Football

Cahair O'Kane: Time for Derry's executive to listen, not talk on U18 debate

Dungiven are the reigning Ulster minor champions at U17 level. That competition will remain U17 this year but is set for a return to U18 next year when most counties in Ulster and Ireland will realign to the U18 minor grade. Derry's executive has pushed against that though, preferring a return to U17. Picture: Seamus Loughran
Dungiven are the reigning Ulster minor champions at U17 level. That competition will remain U17 this year but is set for a return to U18 next year when most counties in Ulster and Ireland will realign to the U18 minor grade. Derry's executive has pushed a Dungiven are the reigning Ulster minor champions at U17 level. That competition will remain U17 this year but is set for a return to U18 next year when most counties in Ulster and Ireland will realign to the U18 minor grade. Derry's executive has pushed against that though, preferring a return to U17. Picture: Seamus Loughran

IN Brocagh, numbers will always be light.

As it was the club’s 100th year, they managed to persuade a handful of men in their 40s to stay about for one last year. That was effectively what allowed them to field a senior team.

They nominally had a reserve team but of their first nine fixtures, just one got played.

Brocagh have, for the first time in a few years, half-a-dozen lads ready to turn 18 and hit senior football.

Read More

  • Derry set to revisit U17/U18 debate next week
  • Expanded U17 inter-county calendar complicates debate over return to U18s

For a tiny loughshore club in Tyrone, it’s about staying alive long enough that you might hit a crop of players in five or ten or fifteen years’ time.

Getting six lads in fresh any year is like striking oil.

They’re just one of hundreds of clubs in the same boat around Ireland.

Former Donegal boss Declan Bonner managed Na Rossa to a junior A football title at the weekend.

Four years ago, he had to step in and do goals for them at the age of 54.

When Kerry county board conducted a study in 2018, they found that 30 per cent of their clubs weren’t able to field a 15-a-side team at U16 level.

A lot of clubs are doing everything they can just to survive.

I come from one of those places.

There was one afternoon years ago when we were stuck on 14 men to field a senior team.

You go through the names in your phone, trying everyone that’s ever pulled on a jersey and still can lace their own boots.

Eventually a fella agrees.

“Lift me in the town in 20 minutes.”

Happy days.

Next thing, he rings back.

“Here, I don’t know if it matters, but I’ve had three pints, am I alright to play?”

And the worst bit of it is that you seriously consider taking him anyway.

You have good years and bad years.

A good year is when 100 per cent of the eligible adult males in the village tog out.

If that dips below 80 per cent, it’s a long twelve months ahead.

Such is the nature of the sheugh-and-stream division on which the GAA was built.

It’s the hand you’re dealt. You can’t turn primary school classes that barely reach double figures into a club that will win senior championships. You just can’t.

So in Brocagh and in Na Rossa and in every place like it, men have to play into their late 30s and their early 40s because they’ve no other choice.

The access to 18-year-olds for a senior team is a lifeblood that Division One clubs can barely comprehend.

Tomorrow night in Owenbeg, Derry’s clubs will revisit the never-ending debate around minor football going from U17 back to U18.

They had agreed on the floor in a meeting earlier this year to stay at U17 for 2023 only because fixture schedules were done and teams had plans made and WhatsApp groups formed.

The hall was in favour of a permanent return to U18 beyond that.

Yet the leadership of Derry’s executive has continually tried to show the clubs down Croke Park’s preferred route of remaining at U17.

Clubs were last week given just over seven days’ notice of a vitally important meeting that could have been pencilled in at any point in the last eight months.

The short notice limits a club’s ability to discuss it properly.

A document that purported to give an outline of whole the U17 v U18 debate was also sent out.

It was inherently biased in favour of remaining at U17.

The information contained was partial at best.

For instance, it says how Derry have been able to facilitate more than 500 extra underage games this year compared to 2019.

There’s no mention of the fact that more than 300 of those extra games were at U13, an entirely new grade that replaced non-competitive U12 Go Games.

The numbers are comparing four age grades against three but presenting it as if this is because minor is U17. It’s not an apples-against-apples comparison.

The document outlines how smaller clubs would fail to field without 18-year-olds but makes no mention of Special Congress last month passing a rule that allows counties to absorb that exact difficulty.

Derry didn’t inform the clubs of the ability to have a different rule at junior level than at senior.

The Irish News understands that a significant majority of clubs are in favour of returning to U18.

Smaller clubs seem to be broadly in support of returning to U18 but they’re scared to lose access to 18-year-olds as a result, and see remaining at U17 as the lesser of two evils.

The bigger clubs have to be prepared to absorb not having their 18-year-olds available to a senior team.

For the tiny number of players who’d get near it at that stage, the potential knock-on effect at minor level makes it very short-term thinking on their behalf.

The document also states that the Ulster Club competitions will remain at U15 and U17.

With at least six, probably seven and possibly all eight of the other counties in Ulster expected to return to U18, the St Paul’s minor tournament will go back to 18 next year.

A county executive is there to serve, to guide, to inform.

Why, then, are Derry’s executive pushing so hard to remain at U17 when their clubs are so against it?

Tomorrow night is a time for them to listen, not talk.