Cavan and Armagh both striving to turn underage success into senior gold

Taking the next step with previously successful underage teams far from an exact science


For a couple of Armagh’s starting team the venue for tomorrow’s Ulster championship opener against Cavan will bring back happy memories. Aaron Kernan and Ciarán McKeever were both on the side that won the All-Ireland under-21 title against Mayo nine years ago.

Yet, the limited extent of that graduation says something about the lasting impact of the class of 2004. Contemplating the alchemy that turns underage success into senior gold isn’t just the preserve of Armagh. Between the two counties, they and Cavan have won half of the last 10 Ulster under-21 titles, Cavan in a three-in-a-row run, which rolls on to next year.

Former senior captain Jarlath Burns has for the past couple of decades watched with interest the emerging talent in Armagh and he sees the team of nine years ago as being the result of an inverse process.

“The strange thing about 2004 is that it was a very good team and inspired by the 2002 (senior) All-Ireland winners, who were closely involved with them. I mean if you’ve Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane coming in to give you pep talks you’re going to respond.

“It wasn’t a team with stars – there was no Jamie Clarke – but they were a strong bunch of players. Stephen Kernan was Man of the Match in the final and Malachy Mackin next in line but it was an outstanding collective performance.

“It’s funny how a losing team can produce five or six players for the seniors and a winning team not as many. The best example is the 1992 minors, who lost to Meath but produced four or five players for the All-Ireland panel 10 years later.”

As a postscript on that, the Meath minor team which defeated Armagh with an injury-time goal in 1992 produced fewer senior medallists than the following year’s minors who lost their All-Ireland final to Cork.

Cavan haven’t hit the highest notes for over 60 years but reached an All-Ireland under-21 final 17 years ago and 12 months later had won a senior Ulster title. Peter Reilly was captain of the 1996 under-21s and manager of the team that recorded its third successive provincial title this year. He agrees with Burns’s definitions.

“There are two sides to it: a team which works as a unit without superstars and a team built around outstanding individuals. Donegal in 2010 got to an All-Ireland but they had a stand-out player in Michael Murphy. They beat Cavan in the Ulster final and I can safely say that they wouldn’t have without him.”

Aside from the different types of teams that win underage All-Irelands there is a positive dynamic for a county in bringing back inter-county silverware at whatever age grade. Cavan captain Alan Clarke summed up the optimistic side of underage success from the perspective of both morale and practical consideration.

“The more titles you win at underage surely has to have a positive effect on the senior team because these players are starting to feed through. Most of the players on the panel have won a medal at county level, which is a massive boost.

“Going back five years, Cavan players hadn’t that underage structure behind them and hadn’t the medals. We’re full of confidence and the young lads are full of confidence, which means the older lads know that if they’re not stepping up to the plate there’ll be a younger player stepping into their position.”
Cautious response
Asked what sort of a team his under-21s are likely to prove, Reilly is cautious about either damning his players with faint praise or creating the pressure of unreasonable expectation.

“I’d look at our team as having extremely strong-minded individuals within a strong collective. But there’s probably no scientific formula for working it out.

“Our team that won Ulster (in 1997) came together with a previous under-21 team that had lost the 1988 All-Ireland final so it was a combination of the two. I think as well there’s too much read into it in retrospect.

“Hindsight is a great thing. We don’t really know what impact a successful underage team will have until we look back and see how they got on at senior. We beat a Meath team in our All-Ireland (U-21) semi-final and five of them went on to win senior All-Irelands a month later.

“There’s no rules but on the law of averages I know that Cavan are now better off than they were three years ago.”