Cork’s All-Ireland U20 winning manager Keith Ricken believes young players are being devalued and disrespected by the “wrong decisions” to squeeze the Sigerson Cup into an 18-day schedule next January and moving the U20 football championship from summer to early spring.
The 2020 Sigerson Cup will have a far more condensed schedule than ever before in the third-level football competition’s history.
Throwing in on the weekend of January 11/12, and with the backdoor element removed to ensure the competition can be “got out of the way” as speedily as possible, the Sigerson Cup will conclude two and a half weeks later on January 29.
The All-Ireland U20 football championship, meanwhile, which was run off during June, July, and August this year, will have a February start in 2020.
As well as holding the position of Cork U20 football manager, Ricken’s day job is that of GAA Development Officer at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT). He cannot understand why the Sigerson and U20 football competitions have been tinkered with and would like if both decisions were reversed. This week’s GPA student report outlined how over half of student inter-county players ‘regularly feel overwhelmed by their commitments’, while two-thirds ‘feel their training load negatively affects their academic performance’.
All that is achieved by moving the U20 championship to early spring, argues Ricken, is to put further strain on these young players.
“This year, we afforded our U20s time off to concentrate on their Leaving Cert because their studies come first. What you’ll have in 2020 is Leaving Cert students doing their mocks at the same time as the U20 championship is throwing-in, while those in third-level will be just coming out of semester exams.
“The new scheduling means you have to start preparations now. Lads got a wonderful opportunity this year to play football at the height of summer, when their schedules were lighter than at other times of the year. That opportunity will not be there for players next year. That’s a pity. I’d love for a bit of common sense to come in that would see fellas playing football in summer.”
Ricken added: “It is never a negative that a young lad goes out to play a match. What can sometimes be a negative is that too many matches are happening at the wrong time.
“For many players, there will be no break between their 2019 and 2020 seasons. If decision-makers were looking at this from a player’s development point of view, they’d see how players at 20-years of age should be playing football during the summer where they can hop the ball and enjoy it, as opposed to it being an attrition kind of thing between now and February, when the ball is thrown-in in the mud and shite somewhere and fixture-makers hoping the rain and snow won’t affect the match.
“Everything should be about the player experience. It would be much easier to improve that experience if the games were during the summer. I would question the sensibility behind this change.”
Ricken is similarly dismayed at the scheduling of the Sigerson Cup.
“We have fantastic third-level competitions. All of a sudden, these competitions are now getting in the way. I’ve often met people in Croke Park who say the Sigerson should be played every Thursday in November to get it out of the way.
"The attitude towards Sigerson is that we just have to get this out of the way,” he lamented.
“If you ask every GAA club in the country what is their biggest problem at the moment, they will say it is holding onto fellas from the age of 18 onward.
“At third-level, it is the only problem you never have. It is the one place where students are fully participant, they are involved in coaching, playing, and officership.
“A quote I am fond of is — there is no right way to do the wrong thing. This is the wrong thing. No matter which way you look at it, it is the wrong thing.”
Third-level organisers hope the rescheduling of the Sigerson Cup, which was spread across a 35-day period earlier this year, will lessen the load of inter-county players in February and ensure their availability for all of the league.
Croke Park should be more concerned with the non-elite, said Ricken.
“We are talking about a minority of serious inter-county players who play Sigerson. The majority of fellas who play Sigerson will not be serious inter-county players.
“The beauty of Sigerson is, in 10 years time, a fella who went to IT Tralee will be able to look back and say he played Sigerson for IT Tralee alongside David Clifford.
"That is better than any marketing. It is a fantastic competition. I just worry about squeezing it into January at a time when a lot of the colleges are doing their exams.
“We’ll be asking fellas to do their exams in the first three weeks of January while at the same time play championship. That’s very disrespectful. It devalues the player, devalues the playing experience.”
Ricken is also at a loss to know why football is again being targeted, whereas hurling is left untouched. The U20 hurling championship will again be run off during the summer, while the Fitzgibbon Cup will continue to spill into February.
"And then we have the football which is microwaved, ticked, done, and got out of the way.
"I don’t think there is anything cynical or underhanded about these changes or is there an agenda at play. But I also don’t think what they are doing is the right thing.”