Failure of underage talent to make the senior grade a worry for Down and McCartan as they prepare to face Donegal

County has haemorrhaged some promising talent in the past decade

Former Down manager Pete McGrath: “We have to ensure there’s not a repeat of this lost or semi-lost generation.” Photograph: David Maher/Sportsfile

Former Down manager Pete McGrath: “We have to ensure there’s not a repeat of this lost or semi-lost generation.” Photograph: David Maher/Sportsfile

 

For much of the past 50 years Down were the instinctive choice of most people – especially outside of the province – as the Ulster county most likely to succeed and it’s hard to argue with the statistics: five All-Irelands since 1960, a total only Kerry and Dublin have bettered.

Yet, in the 20 years or so since spearheading the first modern phase of northern domination, Down have been reduced to the status of onlookers while four other Ulster counties have accumulated seven All-Irelands between them. Tomorrow they face the latest of these, Donegal, in a provincial semi-final.

Anomalously the county has during this period had a reasonable profile at underage level, winning All-Ireland minor titles in 1999 and 2005 and reaching under-21 finals in 2005 and ’09.

The only follow-through at senior came out of the blue three years ago when James McCartan led his team through the qualifiers to the All-Ireland final where they were distinctly unlucky to lose to Cork.

In the two seasons since then they have shipped heavy defeats to Cork and Mayo back in Croke Park.

Peter McGrath has, for over 25 years, been at the centre of the county’s achievements.

His minor side won the 1987 All-Ireland and provided a couple of key personnel for the teams McGrath led to Sam Maguire success in 1991 and ’94 – including current senior manager James McCartan. He also had charge of the under-21 team, touched off at the very death by Cork in the All-Ireland final of 2009.

Senior prime
He believes the fall-off from these encouraging underage teams is unusual by any comparison. He illustrates the point by reference to his under-21s of 2009 – who should at this stage be approaching their senior prime.

“As far as I’m aware only one member of that team, corner back Damien Turley, is in the panel. The year before we won Ulster and Kevin McKernan was on that side. Like a lot of things, there’s no simple explanation.

“You do however have to bear in mind that Paul McCumiskey, Peter Fitzpatrick and Conor McGinn all played in the 2010 All-Ireland final but none of them are involved at present. Peter’s in Australia, Paul’s in America, Conor’s travelling the world and Timmy Hanna, who was the captain, is also away – that’s four prominent players from 2009 who aren’t even in the country.”

Down has also provided a disproportionate number of the young Irish players, who have been signed up by AFL clubs in Australia. Martin Clarke, who returned for two years to become a key player in the 2010 team, is back with Collingwood as is a younger talent, Caolan Mooney.

Jamie O’Reilly, who played with both the 2005 minors and the ’09 under-21s, was on contract with Richmond but since his return has struggled to adjust to the demands of combining academic work and inter-county involvement.

James Colgan captained the 2005 minors and flirted with the idea of an AFL career, trialling with Brisbane, and although a member of the 2010 panel has since moved abroad and is now in New Zealand.

Injuries have also played a huge role in limiting James McCartan’s options. Two of the most rated talents on the 1999 minors, Michael Walsh and especially Liam Doyle, were hounded by injury. At present, significant players such as 2010 Footballer of the Year contender Danny Hughes, Dan Gordon, Conor Garvey and Aidan Carr have long-term injuries.

“There have been difficult circumstances in the normal run of affairs but it’s still a scant return. You expect a time lag between a successful minor team and players coming through at senior but it’s a matter of concern that so few under-21s came through.

“It’s something that has to be looked at. Maybe it’s pot luck or random occurrence but we need to ask, ‘is there nothing that could have been done to keep them here and prevent them slipping through the net? There should be mechanisms in place to intervene and make sure any young player who has what it takes to play senior inter-county is encouraged to stay in the country. . . we have to ensure there’s not a repeat of this lost or semi-lost generation.

“It can also be a circular process. Tyrone players coming through from the 1998 minors could see the success of the seniors five years later and that’s a source of motivation to keep young people on track.

“Otherwise there can be a loss of direction and disillusion can set in. Down can’t afford not to be maximising chances.”