LEINSTER SHC QUARTER-FINAL:
Laois v Galway
Welcome to the stage Padraig Brehony, Cathal Mannion, Jason Flynn, Daithí and Ronan Burke.
The group of five represent the latest batch of young Galway hurlers to arrive onto the senior scene, pockets brim-full of All-Ireland minor and U21 medals.
All bar one of the quintet are expected to be handed championship debuts tomorrow afternoon, the expectation surrounding the five, however, non-existent. The Galway hurling public know better than to giddy themselves with talk of emerging talents. History has been unkind.
Too many maroon and white-clad hurlers have stepped onto the senior platform buoyed by a litany of underage riches only to depart the journey with the station still in view.
Former Galway senior manager Noel Lane describes the county’s failure to translate underage success onto the senior stage as “a complete and utter mystery”, a sentiment shared by John Divilly.
Hold on. John Divilly, as in All-Ireland football winner John Divilly? Correct. Why seek the view of a footballer when this is evidently a hurling problem?
Since the turn of the millennium, Galway have annexed the All-Ireland U21 football title on four occasions (2002, ’05, ’11 and ’13), not forgetting the 2007 All-Ireland minor win.
Dublin are the only county to match the Westerners’ four U21 wins during this period, though comparing their success further down the assembly line makes for stark reading.
On the hurling side of the equation, only Kilkenny have bettered Galway’s three All-Ireland U21 triumphs (2005, ’09 and ’11), while no county has come within arm’s reach of their minor haul — the Irish Press Cup crossing the Shannon in 2002, ’04, ’05, ’09 and ’11.
While acknowledging the retirement age for inter-county players is forever falling, not one Galway player involved in any of the victories above is currently over the age of 32, the vast majority having not yet hit 30. So, never mind climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand, never mind challenging for September honours, the concern has to be why the players who delivered a constant flow of underage success in the middle of the last decade are no longer donning the maroon and white. Read the below names, none of which you will be familiar with.
The question must be asked as to why the likes of Keith Kilkenny (2004 and ’05 minor hurling wing-back and ’07 U21 midfielder), Kenneth Burke (’05 U21 hurling corner-forward and captain), Tadgh Haran (introduced as a sub in ’09 minor final and top scorer in ’11 U21 hurling final), Cathal Blake (full-forward in ’05 U21 football final), Brian Flaherty (wing-forward in ’05 U21 football final win) and Michael Martyn (the contributor of 0-5 in the ’07 minor final) never climbed the ladder, never fulfilled on their underage promise.
The lazy response is to argue every county endures said difficulties. Divilly and Lane, All-Ireland winners in their respective codes, agree there are two dozen more names who would fall into the above group.
“This is an age-old Galway problem,” says Divilly. “We seem to produce the finest of minor and U21 players, the vast majority of which don’t make the cut. People say it is a mystery but that’s too easy an out, too lazy a conclusion.”
Former Cork U21 football manager John Cleary maintains “each All-Ireland underage-winning team should deliver five players to senior level”. The problem out west is they are consistently failing to hit this figure.
Here are two prime Billy O’Sullivan examples — you know the Kerry footballer who bagged four goals in the 1990 All-Ireland U21 final against Tyrone. O’Sullivan’s name only cropped up periodically afterwards as people enquired of his whereabouts.
Lost talent number 1: Keril Wade. The corner-forward was the key figure in the 2004 minor hurling win, provided the winning point in the U21 decider a year later and nailed 1-4 in the ’07 final annihilation of Dublin.
Wade was a peripheral member of Ger Loughnane’s senior squad in ’07 and‘08, but did not resurface the following year under the management of John McIntyre.
Lost talent number two: Mark Hehir. The half-forward tallied 0-8 in the 2011 U21 football decider and although he followed boss Alan Mulholland into the senior set-up, his graph plummeted. A key forward during the 2012 campaign, Hehir served on the periphery last summer and was not part of the 30-man squad that travelled to Ruislip last weekend.
Noel Lane has three All-Ireland senior medals in his back pocket and admits he benefited hugely from being overlooked at underage level.
The former Galway boss insists the county must reassess its underage focus — less emphasis on silverware and greater attention paid to the development of hurlers.
“There is too much emphasis on winning the Tony Forristal [U14], the Nenagh Co-op [U16], minor and U21. We need to look at the bigger picture.
“We seem to produce a lot of minor and U21-winning teams and yet we can’t seem to produce lads capable of filling the No 3 and No 6 shirts at senior level. Those positions have consistently been problem areas and that is what we should be looking to achieve from our minor and U21 teams.
“We are sticking with the skilful hurlers coming through the ranks when we need to be looking for substance. When they don’t make it, there is no back up. We make too much of our underage success in this county. That must all change.”
As for the alarming drop-off between U21 and senior?
“There are a number of factors I would see. Emigration is an issue. Rory Foy, from my own club Ballinderreen, was wing-back in the 2011 All-Ireland U21 final win. He emigrated to London and is now playing in the London colours.
“Injury is another. Barry Daly was U21 captain in 2011 and played senior that year for Galway. He has been plagued by a hip injury and so his progress as far as inter-county level is concerned has stalled. Just two examples but there are gone two hurlers you would have said were certainties on the senior team in the years following that U21 win.
“The continuity of managers doesn’t help either, particularly not for the hurlers who are just coming out of U21 and trying to establish themselves.”
Divilly insists emerging players are more inclined to stay the course at senior if their underage years were barren.
“A lot of players you see in Galway who have enjoyed underage success don’t push on, don’t train near as hard as the lad who didn’t win anything at minor or senior.
“Take my own group as a prime example. We lost the 1994 minor final to Kerry and the 1995 minor semi-final to Westmeath. As U21s Kerry beat us in 1996 semi-final and then Laois beat us in the 1998 semi-final. So we went into the senior set-up with nothing and so nothing was expected of us.
“Really important in us making the transition was the fact that there were experienced guys in every line to bring us along. Who knows how we would have fared if we didn’t have those lads.
“Tómas Meehan came into a full-back line where you had Gary Fahey and Tómas Mannion. I had Ray Silke beside me in the half-back line. Michael Donnellan had Ja Fallon to look after him on the other 40 and inside Niall Finnegan looked after Derek Savage and Pádraig Joyce.
“That is a point relevant to recent years and the U21s coming through. Was there guys there of real senior experience to bring them along?”
He added: “[Underage success] is merely a stepping stone, but at the same time too many players would appear to be failing in making the leap.”