Dublin and Mayo hit high notes in change from minor to major

All-Ireland finalists enjoying plentiful harvest having sowed seeds at underage level

 

Mayo may be dwelling in dark rooms of pain since 1951 but the windows in this house allow light to shine in. It is through these windows that one day they will climb free. Until such time they look out in wonderment at a pyre heaped high in their garden, waiting for that evening when tinder can be sparked.

If that happens to come Sunday there will be many reasons why and how, but for the most part it starts with their 13-year-olds.

Catch-all

Lee Keegan is the only one. The rest of this Mayo team were herded onto academy boats with catch-all nets neatly dividing the county into four regions.

Talent is nurtured all the way along or, in some cases, held on a leash until one of Mayo’s many football sages sets them loose.

Jim O’Shea is such a man. You know his sons, Seamus, Aidan and Conor.

Has Mayo, any Mayo team, ever produced a trio like Keegan, Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor from one age grade after the other? Throw in the 2005 minor gang who made an All-Ireland final much like O’Shea’s team did in 2008 and O’Connor’s in 2009, and has this ever happened before or will it again?

Is the house that holds them, that pains them, not filling up to bursting point?

“That is unique, it certainly is,” says Billy McNicholas, another man who has much to do with the smooth pathway Mayo talent journeys along.

“Now Aidan was an exceptional talent all the way along but I only first saw him as an under-16.”

Bit late, no?

“His father is an excellent academy coach, Jim, with our under-16s. Great guy. We would have had them in, Seamus and Aidan, at under-14 and under-15 but Jim didn’t want them in that early.

Appetite

“Keep them fresher, keep that appetite, he made that point. It is well made. Both brothers came in at under-16 and were exceptional.”

O’Connor took a straighter route on the same journey.

“Cillian was in our squads all the way through,” McNicholas explains. “First time I came across him was in the cúl camps and he won the star of the future in Balla. Already you could see he had something about him. The way he drives himself is incredible.

“Diarmuid [O’Connor] is the same. Unbelievable drive. You haven’t seen the best of Diarmuid yet, by the way.”

All the while Keegan, the man who owns three All Stars and an uncanny ability to remove Diarmuid Connolly and Seán Cavanagh from the field of play, was playing full back.

Number 15, that is. Keegan didn’t play minor (then again, neither did Brian Fenton – currently bookmakers’ favourite to win footballer of the year at 7/2) only returning to Gaelic football proper for the under-21 success of 2009 after being cajoled away from Connacht rugby by Westport club-mate Pat Holmes.

“I was looking at the Irish under-20s [rugby team] the other night and I’m like a child compared to them,” Keegan told Malachy Clerkin last March. “I would have been grand playing it away for fun but there was no chance really of me coming through the Connacht academy and making it as a professional. I wouldn’t have had the physique for it. But from it, I had the fitness that stood to me playing Gaelic.”

So, when he was good and ready at 22, a bed was made up for him in the big house.

Different path to the O’Connor and O’Shea brothers but same journey.

So what about Fenton? Before that story we must mention Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and John Small because they made the minor team he could not.

A brilliant, well-flagged Dublin side who shockingly stumbled at the last fence. This is 2011. Bryan Cullen is lifting Sam above us all as those in the upper Hogan can witness a joyous sea of blue. All except one mangled mug. Dessie Farrell is glummer than a bulldog. It was awful to realise this 1995 hero was unable to muster a smile. Earlier that day his minors dropped a two-point lead with five minutes to play. A Séamus Kennedy goal tore the heart out of Dessie that day.

Same Tipperary wing back we saw in the hurling final.

Not to worry: 2011 and 2012 proved an incredibly fertile period for Dublin football. Farrell was at the helm as they lost a thrilling final to a superb Tipperary side – Colin O’Riordan, Kennedy, John McGrath, Michael Quinlivan et al – but the next September Dublin returned to break a 28-year hex.

Just so you know, Alan “Nipper” McNally (brother of Joe) and 1988 All Star Noel McCaffrey were mentoring under Farrell.

Two of the 29 Dublin mentors.

Perfect storm

A perfect storm of players, eight have graduated to Jim Gavin’s senior ranks: Kilkenny, Mannion, Cormac Costello, Small, Davy Byrne, Eric Lowndes, Emmet Ó Conghaile and the temporarily absent Jack McCaffrey.

Should be nine but Fenton failed to make either panel. That’s another story. First you need to know about the Skylon Hotel meeting in Drumcondra in 2006 that Val Andrews helped pull together. Val is a football coach to his fingertips, was over the Dublin minors in 2010, Cavan and Louth once upon a time as well, and currently manages the Dublin juniors.

“The politics of all this is as follows,” explains Andrews in typically open conversation this week. “The hurling development squads below under-16 were up and running for 18 months. Gerry McEntee was already there with the football minors and there was an under-16s but €1 million had to be put into hurling so that needed pushing.

“They [Dublin county board] had said they couldn’t get mentors. I knew that was bullshit so we called a meeting.

“Stephen O’Shaughnessy [former Dublin corner back and GAA football development officer] was there and we got 29 mentors together.

“Dessie also turned up that night.”

That proved significant. Dessie.

Dublin footballing talent was split into three regions – north east, west and south – up until under-16 with three or four mentors for each age grade.

“These things come in cycles, of course, and you have to keep the system in place,” adds Andrews. “The last two Dublin minor teams haven’t even made it to Croke Park.”

So this glorious era will eventually pass.

But not yet.

Rubicon

Wading in the Rubicon, Aidan O’Shea is outside the Mayo changing room as Tyrone players offer commiserations and swapsies. This is 2008.

Minor final replay in Tullamore. More pain but big Aidan seems fine.

“Thanks lads, I enjoyed that,” he says.

O’Shea the teenage version, The Irish Times columnist about his Leaving Cert travails, was sucking up the invisible hurt of any sporting life. And still he paused to savour a battle where he had been herculean. The Tyrone boys, medals around necks, look at him with bemusement.

This was the most thrilling game of football some of us will ever see.

Madness in Pearse Park, Longford. O’Shea and Kyle Coney, among others, playing like it was their last day on earth. Certainly their last day as boys.

O’Shea must have felt excruciating pain but he enjoyed the battle, so said so. Remarkably gifted teenager has become a ferocious yet composed man. Especially of late.

But Tyrone owned Gaelic football that year, gathering all the canisters that mattered. A Kerry team for the ages had been toppled the previous Sunday. Not Darragh not Tomás not Gooch could waylay the Red Hand invasion.

Tyrone had been secretly preparing to streak clear of everyone. That’s why Mickey Harte is now able to build a brand new house of All-Ireland contenders on top of the old place.

“We were beaten by a very, very good side. I don’t know more talented but definitely a more technical team in Tyrone,” said Mayo minor manager Ray Dempsey, whose goal in the 1996 All-Ireland final had put Mayo six points clear of Meath. “The huge work they are doing at underage, they really set out 10 years ago to become powerhouses in football and that’s really what they are doing.

“We are delighted, I suppose we are no more than 10 months at it so going forward, from our point of view, if we want to be consistent and taken serious we have to really up our coaching and get the real support and the backing that’s needed to compete with the Tyrones of this world,” Dempsey added. “It may be just putting words into action.”

Back came Mayo to lose the 2009 minor All-Ireland to Armagh but turns out they were way more than 10 months down the track. They had also contested the 2005 All-Ireland minor final. Five of these footballers helped them to an under-21 All-Ireland in 2009. Seamie O’Shea being one of them.

McNicholas is the man to talk about all this. His official title is Mayo GAA games manager. Also employed by the Connacht Council. Can’t be forgetting that or the long list of names he insists on mentioning when building a story around him about the ferocious paddling done underneath this footballing swan.

“I must have been noticed coaching with Swinford in the 1990s because I was asked to get involved in the first academy squad that was set up in the county. It was called the under-15s school of excellence. A brainchild of a man coaching in Mayo back in the 1990s – Fr Tommy Towey.

“It grew from there. Connacht GAA started hiring games promotion officers in the early 2000s so I applied for that.

“That progressed to 2005 when I became coach of the Mayo minors and Eugene Ivers became manager. We got to the All-Ireland final and lost to Down. In 2006 we got beaten in the Connacht final by Roscommon and by Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“But from those two teams Chris Barrett came through, Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons, Donal Vaughan and Kevin McLoughlin.

“Quite a batch, right? A year after losing to Down in the minor final five of those lads starred for Mayo in that under-21 win against Cork.

Academy coaches

“My role then was coaching and how we structured the whole thing. We hired on two part-time coaches named Michael Fitzmaurice and Eoin Sweeney. We started then bringing in academy coaches as well, started beefing up our academy structures.

“We came up with a plan for big numbers at the base, at under-14 level and pair it down at minor level so we expose as many players as we could to a higher level of coaching and games.

“We began first with two under-14 squads, two under-15, two under-16 and then in 2008 we went to four under-14 squads. So we carry four regional squads now at under-14.”

The blueprint was formed by looking out, as well as in. Tyrone were leading the way. Up in Mickey Harte’s empire the work was going on behind locked doors but enough intel filtered out.

McNicholas also saw the sleeping city giant waking from its long slumber. Dublin, the juggernaut, threatens to make the progress of others irrelevant when September comes.

“First thing we have to say is the player population in Dublin compared to Mayo is off the charts. I mean just off the charts.

“All I know is, in Mayo we have 14,700 school-going children. In Dublin, what is it, 250,000? Every club in Dublin has a full-time games promotion officer. And also the Dublin county board have promotion officers as well. The schools are feeding into the clubs and feeding into their academy structures.

“We can’t compete with that. But we can compete with getting our top players, our most skilful, out on the field. We feel our system is good enough to keep producing these players. We work hard with the clubs to make sure the skill level coming out of the clubs is as good as it can be so we can take them to the next level.

“But 250,000 against 14,000; they are going to have serious players coming up in Dublin all the time.”

There is constant collusion with the Connacht Council. Roscommon footballer Cathal Cregg oversees the provincial strength and conditioning programmes at underage, which has moved down to under-14 at a county level. Because the boys will be at it anyway.

“Also in the last two years we have restructured all of this again. We have an excellent guy named Martin McIntyre who is involved in the medical end of things and is also an academy coach and helps to structure our S&C system.”

“There is also this tradition in Mayo to play the game a certain way but the main ethos of what we do in our underage structures, in our academies, is making the player the best he can be.”

Mayo must be closer now than ever, if only because men like McNicholas cannot be concerned with the 1951 curse.

“I do feel our senior players have evolved. They are a great bunch of guys. They come down to our academy squads whenever we ask them.”

Crossmaglen’s Tony McEntee has brought an outside perspective that can sometimes prove the only perspective that matters.

“I’m delighted for Stephen Rochford because he was with us on the minors in 2005 and 2006. He is a young, vibrant, smart coach who brought McEntee in with him to bring something slightly different. A bit of that northern meanness, haha! Why not?”

Not growing

Brian Fenton didn’t make the Dublin minor panels of 2011 and 2012. Not growing enough and struggling to shake off injuries as Emmet Ó Conghaile, Gavin Ivory then Shane Carthy blotted out the sun.

But Fenton had been tagged as a future alpha footballer ever since his snout nudged above the surface. From the age of 10 to about 15 he was the best player in Dublin.

The prince of footballers, a Dublin John O’Keeffe, incredibly graceful – that was the view of one coach who adhered to the Dublin code of omertà in spitting distance of an All-Ireland final.

Better even than Ciarán Kilkenny, agreed several mentors who saw them come up together.

That’s saying something as Kilkenny’s underage career across both codes retains cult status of Tutankhamun proportions. Obvious difference being King Tut remains forever 18 while Kilkenny has recovered from a broken hand playing hurling as a first-year minor in 2010 and a torn cruciate two seasons ago.

It matters little who is better now, Fenton or Kilkenny, because together they are Dublin’s present and future.

Plenty of sporting stories envelop the Raheny midfielder. Plenty of pedigree; Fenton’s dad being from Kerry, while David Cummins, his uncle, swam 100 and 200m butterfly and 200m backstroke at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980.

“He was out of this world at under-14,” Andrews concurs, “but his form disappeared completely. Dessie in fairness knew to bring him back at under-21.”

The silent gallery say between 2011 and 2012 Fenton grew at least a foot. So did Dublin football. And look at him now. Look at them all.

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