The GAA's planned U20 grade for 2018 receives broad welcome
The inter-county U21 Football Championship will make way for an U20 competition next year, while minor level will move from U18 to U17. Aidan O'Rourke, CJ McGourty and Aaron Kernan assess what the changes could mean with Brendan Crossan...
DESSIE Farrell admitted to feeling a bit sentimental about his Dublin side competing in the last-ever U21 All-Ireland final against Galway in Tullamore tomorrow evening.
But nothing stays the same.
From Croke Park’s perspective, it’s probably just as well.
The U21s at inter-county football level is no longer after tomorrow.
Some important housekeeping was carried out at last year’s Congress when it decreed the U21 grade would be replaced by U20 and minor level [in football and hurling] tweaked to U17s.
The thrust of the changes was obvious: Underage structures needed to be streamlined in a bid to ease the physical and mental burden on the teenage playing population.
Just over 68 per cent of Congress agreed and the changes come into effect on January 1 2018.
“Numerous reports had confirmed what we already knew,” explains Alan Milton, the GAA’s Communications manager, “that there were unrealistic demands being placed on our young players, particularly at a really important developmental stage of their careers.
“Something had to give. And, in fairness, [Director General] Paraic Duffy took the bull by the horns on this issue.
“The idea of U17 was to take them out of the State exams and also to end a kid playing adult games. Between U17 and U21 is too big of a gap to bridge, so the rationale was to bring that back to U20.
“Don’t forget there was a push to get rid of U21 altogether…”
Armagh’s All-Ireland winning defender Aidan O’Rourke broadly welcomes the changes and believes the U21 grade had outlived its purpose.
“U21 is slightly late [in developing a player for senior]. That’s my own feeling on it,” he says.
Although he acknowledges a player’s development is “never a straight line”, O’Rourke feels that a high percentage of young players are ripe for senior football at a younger age.
“I think the need is greater to have a competition at U20 rather than U21 because the way the game has gone. It’s a young man’s game.
“Obviously, the year of change where a group is going to miss out [on a year] is always going to be difficult, but that’s going to happen.”
Aaron Kernan won an U21 All-Ireland title with Armagh in 2004, the county’s only success at that grade.
Back then, Kernan felt he made huge strides in his final year at U21 that convinced him he was good enough for the senior ranks.
“I played U21 in 2003 and 2004,” says the Crossmaglen man.
“For me, it was very, very important at club and at county level to try and adjust that little bit more.
“I just found in 2004 I was physically more developed and I was maturing a bit more.
“I definitely got more confidence with that run of games we had [to the 2004 All-Ireland title] and felt I was good enough to play at senior level.
“Your biggest drop-out is between minor and U21. If you can keep boys after that you sort of have them.”
During his teenage years, CJ McGourty played for a dozen different teams at the one time.
The St Gall’s clubman played hurling and football at all grades and also played soccer for La Salle.
He was the classic example of player burn-out.
Now 28 and still a member of the Antrim senior football panel, McGourty has undergone two hip operations.
“I wanted to play for whoever came calling,” McGourty says.
“If a cricket coach had asked me to play, I probably would have played. [But] Physically, it catches up on you and you sort of lose love for the game for periods because you’ve played so much early on.
“If your club manager comes and asks you to play a match in any code, you’re going to say yes even if you’re half injured.
“I was lucky enough to play in a very successful school team, a very successful club team and played football, hurling and soccer.
“I remember coming in from La Salle training at five o’clock after a long day at school and going out to St Gall’s training because we were in the All-Ireland Club that year. I was getting no work done. I was going to bed for 10 or 11 hours sleep.”
McGourty doesn’t blame his coaches. He blames his own keenness to play all codes.
“Looking back now, I probably would play all the games again. If I took a match a week away I probably could have saved money on those operations.
“There were school and club matches where I could have sat out and I didn’t.
“Nowadays, managers are under so much pressure to get results, or they’re out. It’s must-win this week, must-win the next week and the next week and that’s the way it is.”
A crucial addendum to the changes is that the U20 Championship will be played between June and August but a player cannot play U20 and senior Championship simultaneously.
“I think it’s a good principle that you can’t play both,” says O’Rourke.
“Okay, they’re competitions but they’re developmental teams… [In the past] You could have three or four lads playing senior and they’re also playing U21, then that’s three or four development places that others aren’t going to have.
“Simply from a development point of view that rule makes a lot of sense.
“But if a county feels that a player is ready to step up and he is promoted to the senior squad, that’s fine,” O’Rourke adds.
“But, at the minute, I think are there players that managers are not sure of and they throw them in for a couple of games in the McKenna and see if they sink or swim.
“I could give you many examples of players who were thrown to the wolves and weren’t ready, and then discarded. Confidence to players is a massive thing and adjusting to the new level. It’s never a straight line.
“The new rule will make counties think carefully about who they’re promoting because you’re obviously sacrificing their participation in their own grade. All these things take a year or two to bed down but long-term I think it’ll be good for player development.”
With change come challenges.
Carving up your resources is a bit easier in the bigger counties such as Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone.
They perhaps have the luxury of allowing their younger players to stay at the U20 grade in order to let them develop.
But the narrative can be quite different in other counties where there’s a greater reliance on promoting U20 players to senior level out of necessity.
When Antrim faced Longford in their final Allianz NFL Division Three game at Corrigan Park at the beginning of April, Antrim started with five U20 players.
If the same scenario emerges around this time next year, Antrim’s U20 squad will be shorn of its best players because they’re required at senior level and consequently the development process is potentially ruptured from the outset.
Of course, optics in the GAA are never straightforward.
Kernan draws attention to his native Armagh where a clutch of players have straddled both the U21 and senior grade this year.
“It will be no issue to Dublin,” Kernan says, “because they don’t need to put their U20s in their senior team. But it’s the likes of Armagh, Antrim, Down…
“Take for instance Kieran McGeeney: Oisin O’Neill and Ben Crealey was his midfield in their last League game against Tipperary, and on the Wednesday night they were playing for the U21s.
“There is no way the U21s could have done without Ben Crealey and Oisin O’Neill…”
With results driving everything, some managers mightn’t have an eye on the “bigger picture”.
“You only have two years at U20 to make anything of yourself but you can still play in the senior team for the next 10 years,” Kernan adds.
“Kerry played their U21s in their first two National League games and then they pulled them completely and didn’t feature in a match-day panel for the remainder of the League.
“You could say: ‘Fair play to Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jack O’Connor for coming to that agreement.’
“But that’s fine for Kerry, Dublin and Galway – the bigger counties with the bigger picks.
“I know Armagh definitely couldn’t have done without the U21s this year.”
One positive aspect to the introduction of the U20 grade is that it will relieve some of the pressure that occurs in February [Sigerson] and April [U21 provincial Championships] when players are trying to serve too many masters.
“The U21s heavily impacted on Colleges’, Freshers’ and Sigerson teams, particularly in the last five years because of the focus they’ve got from the counties,” says O’Rourke, who is GAA development officer at Queen’s.
“You’ve had county U21 managers telling players: ‘You’re not going to Sigerson training; you’re not playing in the Ryan Cup; you’re not playing for the Freshers’ team.’
“The fact that there’s no longer a clash takes that debate away because players want to play everything. Now the U20s is moved to the summer does lessen the burden on players.
“If you look at players trying to break into county senior squads they’re involved in the McKenna Cup because counties want to get a look at them at the time the county U21s are in full flow.
“In January and February those players are trying to balance everything to try and make it to county seniors rather than trying to focus on the U21s.
“Now, with the U20s, a player in the same position will want to make an impact in the seniors, that’ll be done in the early part of the year.
“And if he makes it, great. If he doesn’t, he still has a county focus in the summer with the U20s… Moving it to the summer removes it from the colleges and has pretty simple logistical advantages.”
But, of course, how will these tweaks and calendar shifts impact on club programmes around the country.
That, Kernan believes, is where the biggest bone of contention will emerge.
“You've seen in Donegal where the clubs had three of the first four League games cancelled because of the U21s. What’s going to happen now during the summer when boys are going to be playing U20 Championship and Senior Championship?
“Are we just going to cancel all club football? It’s probably going to interfere with the club programme more than people think.”
McGourty believes the GAA should go a step further and introduce an U19 grade and do away with U17 and U20.
“Years ago the U21s was seen as a stepping stone to senior and you made the senior squad when you were 23 or 24. Now players are coming into senior squads at 19 and 20.
“If you’re half decent you’re going to be in the county squad at that age.
“I think U19 is the way forward, so I’d stick to that minor grade and then go straight into senior.”
The GAA has made an attempt to stop the pulling and hauling of its young players between different grades.
But, rest assured, there will still be some pulling and hauling when the changes come into force next year.