Under-21 football on last lap after 54 years – but its race was already run

Competition leaves great memories but the decision to replace it was correct

Stephen Coen lifts the cup for Mayo’s victorious under-21 footballers last year. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Stephen Coen lifts the cup for Mayo’s victorious under-21 footballers last year. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Change creeps up slowly. This week we are watching the last ever provincial under-21 football finals in Munster and Leinster with the other provinces in the process of winding up in the weeks ahead.

On Wednesday the eternal southern rivalry between Cork and Kerry gets one last run in Páirc Uí Rinn and in a way it has been the defining rivalry of the championship.

Both are at the top of the All-Ireland roll of honour – Cork on 11 and Kerry on 10 – and similarly positioned – 25 and 24 – in the province, where over the 54 years of competition just four other teams have intruded on the neighbourhood rivalry.

They also lead the way in translating the grade success into senior titles, which is important, as the whole purpose of the championship was to bridge the gap between minor and senior.

It hasn’t had quite the same allure as its hurling equivalent, which escaped abolition as it is smaller and less intrusive in scheduling terms. For a start it hasn’t had the same certainty of position in the calendar and has hopped around between May and October – as opposed to the small ball’s golden presence in midweek summer venues before sun-splashed crowds.

Neither has it produced the stream of great matches that the hurling appears to toss almost casually into the warm evenings in Thurles, Limerick, Wexford or Kilkenny.

Ironically, the new under-20 championship will replicate that advantage by being run off during the summer but it will be strictly developmental and no players involved with their senior county panels will be allowed to participate at the age grade.

The changes have resonated disappointingly for many, who recall with nostalgia the feats of rising young stars as they passed through under-21. It has also been a reasonably democratic competition and 16 – half of the counties in Ireland – have won it since 1964, five more than took home the Sam Maguire during the same period.

Counter-measure to burnout

There can be little argument that the GAA have done the right thing in making the change. As soon as the minor grade was changed from under-18 to under-17 in order to disassociate it from senior, it was only matter of time before the next grade adjusted accordingly.

These changes have long been advocated as a counter-measure to burnout in that they lessen the fixtures burden on young players, especially at intercounty level where the under-21 runs at the same time as the national league.

It also thins out the entanglement of multi-eligibility by asking footballers to choose between under-20 and senior.

The impetus to make the change came from a variety of committees. The 2007 task force on burnout first proposed it, but the idea was rejected. Too often it appeared as if the motivation for retaining it owed more to the hopes of counties to amass silverware than the tackling of the highlighted problems.

Roscommon’s Tommy Kennoy struck a rare altruistic note at the special congress that first considered the change: “This is a matter of serious research and findings that must be taken seriously now. We have taken the brave decision to support it – brave because next year our All-Ireland-winning minor team will be in their last year of under-21.”

The bravery went unrewarded, as Cork won the 2009 title.

There have been for all that great highlights, flares that blazed a trail into the future for counties. Cork and Kerry established the one immutable rule of under-21: win a three-in-a-row and the senior will definitely follow. They are the only counties to have managed three successive titles but in general have produced more graduates to senior success than any others.

Tyrone destroyed Kerry in Newbridge in the 1991 final but their first Sam Maguire didn’t follow for 12 another years and featured two just survivors – as many as the vanquished Kerry sent forward to their next senior success.

As in senior Kerry have lost more finals than anyone else but have won 17 senior All-Irelands as against 10 under-21. Cork are the opposite in that their 11 under-age titles have spun off just four senior.

Lack of enthusiasm

Dublin, also in action this Wednesday against Offaly in the Leinster final, have been very successful this decade but the county’s history is unusual in that they didn’t engage fully with under-21 level until recent decades, preferring to concentrate on junior intercounty. This was at least partly influenced by Kevin Heffernan’s lack of enthusiasm for the grade.

The decision to introduce an official under-21 championship was taken by GAA congress 54 years ago next month. “You cannot possibly throw a minor player straight into senior ranks,” argued Longford delegate Fr Philip Magee, “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.”

An Antrim delegate struck a more alarmed note when describing junior grades as “murderous” for young players. 

An an irony, the late Fr McGee was a brother of Eugene, chair of the Football Review Committee that 50 years later proposed the lowering of the minor age limit, which in turn left the under-21 grade on borrowed time. 

smoran@irishtimes.com 

 

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