Reilly looks on as the base of the trophy detaches when he lifts it
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ken Sutton
Tipperary minor skipper Cathal O’Reilly spoke so well after the All-Ireland minor hurling final (©INPHO/Ken Sutton ©INPHO/Ken Sutton/©INPHO/Ken Sutton)

IT’S always great to see a young player break into the senior team. Last Friday, at a club match, one team had a teenager in goals, a young fella who had just finished secondary school.

He played very well and his team were comfortably ahead when the visitors mounted a comeback. In the second half a high ball dropped into the square and the goalie caught it well and then looked to pass to a defender. The road to his left was blocked so he had to turn right and then, under pressure, he didn’t get a good connection as he fisted the ball.

An opposition forward grabbed it and stuck it in the net.

The young goalie was distraught.

Not long later another Hail Mary came in and, trying to make up for his previous error, he came off his line and jumped with a forward and a defender. The ball broke, another empty net, another goal…

His team won in the end but the youngster trudged off with his head down.

One of the management got over to him quickly.

“Put it out of your head,” he said.

“Forget about it.”

Very good advice.

The lad was inconsolable but, you know what, I’d be confident he’ll come back stronger from that experience. He has to learn that it’s not always going to go his way. Mistakes are bound to happen and, as all goalkeepers will know, they can often be costly.

That’s life, isn’t it? You go out and do your best and if it doesn’t work well, you learn from your mistakes and you try again. If you’re determined and you work hard enough, you will get there.

Don’t we want our children to chase their dreams, be brave enough to take opportunities and not be afraid to fail? You don’t want to throw teenagers to the lions but why should we feel the need to protect them from making mistakes?

Recently the GAA doubled-down on a mostly unenforced regulation that came in in 2010 which means minor players are not allowed to do post-match interviews. The law is well-meaning but is it really necessary? What is the worst that can happen?

Derry players at the end of the Electric Ireland GAA Football All-Ireland Minor Championship Final between Derry and Monaghan at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds Armagh on 07-09-2023. Pic Philip Walsh
Derry players celebrate their All-Ireland minor title at the Athletic Grounds last year

I’ve done a lot of post-match interviews and one of my favourites is from Holy Trinity College, Cookstown’s MacLarnon Cup final replay win in 2018. I wasn’t at that game but I came across a clip on YouTube in which an interviewer got a word with Holy Trinity full-forward Tarlach Quinn afterwards.

Interviewer: “Tarlach that was a great game out there…

Tarlach: “Aye, well, be Jaysus, you know hi, you get them tough wans and you’ve just gotta take your scores when they’re on. The whole team… Look, it’s a team game, not one man went out there alone…”

He was mobbed by joyous team-mates before he could finish the sentence but when order was restored the interview continued.

Interviewer: “There’s an All-Ireland semi-final coming up and you’ll push on for that…

Tarlach: “Be Jaysus you’re right hi, it’ll be a mad wan hi, but we’ll be back the marra and we’ll be training with the school flat-out…”

The world is full of interesting characters and it was a treat to listen to Tipperary minor captain Cathal O’Reilly speak after the All-Ireland minor hurling final last weekend.

Stefan Forker is assistant-manager of the Armagh minor team that plays Derry in the All-Ireland football final on Sunday and he is adamant that youngsters should be allowed their opportunity to speak if (and the ‘if’ is crucial) they want to.

“Daithi (O’Callaghan) was man of the match (in the All-Ireland semi-final) and he was about to get interviewed and then he was pulled away,” explained the school teacher from Maghery.

“I think it’s a bit of a shame that he doesn’t get his chance to have a word. If he does well and speaks well, great, and if he doesn’t then, so what? Let them at it – you talk about resilience and all these words so just expose them to these opportunities.”

Team manager Aidan O’Rourke takes the same stance. The GAA brought in the rule to protect young players who might not feel comfortable speaking and of course they should never be forced to do so. But there are others who would embrace and relish the opportunity and their light is being hidden under the proverbial bushel.

“I fundamentally disagree with the policy but who am I to argue with the people who are making these decisions?” said O’Rourke.

“The reason I disagree is that they’re throwing a blanket over all of these youngsters and young people nowadays are better educated, more articulate and wiser to the world than they ever have been before.

“So this (policy) is underestimating them I think and it’s depriving people on the outside of an insight into young players.”

Not that awful long ago the All-Ireland minor finals were played at Croke Park before the senior game. Looking back, that was an amazing opportunity for young players to play on the hallowed turf – maybe for the one and only time in their lives – on the biggest day of the season.

Nowadays the game is regularly played at a provincial ground and this year’s showpiece – the second in succession between two Ulster teams (Derry and Monaghan played last year) and the first between two counties from the North – will be held in Omagh.

Healy Park is an excellent ground, but there’s only one Croke Park.

Stefan Forker spoke of his own experiences at minor level when he played in 2005 at Croker before the Armagh-Wexford game.

By the finish there was maybe 60,000 people in the stadium. Imagine the atmosphere? It was an experience Forker and his team-mates never forgot.

So why not give today’s young players the chance to sample it?

If not on All-Ireland final day then before one of last weekend’s quarter-finals or next weekend’s semi-finals?

What an inspiration that would be to their peers and it would show the value the GAA places on our young people. Let’s see them and let’s hear them.