John McEntee: 'If you're good enough, you're old enough'

Sean O'Shea was Kerry's best player in their opening win over Donegal in Killarney Picture by Colm O'Reilly

A FULL list of inter-county fixtures were hosted all across the country last weekend as the Allianz League got off to a flying start, yet only one name was on people’s lips.

Sunday saw the introduction of one of the most eagerly-awaited arrivals into senior football in living memory – that of Kerry’s David Clifford.

Fellow county men are so enthused it is said that more Kerry folk travelled to that game than made the trip to Croke Park last summer. The fact it was a home match which didn’t require a bus trip, two train journeys and the outlay of a day’s wages may also have had something to do with it.

If Eamon Fitzmaurice thought unlocking the Tyrone defence was a major challenge, he will soon come to realise that managing this young man’s expectations, or perhaps the public’s expectations of his ability, might just be the biggest conundrum he will face this year.

Until now, the Kerry maestro’s philosophy appeared to be to carefully choreograph the introduction of a conveyor belt of minor stars as they matured through U21 grade and became physically conditioned to the stresses and strains of senior inter-county football at the highest level.

Last year he chose from a small panel of about 20 players throughout the League and Championship, none of whom were younger than 23 years of age. He has been sitting on a hotbed of talent having won three-in-a-row All-Ireland minor titles, with only one of those, Mark O’Connor, being poached to play Australian Rules.

Sunday’s game provided Fitzmaurice with perhaps a few unintended tools to address this conundrum.

Firstly, it was a tough bruising encounter in which Clifford would have realised he gets neither time nor space nor the respect he was afforded by oppositions at minor grade.

More often than not, he was out-muscled and out-paced. Hard lessons are rarely forgotten.

Secondly, and perhaps most comforting for Fitzmaurice, he was outshone by a team-mate – Seán O’Shea. The 20-year-old from Kenmare was simply outstanding. He kicked points for fun. He accepted responsibility for a 45-metre free deep into injury-time as if he was a senior person on the team and he struck it as sweetly as if we were watching the great Gooch kick it.

I ask myself if it is necessary for players to be 21 or older before they are introduced into senior football. There are many good reasons for setting such a bar. For example, it enables them to play university football, to focus on their education and so on, but are there compelling footballing reasons?

I think back to my first county game as a 19-year-old against Antrim in 1996, how it took time to adjust to the pace of the game and the intensity of the hits, but I coped and never considered my young introduction to be a hindrance during my career. It seemed common place back then.

Sean Cavanagh was also 19 years of age when he first played for Tyrone seniors. James McCartan jnr was 18 years of age and, despite his short stature, he somehow managed to survive and become one of the best players of the 1990s. Had Anthony Tohill not gone to Australia he would undoubtedly have transitioned seamlessly into the senior set-up as an 18-year-old.

In 1993, I remember spectating as a 16-year-old from behind the goals as Armagh minors played Fermanagh in Irvinestown. Of particular note was how Raymond Gallagher was able to cut through our defence to score goals for fun.

On the same day the senior game ended in a draw on a scoreline of 1-9 apiece. It was a day that almost ended my career before it had started. Before the ball even hit the net my friends and I rushed down to shake the wire fence just as our very own hero Gerard Houlihan, who scored the goal, jumped up onto the fence as was his customary celebration. His left foot grazed my knuckles, leaving a scar that’s still visible.

The replay turned out to be one of the most memorable games of that era. Denis Hollywood wrote his name into the history books by coming on and scoring 2-1 in the last 10 minutes to win the game for Armagh. But what was remarkable for me was that Raymond Gallagher also played and chalked up 1-6 as an 18-year-old, still a minor footballer. I wonder if Raymond was playing in the current era would he be afforded the chance as a kid to shine like he did that day? Players like him seem consigned to history.

I know of only a few who have achieved a similar feat and achieved long-term success. Donnie Brennan (Laois) achieved it in 2004 and the powerhouse that is Patrick McBrearty in 2011.

My old friend John Martin from Crossmaglen once said ‘if a player is good enough he is old enough, stick him in’.

This League introduces many new faces to the inter-county scene. The O’Sheas and Cliffords of this world are here to stay. The rest may hope time is on their side.

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