If they’re handled properly and don’t burn out in their teens, here’s ten talents who’ll make a name for themselves in 2017...
Ronan Lynch (Limerick)
One is always reluctant to overhype younger players, but the Na Piarsaigh player is as close to being a can’t-miss prospect as there is.
Brought into new manager John Kiely’s squad along with a number of alumni from Limerick’s successful U21 side of last year, Lynch also holds All-Ireland Club and Dr Harty Cup medals.
His performance against Cork in last year’s Munster U21 tie epitomised all of his best traits – he began as a roving wing-forward and scored an early goal before moving to centre-back in the second-half and dominating there, with points from play augmented by a sideline cut and a 65.
Cian MacGabhann (Dublin)
Cian O’Callaghan, Óisín Gough and Paul Schutte’s presence in the Dublin defence already gives it a strong Cuala flavour and this talented wing-back – who can also operate at full-back – is likely to increase that even further this year.
Was instrumental in Dublin winning the Leinster U21 title last year, and his point against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final secured extra-time before the Tribesmen prevailed. With Ger Cunningham seeking to improve on last year’s showing, expect MacGabhann to be one of a number of players given a chance to shine.
Kevin Foley (Wexford)
Having been the driving force in helping Wexford claim a third successive Leinster U21Hc title in 2015 as well as a member of the senior panel, it came as a surprise to many Kevin Foley opted not to be a part of Liam Dunne’s squad last year.
He did play U21 in 2016 as the Model County’s four-in-a-row quest fell short and now the Rapparees clubman has returned to the fold for the coming campaign. With new manager Davy Fitzgerald wiping the slate clean, this will be seen as a chance for Foley to impress from the off.
Seán O’Donoghue (Cork)
The Inniscarra man was a rampaging presence at centre-forward on the Cork U21 football team last year, but his outings for the Cork senior hurlers this year are likely to be as an accomplished corner-back or wing-back.
O’Donoghue, U21 again this year, was drafted onto the panel in the wake of the departures of Shane O’Neill, Paudie O’Sullivan, Pa Cronin and Stephen Moylan but while he was a substitute for championship, he didn’t make it onto the pitch.
That should change as Kieran Kingston seeks to infuse a youthful blend into the side, with O’Donoghue having been named for last night’s Canon O’Brien Cup game against UCC. Further appearances will surely follow in the spring.
Luke Scanlon (Kilkenny)
Whenever Kilkenny fail to win the All-Ireland senior title, doom-mongers posit the notion the conveyor has ground to a halt and the Cats will take a while to recover.
It may well be true, of course, but that doesn’t mean Brian Cody won’t exhaust the avenues available to replenish the squad. To that end, the inclusion of his James Stephens clubmate Luke Scanlon gives the lie there is no talent coming through.
Acting as a selector with ‘the Village’, Cody will be aware of Scanlon’s potential and he underlined that with strong performances as Kilkenny did win one All- Ireland title in 2016, at intermediate level.
Con O’Callaghan (Dublin)
While he a very accomplished hurler – like his older brother Cian – having been a key figure in Cuala claiming Dublin and Leinster honours last year, the inside forward’s future surely lies as a footballer. Cuala’s progress to the All-Ireland Club SHC semi-finals could mean his chances of making an impact in the early part of the league are restricted, but his talent is sufficient he can’t or won’t be overlooked for too long. He scored 3-24 across last year’s Leinster and All-Ireland U21 campaigns and one would expect him to get off the senior mark this summer.
Seán Powter (Cork)
Made his senior championship debut on an otherwise forgettable day as Cork lost to Tipperary last year, coming off the bench with his Leaving Certificate just around the corner. In the qualifiers, he was first sub against Limerick and Longford and then started in Croke Park against Donegal, scoring a point.
The Douglas man is the archetypal new breed of footballer, effective as a half-back or half-forward, with his use of the ball almost always impeccable. Important, though, his own long-term development should be prioritised over any perceived quick-fixes to Cork’s troubles.
Neil Douglas (Mayo)
At 26, older than the usual ‘one to watch’ starlets, the Castlebar Mitchels player has been on the Mayo squad under three different sets of management without ever starting a league game or appearing in the championship.
Hamstring injuries hampered the forward after his initial call-up by James Horan and then in 2015 and last year he was part of the panel but found himself unable to make a proper breakthrough under Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes or Stephen Rochford.
Was the player of the year in last year’s Mayo SFC as Castlebar won a third title in four seasons and could be an answer to the county’s scoring forward problem.
Conor Geaney (Kerry)
Remember when the Kerry football factory was supposed to have gone dormant, with heavy league and U21 losses to Cork in the spring of 2014 emblematic of a dark future?
False alarm. The Kingdom have won the three All-Ireland MFC titles since then, so now their only problem is waiting for those graduates to develop. For the McGrath Cup against Tipperary tomorrow, Kerry are fielding an U21 side managed by Jack O’Connor and Conor Geaney from Dingle, the MVP of the 2015 minor win, could be one of those to lay down a marker for advancement to a higher level.
Lee Brennan (Tyrone)
Tyrone are the strong outside bet in the eyes of many this year, as Mickey Harte continues with the subtle overhaul of the side. Someone who could expedite their progress is creative attacker Lee Brennan, who is about to begin his third year on the county U21 panel.
His Trillick clubmate Mattie Donnelly believes the U21 involvement has mitigated against so far as he misses out on game-time in the league, but this year could be the one where he pushes on.
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