Attached to the All-Ireland U21 football trophy, or to a lesser extent the Corn na Casca (Easter Cup), is no promise of senior glory, no future invitation up the steps of the Hogan Stand.
So, while Cork football has enjoyed a multitude of successes at U21 level since 2006 (six titles, in fact), in essence, it counts for little in the long run.
Take Limerick hurlers as the perfect example, three consecutive Septembers they hoisted the Cross of Cashel (2000-2002) but what benefit did it serve their senior endeavours in the ensuing years? It didn’t.
Not forgetting Galway, of course, four U21 football crowns annexed since 2002 and in the same period the county’s senior outfit has failed to advance beyond the quarter-final stage of the championship.
Cleary, who enjoyed All-Ireland U21 glory both as a player and manager, says U21 prosperity is merely a stepping stone. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There is no guarantee U21 success will translate into senior success,” he insisted. “Guys have to take it on after that. It takes a complete package of a team, a spread of lads from 20 to 32 to form a team that can go out and win an All-Ireland.
“It is rare that you would have an All-Ireland-winning team of just 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds, lads straight out of U21.”
That as it may be, Cleary accepts the county’s All-Ireland victories in 2007 and 2009, added to the recent three-in-a-row Munster haul has significantly increased expectations of a Sam Maguire triumph in the near future.
He urges patience, however, a call stemming from the experience of his own playing days.
“We won the U21 in 1984 against Mayo and Cork went on to win it again in 1985 and ’86. The senior teams then that won in 1989 and 1990, a lot of the players on the panel would have come from the three-in-a-row U21 successes.
“It does take a couple of years for U21s to come through, to find their feet at senior level and then start to make an impact.
“It is a big adjustment, but you look at Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan who won U21 medals in 2009 and went straight into the Cork senior panel in 2010. The majority of lads though, need time to mature.”
Seven players from the Cork U21 teams of 2006 (All-Ireland finalists) and 2007 (All-Ireland champions) featured in the famine-ending senior campaign of 2010; the stream of players, however, who have since graduated to the senior ranks from the 2009 U21 win has registered far less.
“It is a worry that not as many have pushed on from the 2009 campaign.
“What you will find is that three or four will come through from every U21 team, whether they are successful or not. What you have then is a team that’s spread across an age bracket of 19 to 32. A lot of the lads who enjoy U21 success go on to become excellent club players, but are that bit shy of making the county team. It is just that when they were of age for U21, the selection pool was smaller and they were deemed good enough. The cream will always come to the fore at senior level and you will find that may not always be the lads with U21 medals in their back pockets.”
With regard to the recent three-in-a-row group, he added: “These lads are the future of Cork football. The lads that are 27 and 28 on the current Cork panel will be gone in three and four years and that group will have to take up the mantle. How far they go is in their own hands, there is no doubt they are capable of going the distance.
“They were the best around when they were U21 so there is no reason why they can’t enjoy further success in the future. There is always a danger lads won’t push on and are content with their U21 medal, but I have never found that to be the case in Cork.”
* Meanwhile, the Kerry County Board PRO John O’Leary has warned patrons attending tonight’s clash that it is a prepaid ticket only game. Tickets will be available outside the ground from ticket vans located in the car park in front of the Austin Stack Park pavilion. For health and safety reasons the car park will be closed to parking from 5pm.
The Munster Council have now also advised that tickets may be purchased in advance from all participating Supervalu and Centra stores as well as from tickets.ie