A member of the GAA committee that produced the influential 2019 report on player development has called on Congress to reject motions seeking to vary age grades in the association.
Brian Cuthbert, former Cork football manager, sat on the committee that authored the Talent Academy and Play Development [TAPD] Review Committee report.
He was responding to a number of motions to Congress looking variously to restore the minor grade from under-17 to under-18 and allow counties a derogation to set their own age limits. The 2019 report endorses the age grades running from under-13 to -15 to -17 to -19.
There is also a motion from Central Council looking to trial just one elite under-age completion for three years: under-19 to replace both under-17 and under-20, which Cuthbert supports.
He points out that the committee, chaired by former Kilkenny trainer and selector Michael Dempsey, was addressing a huge drop-out rate amongst young players.
“You have to trial something before you say it’s a bad idea and under-19 hasn’t even got off the ground anywhere because of Covid and various other things and yet we want to get rid of it. We need to give it a go even if it does overlap with other activities at club level.
"We brought in under-13, -15 and -17 and introduced huge change there. Now some counties want to revert back to 18 despite the fact that all the data was saying Gaelic games had the highest drop-out rate of all sports in the country. According to the ESRI up to 75 per cent are gone by the time they reach their 20s. So we have to do something different to ensure that we make the experiences for players better than they have been in the past."
One of the positive impacts of introducing under-17 as the minor grade was that it removed those players from senior activities and put a stop to adult fixtures being disrupted by minor schedules.
“The decoupling was one of the best things we ever did,” according to Cuthbert. “A 17-year old was detached from adult activity and alright, it made it easier from the point of view of administrators in terms of fixtures but as soon as we go back to 18, we have a totally different dynamic and players can go either way.
“This idea that every county can do what they want, I’m not sure that will fly either. There are individual contexts but having an organisation with 32 – or 64 with dual counties – different entities, I don’t think that’s the way forward.
“The ask is that we go back to what we had. Was what we had great, right or good? Well, from the consultation we conducted, huge issues were identified that, aligned with a massive withdrawal rate, meant that we had to do something different. Thirteen, 15, 17, 19 is an attempt to do something different based on the data we gathered.”
The motions looking to revert to the status quo ante come from a number of counties, including Tyrone, Down, Longford and Cavan.
Data gathered by the TAPD committee was based on extensive consultations with club coaches, academy coaches, academy players, their parents, games development staff and county executives. All told it led to 7,000 submissions.
Cuthbert believes that focusing exclusively on age grades overlooks the central concerns about the massive drop-out rate and the recommendations to address those.
“We lose sight of managing these transition points: of under-12 to -13 when a child goes from primary school to secondary; the next key transition is from under-17 to under-19 when a youth is leaving secondary and going to college or work.
“The big issues are one, quality coaching, two, quality games programmes and co-ordination between stakeholders. They’re the three big issues for us but player retention is what those issues are all about.
“You can have all the mission statements and values that you want but the organisation is never going to get what it needs if 75 per cent of those introduced to the activities decide that they don’t like it or want to drop out along the way.
“How do we create environments around the games that people want to stay involved at whatever level they want to play.”
The thinking behind some of the motions on Saturday is governed by misgivings about the viability of the under-19 grade within counties – concerns Cuthbert feels are premature given the dysfunction of the past two years.
“The report attempts to point the association in a direction that may tackle the problems identified in the consultations. If we return to the old status quo, these issues will remain and three in four Gaelic games players will stop playing by the time they’re 21 or 22. Surely there’s a better way.”