'He couldn't hurl spuds to a lame duck...' Young players need an environment to develop without pressure
THERE were no punches thrown but they weren’t too far away.
With faces turned an angry shade of maroon, adults traded insults as the game halted for a player to receive treatment after an off-the-ball incident.
His side swore he’d been punched, the other said claimed he lay down to get his opponent sent off. Whatever it was, the game needed to get going again and finished as quickly as possible before some young lad did get hurt. What was the game? An U15 championship match.
I see photos on social media of club teams proudly posing with their silverware and that’s great, I enjoy that and I’m delighted for them but for a while now I’ve been coming closer and closer to the conclusion that ‘championship’ competition is best left to minor level - at the earliest.
I know it’s not a popular opinion. It’s not popular in my own house, or even in my own head but I don’t think the current system is serving our young players well.
Not always, but certainly often, it can do more harm than good because everything is cranked up by us adults – and I’m as bad as anyone - and the youngsters have to deal with the consequences.
The coaches are on edge because too many of them are obsessed with winning and delivering a trophy is the be-all and end-all but most of all, some supporters are unable to cope. Of course, all parents want to see their children doing well on the field but when we crank that intensity up to battle-mode level we create an unpleasant, threatening atmosphere and that’s not a good place for kids which, let’s not forget, is what they are.
“But they need to learn how to cope with the pressure of a big championship match,” you might argue.
I disagree. Underage games are, first and foremost, about development. Winning is a bonus.
Secondly, kids don’t look at the game like adults. They play for fun and when it ceases to be a fun environment in which they can express themselves with their friends then we run the risk of losing them which is the point of this column.
The other factor in the current model is that, far from developing a squad of players, the championship structure encourages elitism. How many substitutes get used in a championship game? Not enough. The kids who don’t play will go through the motions if they have to until they’re old enough to make their own decisions and they’ll quit the game.
During the 1990s, I kept a close eye on the Clare hurling team and one of my favourites was their full-back Brian Lohan. A few years ago, I happened to get talking to a man from the Banner county and I remarked on what a player, what a fearless leader, Lohan had been.
It turned out that the fella was from Lohan’s club and he told me that the four-time Allstar and All-Ireland winner wasn’t marked out as a star of the future when he was a youngster.
“He couldn’t hurl spuds to a lame duck,” he said.
Maybe he exaggerated, but the tale illustrates how youngsters develop in their own time, so to keep them all on board we need a system that encourages them, keeps them involved and doesn’t frighten them off.
And there is a bigger picture.
There was no end of hue and cry after that U17 championship game in Roscommon when the referee was laid out cold by a team mentor. It was shocking stuff and afterwards there was condemnation from all and sundry and calls for tougher sanctions to be brought in to discourage future assaults on officials.
That’s all well and good, but to really address the widespread issues that incident exposed the chain needs to be broken and the only way to do that is by changing our culture and bringing through players who haven’t been brainwashed from U13 level by a misguided perception of how to behave when the stakes are high in the championship.
So, if it was up to me, I’d abolish championships under senior level and focus instead on expanding league structures. I’d aim for 20 competitive games a season in which young players would flourish and develop their skills and let the maroon-faced bandwagon go somewhere else for their kicks.
THEY say you should never meet your heroes. OK, I didn’t actually meet one last week, but I did speak to him on the phone.
I spent many a warm summer day watching my father’s videos of the great Leeds United team of the 1960s and 1970s and of course one of the stars of that side was our own Johnny Giles. Tomorrow night the Republic of Ireland play Scotland at Hampden Park and I looked through the record books for famous games at the Glasgow ground.
European Cup semi-final, Wednesday, April 15, 1970: Celtic versus Leeds United and 136,505 souls bought tickets to watch it – just 4,000 of them from Leeds! The atmosphere must have been incredible and, since Johnny Giles played in midfield for Leeds that night, I decided to try and do an interview with him. Luckily I was able to get his number and so, after a couple of deep breaths, I gave him a ring. If he answered I’d decided I would call him ‘Mr Giles’ but he didn’t and after sending him a text and then ringing a second time I gave up on the idea.
Lo and behold, not long after, my phone rang.
‘Johnny Giles’ flashed up on the screen…
“Hello, erm, Mr… Hello Johnny,” I blurted out and then explained what I was after.
He’d read my text so he already knew.
“Yeah, I don’t wanna talk about the Celtic game,” said a very friendly Johnny apologetically.
“I’ve talked too much about it over the years… Sorry about tha.”
“No problem at all,” I said and, unfortunately, that was tha.
I watched the highlights of the game that night and understood why he wasn’t keen to revisit it. Leeds got beat 2-1 and Johnny had a rare stinker for the then English champions.
I’m hoping the Republic have better luck tomorrow night.