GAA weekend that was: Irony in Dublin’s last U-21 All-Ireland victory
History between joint-third highest winners and competition has often been strained
Dublin’s under-21s celebrate their All-Ireland final win over Galway. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
It has been pointed out that there is irony in Dublin being the ultimate champions at under-21 football, given the strained history between the county and the grade introduced 54 years ago at the 1963 congress.
The county’s five All-Irelands, all won in the past 15 years, place it joint-third on the final roll of honour and last weekend’s was their fourth this decade.
Yet there were years when Dublin didn’t participate and it was the stated view of the county board at one stage that the junior inter-county grade would be prioritised over under-21. Kevin Heffernan was also sceptical about under-age competition as a development process for senior.
Jim Brogan played for Dublin in Heffernan’s 1970s team and went on to be a selector of both senior and under-21 All-Ireland winning sides.
“Jim King [former county secretary] wasn’t keen on it. I think he saw it posed issues of organisation for the county fixtures and that was a factor in his attitude. Needless to say, if Kevin Heffernan had a different view that would have been a factor too but I don’t remember him beating down the door to support the idea.
“Maybe he saw the poor conversion rate of under-age success in counties like Cork and Mayo. It would have been seen that the junior championship would interfere less with the fixtures schedule.”
He believes that the current system in which he was part of Jim Gavin’s under-21 management in the All-Ireland winning campaigns of 2010 and ‘12, had its merits.
“From the point of view of involvement under-21 was attractive. When I was involved it started in January or a little bit before and once the championship got under way it was only a couple of months before it finished up and when it was, that was it; it was over. There were stresses and the need for accommodation with senior county managers and college teams but the season had a beginning, a middle and an end.”
He accepts though that it never drew the same public support as its hurling equivalent, which because of the smaller number of counties involved, can be comfortably run off during the summer while the senior championship is in progress.
“It never caught the imagination in the same way that the hurling did. Saturday was a poor enough representation of the counties involved. You would have imagined that Galway with all the interest at the moment would have brought more.
“Dublin never do. At all games I’ve gone to at under-21, Dublin supporters are always outnumbered. People follow the seniors and it wouldn’t necessarily cross their minds to go to support under-21s, minors or even club teams from the county but if you questioned their support for the county they could rattle off all the senior matches they’d been to that year.”
The need to provide a bridge between minor and senior was a big influence on the decision to introduce an official under-21 championship, taken by GAA congress just over 54 years ago. “You cannot possibly throw a minor player straight into senior ranks,” argued Longford delegate Fr Philip Magee (a brother of All-Ireland winning Offaly manager and GAA commentator, Eugene), “and it is even more futile still to suggest the junior grade as a stepping stone to the premier division. The vast majority of youngsters just get fed up playing junior hurling and football and quit the game completely.
“A case in point was the Meath team which won the All-Ireland minor football title five years ago. This was one of the best minor teams I have ever seen and a survey shows that only two of them have graduated to the present senior side - proof conclusive of the vast number of promising youngsters that are being lost to the game in the gulf which exists between the two grades.”
Brogan says that whereas it will be missed as a pathway for aspiring senior inter-county players, the under-21 grade has equally marked the end of inter-county careers.
“In terms of inter-county players, it’s a far better competition for identifying who can play at senior level than anything but around 80 per cent won’t play for Dublin again. There are guys who won’t pull on a county jersey again. Some of the under-21 teams aren’t even playing football anymore.”
From next year the developmental stages of both football and hurling will be revolutionised by the re-grading of minor to under-17 and in football the introduction of an under-20 grade to replace under-21, which will still be contested in hurling.
Finally what goes around, comes around.
There was controversy in the past two weeks over the availability of Dublin’s under-21s for their clubs’ county championship matches in what is a knockout format. Some played and Shane Clayton of Ballyboden got injured in the process and missed the All-Ireland final.
Twenty five years ago this Dublin manager Dessie Farrell played for the under-21s in the Leinster final against Kildare, which was played in the middle of a schedule of county championship fixtures, prompting then manager Bobby Doyle and others to question the county’s future in the competition.
He said that he hadn’t even been sure if the team he selected would line out.