Spring move for U20 football championship looks over

Controversial switch 'makes no sense' says last year's All-Ireland winning manager

Judging by the tenor of the debate at last weekend’s GAA Annual Congress, the current provincial under-20 football finals could be the first and last to be played at this time of the year.

The championship, which replaced the old under-21 and is now a developmental competition, was controversially moved to February and March from the early summer months when it was staged in its inaugural two years. That switch, decided last October, created mayhem for both second- and third-level education football activities, traditionally played at this time of the year.

Speakers at Congress were clearly unhappy about the move, which was proposed as permanent last Saturday but the motion withdrawn for further consultation given the scale of the unhappiness.

GAA president John Horan accepted later that it would have to move back to the summer.

On Wednesday night, All-Ireland champions Cork were deposed by Kerry in the Munster final. Disappointed manager Keith Ricken has strong views on the scheduling of the championship, which he believes should have stayed in the summer.

“You have to look at what it says on the tin. It’s a developmental competition to help young lads make the step up between minor and senior. That’s what it’s for. As a competition it should probably replicate what they’re being prepared for and secondly it shouldn’t be just a box-ticking exercise.

“When it’s played at the same time of the year as other competitions for the same players, it doesn’t make sense. Everyone should have a right to play their championship during the summer. It seems to me at the moment that we’re bringing the cattle in for the winter and putting the footballers out.

“I understand that behind all of this is the fixtures’ crux and there’s no one solution to that. I understand as well that moving us [under-20s] was a bona fide attempt to find a niche for the competition but this is a time of year for different football.

“Let’s start with what we want from this: we want our young footballers to be playing and enjoying the game. Work it backwards. That’s not going to happen playing midweek matches in the middle of winter.”

In relation to the Munster final defeat, the Cork boss says that he’s feeling bruised but will get over it.

“I’m sitting here this morning feeling sorry for myself over a cup of coffee, not wanting to talk to anybody and looking out a window and hoping no-one looks in but at the same time, football is meant to a safe environment for young people to get involved and develop.

“We lost a match last night but it’s not the end of the world. It will teach us something and that’s what football is about. We’re trying to coach and acquire skillsets.”

Huge angst

He says that when the championship was played during the summer, he avoided holding players exclusively with the county – one of the major concerns that prompted this year’s move, as the combination of senior and under-20 players away with county panels was undermining clubs.

“I’m a huge believer in and advocate of the importance of club and I’d never cut across a young lad playing for his club, especially one that needed him to play. The only thing I’d say is that the player should come first – sometimes too much can be laid on the shoulders of a young player. They’re not adults and that should be taken into account.

“They develop better among their own age group but at the same time I’ve noticed a huge angst amongst players who are kept away from their clubs for a long time and that’s not very good. I never see it as a bad thing for young players to play for their club.”

The next two few days will see this year's provincial winners completed. On Friday night Leinster champions Dublin face Laois in a repeat of last year's final whereas on Saturday, Connacht holders Galway take on Roscommon in Connacht and Ulster champions Tyrone play Donegal.

Dublin, who lost an early nine-point lead in last year’s All-Ireland final to Cork but have 2019 top gun Ciarán Archer still available, will be favoured to retain the trophy but Laois have been impressive getting back to the final and will be more competitive than they proved last year.

Galway, defeated by Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, look to have the edge in the Connacht final but would have their work cut out against Kerry, who staged a big comeback in the second half of the Munster final and the county is after a first win in the modified grade since winning the under-21 in 2008.

This year’s winners though could come from Ulster. Tyrone must overcome Donegal but they have a number of players from last year’s salutary lesson when losing a seven-point lead to Cork. They are well organised and will take beating.

* Former Tyrone footballer Conor McKenna has returned to his AFL club Essendon after a break back in Ireland for personal reasons. His Melbourne club’s website carried the news on Thursday under a picture of the player back in the fold.

"Essendon was [sic] put through its paces in wet and soggy conditions at the NEC Hangar on Thursday. A major highlight of training was the return of Conor McKenna, with the session marking the defender's first since returning from Ireland."

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times