Kilkenny won the Tony Forristal tournament, unofficially the All-Ireland U14 hurling title.
One of the members of the team, the full-back, was a chap with not one but two All-Ireland senior medal-winning granddads. Another, the free-taker, had won the skills competition at Feile na nGael a couple of months ago. The right-corner back was — wait for it — Tommy Walsh from Tullaroan. (Yes, really. A distant relative, seemingly.) But those incidentals, noteworthy as they are, weren’t the strange part. The really striking part of it was that Kilkenny won the Tony Forristal tournament in the first place. Because winning underage competitions like the Tony Forristal, which they’ve rarely managed over the years and last achieved in 2005, is not what they’re in it for.
It’s not the target, it’s not the objective, it’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For a couple of last Sunday’s youngsters, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may materialise in 10 years’ time on the Hogan Stand podium. But then, only then and not until then.
Kilkenny sent seven underage teams to various tournaments last weekend. The breakdown went as follows.
The Tony Forristal team brought home silverware; the U14 B team reached the semi-final of the concurrent Sonny Walsh tournament; the two U15 sides, north and south, met in the semi-final of their competition in Wexford, with the winners, the north, losing to the hosts in the decider; the U16 A team that went to Tipperary reached the shield final and the B team the semi-final; and the U17s who went down to Cork were beaten by the hosts by two points. Bottom line? Satisfaction; the silverware was an afterthought. “All the teams were competitive and that’s what we want,” reports Brendan O’Sullivan, one of the driving forces behind Kilkenny’s underage development set-up. “That’s all we want.”
A considerable amount of hot air has been expended in recent years in discussing Kilkenny’s teenage development structures in view of the succession of almost fully polished gems the county’s production line has turned out for Brian Cody. Most of the claims about this factory have missed the point.
Kilkenny do not run elite underage development squads, hot-housing their most promising youngsters for greater things down the line. They run inclusive underage development squads. Three players from each of the 45 or so clubs in the county and take it from there. The aim is clearly defined: to make good club hurlers.
“The development squads are there to develop players for the long term,” O’Sullivan points out. “To make them better club hurlers — and, if they get that far, better county players.’’
Take last weekend’s Tony Forristal winners. The 24 panel members hailed from 16 clubs. Under the development squad system they attended seven coaching sessions between early May and late July. In early August a panel was picked, a couple of training sessions held and one or two challenge matches played. Then they went to Waterford.
Among the opponents the various Kilkenny underage outfits faced last weekend were teams who’d had far more training sessions during the year. This doesn’t mean that other counties are wrong in what they do or that Kilkenny alone have found the golden key, and O’Sullivan wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything of the sort.
There are different strokes for different folks. One size does not fit all. It is redundant pointing to the Kilkenny structure and encouraging aspiring counties to ape it, because what works on Noreside might not work elsewhere.
Look at Limerick, for whom Joe Quaid’s charges won the Tipperary Supporters Club U16 title in Semple Stadium last Sunday. They’re required to make waves in that age group in a way Kilkenny are not; after all, Kilkenny are not locked in mortal combat with rugby.
“Everyone does their own thing,” O’Sullivan says. “Everyone has to suit themselves. We’re fortunate in that our secondary schools are very strong, so we’re able to work in conjunction with them.”
Failure to win a minor or under-21 All-Ireland in any given year does not set the ship of state off course. “Because we have so many All-Irelands behind us, at underage level as well as senior, everybody is looking to the future all the time,” explains Richie Mulrooney, manager of the U21 team that faces Clare in the All-Ireland final next week. “The development of players is the ultimate goal. I received the same instructions from the county board this year as I did during my three years as minor manager. ‘Make them competitive.’”
Kilkenny may not worry about what other counties are doing, but they’re not averse to checking out what other sports are doing. Early last year O’Sullivan was part of a delegation that went to London to see how Arsenal operate. To their surprise and encouragement, what they discovered from Pat Rice and Steve Bould — at the time Arsene Wenger’s assistant and head coach of the U18 academy team respectively — was how uncomplicated the training was.
“It was all about skills development,” O’Sullivan reveals. “First touch. The training they were doing was very similar to ours. Working with the ball, always on the move, everything timed. You have to learn from other sports.”
Yet even this apparent Eden has its snakes. Watching the Kilkenny minor footballers this year, O’Sullivan noted that while they were comfortable on the ball, they weren’t good at breaking the tackle or jumping. “They were slow to react, slow to turn. It comes from not playing enough football with their clubs.”
This has implications on the hurling side which will have to be teased out. And come the autumn O’Sullivan and his brains trust will sit down and tweak things as a matter of course. They’ll talk to the youngsters about how to look after themselves over the winter, about the importance of core training as opposed to weight training, about diet, about body movement.
They’ll continue tweaking the system so that the system will continue to work. Eternal vigilance is the price of future success.