PADDY HEANEY: GAA still to realise youth its most precious commodity

On several occasions last week, I listened to avid sports fans agonising over how they would watch the so-called ‘Fight of the Century’ between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

Should they stay up until 4am? Or should they set the alarm? Or maybe they should record it, switch off their phones, and watch it in the morning?

I listened to these deliberations with a detached bemusement. The fascination with the events in Las Vegas was in marked contrast to my own feelings. It never entered my head to watch the fight. And it baffled me why anyone would stay up half the night to watch two old men.

For the real ‘Fight of the Century,’ took place in the last century. On March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden, Muhammad Ali was 29-years-old, Joe Frazier was 27. Both fighters were undefeated.

Floyd Mayweather is 38. Manny Pacquiao is 36. If they were club footballers, they’d be playing for the reserves.

Last weekend’s bout in the MGM Grand was never going to live up to its billing. ‘The Fight of the Century?’ Not quite. It was ‘The Marketing Campaign of the Millennium’.

To beat Mayweather, who is the blanket defence of boxing, Pacquiao needed to sustain a relentless momentum for 12 rounds. At 36, that’s not possible. While Mayweather is incredibly talented, he’s a bit like Chelsea — effective — but not very entertaining.

When a sporting contest takes a grip of your guts and mangles them to the point where your stomach is begging for mercy, the combatants are normally in their prime.

When a 36-year-old boxer gets tired, he stays tired. Young men are different. They have stronger powers of recuperation. They can recover. They can mine reserves of energy which they didn’t know existed.

To illustrate my point, I would cite last Saturday’s All-Ireland U21 final between Tyrone and Tipperary as a good example.

GAA still to realise youth its most precious commodity

The performances delivered by Cathal McShane (Tyrone) and Colin O’Riordan (Tipperary) were just extraordinary. After watching McShane for 30 minutes in the All-Ireland semi-final against Roscommon, I posted a tweet which declared that the Owen Roe O’Neill’s clubman was a “bright, shining diamond”.

Having watched him for only half an hour, it might have seemed like a rushed judgment, but I’d be amazed if McShane doesn’t become a senior county footballer.

He runs like a stallion, jumps like a stag, and plays with a combination of power and panache which is utterly captivating. Despite my admiration for McShane, I still reckoned Tipperary would beat Tyrone. To win, the Red Hands needed big displays from McShane and their sharpshooter, Lee Brennan.

At just 18 years of age, I suspected that Brennan would struggle against a Tipp defence that contained Conor McHugh and Cormac Costello.

While McShane is hugely talented, he was also coming up against the Tipperary midfield partnership of Colin O’Riordan and Stephen O’Brien. Normally in these circumstances, the stars tend to cancel each other out.

Fortunately, McShane and O’Riordan didn’t follow that script. Unlike the aging fighters in Las Vegas, as the contest wore on, they seemed to get stronger and stronger.

McShane was the first man to get wounded in action, an injured thigh leaving him writhing in agony. O’Riordan was also in the wars. Flattened by a bone-crunching body check the Tipp man was left winded and gasping for breath.

Before O’Riordan underlined his courage, McShane stole the limelight. Charging from midfield he scored the goal which changed the game. Despite suffering a heavy knock, McShane played on.

With time ticking away, O’Riordan knew he had to deliver for his team and rose to the challenge by kicking two heroic scores which left a one-point gap between the teams. A late ball into the square from the same player almost won the game for Tipperary.

The All-Ireland U21 final in Parnell Park provided the drama, excitement and nerve-wrecking tension which the fight in Las Vegas was supposed to generate. It was a titanic thriller. That’s the joy of being 21-years-old. Yet, this is precisely the age when the vast majority of players quit the GAA.

In 2013, a report produced by the Economic and Social Research Institute discovered that the likelihood of an adult dropping out of Gaelic football, hurling or camogie between the ages of 18 and 22 is “greater than one-half”.

A previous report, ‘Sporting Lives: An Analysis of a Lifetime of Irish Sport’ also noted the huge drop-off rate which occurs in the GAA after the minor grade. Typically, the GAA responded to these findings by suggesting that they were being singled out for unwarranted criticism.

In 2013, a GAA spokesman said: “We’re at a bit of a loss as to why the GAA’s position has been highlighted. They did the same thing in ’09 and we didn’t expect it again. There has been no consultation in relation to any of it, which is mystifying, as I’d regard what we’re doing in that area as cutting edge. We are doing work no other organisation is doing.” The unpleasant truth for the GAA is that the organisation has failed to serve the needs of more than 50% of the teenagers who play at minor grade.

Not good enough for the seniors, not quite ready to break into the reserves, they find themselves unable to play for any team. Faced with a new set of circumstances after leaving school, they quit their playing careers and never resume. The obvious remedy is to create proper U21 competitions which will provide a reasonable quota of games for all the players who get caught in that no-man’s land which follows minor level.

Obviously, with the current inter-county calendar, it would be impossible to create those competitions.

But what if we didn’t have an utterly meaningless National League which starts in February and ends in May? What if we didn’t have a county programme which runs for nine months of the year? The GAA is supposed to promote Gaelic Games by maximising participation. When roughly half of all participants stop playing the game between the ages of 18 and 22, then the GAA has a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

The GAA’s wholesale failure to either acknowledge or remedy that failing provides further proof of where its real priorities lie.

In Parnell Park, we saw compelling and inspiring evidence that at 21 years of age, young people should be playing games — not quitting them.


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