U21 Final: Cork get the chance to make permanent mark

Rebels will top the final under-21 roll of honour if they defeat Mayo in Ennis

The Eirgrid All-Ireland under-21 football final in Ennis today could yield a third title in 10 years for Cork or a first in 10 years for Mayo but the most striking statistics from Munster is the extent of Cork's dominance of the grade.

Kerry have won just two provincial under-21 titles in the past 17 seasons whereas Cork have 11 – the under-21 grade is the only one in Munster football where they are top of the roll of honour, a position of pre-eminence the county also holds in the All-Ireland lists.

Yet when it comes to senior All-Irelands, Kerry have six in that period but their neighbours have just one.

If there is a mystery about why Cork does so disproportionately well at this age category it maybe more concerns the lack of follow-through at senior.

During a period when Cork have dominated the province at under-21, Kerry have been doing the same at senior.

Certain advantages

John Cleary

managed the Cork teams that won All-Irelands in 2007 and ’09. He points out that the county does in fact have certain advantages at under-21 level, based on population size and big-city infrastructure.

“It’s been true over the past number of years,” he says of the county’s dominance in Munster.

“We’ve been lucky that nearly all players are locally based when other counties have players away at college and that makes it easier for us to get together. Cork also have more players from three minor teams than a lot of other counties.

“We’re also lucky that the colleges, UCC and CIT are so well organised and the coaching so good that players come on in leaps and bounds.

“It also helps with the familiarity with other players if they’ve playing against guys they’ve already seen at college.”

That certainly distinguishes the county from rivals Kerry whose players at that age are often scattered between Limerick, Cork and Dublin.

It’s not all bad news for Kerry whose conversion rate into All-Irelands since 2000 is 50 per cent compared with Cork’s 20 per cent.

Yet there is a strong belief in Kerry that under-21 is about development and despite their poor record in the age grade, the record at senior bears that out.

Cleary feels that some of the advantages Cork enjoy at under-21 don’t actually apply to the other elite grades in the county and much of the disparity centres on the age-old problem of dual players in the county. The minor seasons in both hurling and football run side by side.

“The time of the year suits as well because you’ve no other distractions. The hurling season doesn’t start until the summer and even the club game hasn’t properly taken off.

Dual players

“The dual players’ issue hasn’t helped the minors over the years but at this time of the year the under-21 focus is completely on football.”

Even if Cork’s strike rate in turning under-21 success into senior All-Irelands lags behind Kerry’s there has still been an easily identifiable correlation.

Since the official under-21 championship began 52 years ago, Cork have won four senior championships. On each occasion that success was prefigured by multiple success at under-21.

But Cleary points out that even allowing for that established link there are structural reasons why the county finds it difficult to convert underage success into senior silverware,

“The facts speak for themselves. Cork had a good run at the end of the last decade and won the senior All-Ireland in 2010. But there’s been nothing since.

Come through

“Then again if you look at it at the moment Ciarán Sheehan (currently playing in the AFL with Carlton),

Aidan Walsh

and

Damien Cahalane

(both having declared for the hurlers) should all be playing senior football for Cork but they’re not.

“Not all of the players come through in Cork while Kerry must get to hang on to about 95 per cent of theirs.”

In two years’ time under changes voted in at last February’s annual congress, a new under-20 grade will replace under-21 and it will run during the summer when it will clash with the hurling season and also cease to be an elite championship in that eligible players will have to opt for either senior or under-20 and consequently no established stars will be playing in the new age category.

The move was endorsed in order to reduce the pressures of burn-out and over-training on players in that age group.

It hasn't attracted universal support and Stephen Cronin, who captains Cork in this weekend's final appears uncertain about the merits of the move.

“I think to change it to under-20 is a massive thing. It’s probably taking it out of the limelight as such.

“Under-21s, played at this time of year, it’s played alongside national league but moving it to under-20s and saying that a lot of your best players won’t be available is a big change.

Back burner

“It seems to be putting the competition on the back burner when maybe it shouldn’t be. The under-21s has always been a celebrated competition, it’s always been free-flowing football; there’s no mass defence to it, as seen by the two semi-finals.

“That just shows what the four provinces are bringing but obviously the people in Croke Park think that it’s best to do it and maybe so.

“ Maybe they know better.”

For better or for worse it will happen in 2018 and if Cork happen to win this year’s title, the county will forever top the under-21 championship’s roll of honour.