We don't care if we lose, ye will all get a game: Joe Kavanagh on Nemo's famous underage policy
“We’re not interested in winning underage leagues or championships. If we do, great, but ye are all going to get a game.”
Joe Kavanagh, Nemo Rangers selector and former All-Ireland winning player
JACK Horgan will start at midfield for Nemo Rangers in Saturday’s All-Ireland club semi-final. And yet if he was playing for most other clubs in Ireland, he might well have walked away long ago.
When he was 20, he wasn’t deemed good enough to make the club’s under-21B team. Yet just a few years on, he was man of the match in the 2017 Cork county final replay win over St Finbarr’s, scoring 1-1.
He is the most recent and obvious example of an underage policy that flies in the face of traditional methods, but it goes all the way back to Dylan Meighan, who never made an ‘A’ team the whole way up through underage but won All-Irelands and Munster titles across more than a decade of senior football.
The Nemo Rangers way is to develop the greatest spread of talent they can across the board, even when they know it will be at the expense of underage trophies.
Game time is given to every player who turns up to play. In an interview with GAA.ie in 2016, senior footballer Stephen Cronin – who has gone on to play for Cork – talked winning just one championship game the whole way until the end of his minor days.
“You could be playing in the middle of the field and you’re being beaten by 20 points and you’re looking around and half the team is being substituted,” he said at the time.
Former Allstar Joe Kavanagh won two All-Ireland club titles with the Cork city outfit and is now the forwards coach to his brother Larry, who heads a five-man management team looking to unpick Slaughtneil this weekend.
He recalls first getting involved in coaching at under-13 a decade-and-a-half ago, just as his own playing days were starting to draw to a close. And he embraced the same policy as the rest.
“We had two teams and you’d always have nine or ten good players across the two teams, but we’d put five on one team and five on the other team. And we never won anything up through the grades bar maybe an U16 league.
“The idea was that you’d have two reasonably good teams instead of having one good team and then 20 guys who maybe can’t play at all.
“The five good guys helped both teams out and brought on the average players. That was the ethos. We weren’t interested in winning an under-13 league or an under-14 championship.
“By the time 16 comes, you have a good idea of the good players are and the average players have improved. Leave the other clubs win these u14, u15, u16 championships but then we have good teams ready to compete, and recently win, minor and under-21 championships. That’s the way it goes.”
Originally their catchment area was in the heart of Turner’s Cross, better known as the home of Cork City FC, even though Nemo Rangers had played their games at the site of the soccer club’s stadium in the 1930s.
That put them into contest with soccer – Luke Connolly and Barry O’Driscoll both had their heads turned as youngsters before siding with GAA – and rugby.
And you would think that a policy of sacrificing short-term success for the long-term gain would be a hard sell to a bunch of pre-adolescents with other options on their doorstep. But not so, it seems.
“I don’t think it was, and if you’re lucky enough, they might win something anyhow. Maybe it’s good to get beaten at those ages, maybe that’s a psychological thing we didn’t even think about.
“I remember telling those fellas ‘it’s not about winning at 13 or 14 or 15 – you’re 14 years of age now, give it three or four years and ye’ll be competing at the highest level, and ye will be winning.’
“Maybe they sucked that in and believed it. It invariably becomes truth because Stephen Cronin is playing senior football and even Cork football now.
“He was a well-driven guy I remember, and you just let them know that’s the way we’re going. That we’re not interested in winning.
“If we do, great, but ye are all going to get a game. We want to develop ye and make ye all Nemo players by the time you’re 17 or 18.”
With seven All-Ireland titles to their name, they’re entitled to feel that their way works.
It was a long five years between their 2010 and 2015 county titles and it had been a full decade since they last won Munster before they put All-Ireland champions Dr Croke’s to the sword so emphatically in November.
But then what is success in the GAA? Should their Munster title weigh any more heavily than the fact that their dropout rate has been contained and that they’re able to field five adult teams with more than 100 players?
“I wouldn’t have figures and the drop-off was still reasonable but we definitely kept a lot of players that we might have lost if we’d discarded them, said ‘ye are the B team lads’ and treated them that way.
“Being a city team, the population is big and you’re able to lose 10 or 12 guys, whereas country teams can’t afford that. The guys that are interested and able are always the ones that will stay.
“You’re seldom losing a fella saying ‘Jaysus, he was a great player, it’s a pity we lost him’. We’ve lost a few to rugby over the years but they might have been in a rugby school. More than not, we keep guys.”
You’ll only keep those that want to stay, and nothing makes young footballers quicker to leave than not getting football.
All those under-14 games they sacrificed in the last decade are bearing their fruit now.