Dara Ó Cinnéide: No country for young men

It’s become a feature of both Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s and Jim Gavin’s reigns that they tend not to select Under 21 players for big matches. It begs the question, why not?

THEY say that those who knew or met the Rock Street legend Miko Doyle would often talk of his hair. His style and flamboyance is still recalled in conversation in Kerry football circles, but it was often the hair and his good looks that attracted most comment.

There is, however, another thing that should never be forgotten about the 1937 All Ireland-winning captain. As part of Kerry’s first great four-in-a-row winning team of 1929-1932, Miko Doyle won four All Ireland senior medals by the age of 21.

It is an astonishing record and one which is unlikely to be equalled. Since Miko Doyle’s era, there have been great U21 players that have lit up the stage at senior level for Kerry, Dublin and others.

The Kerry senior team that came from nowhere to win an All Ireland forty years ago had its fair share of U21 players. Charlie Nelligan and Denis ‘Ogie’ Moran were there for all three U21 All Ireland successes between 1975 and ‘77. Other players who won U21’s in this period included Mikey Sheehy (‘73 and ‘75), Tim Kennelly (‘73 and ‘75), Jack O’Shea (‘76 and ‘77), Páidí O Sé (‘75 and ‘76), Pat Spillane (‘75 and ‘76), Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston (‘77), Tommy Doyle (‘76 and ‘77), and Sean Walsh (‘76 and ‘77).

The Cork team of 25 years ago, who will be honoured at half-time on Sunday, was forged from the great U21 teams that won three successive All Irelands in the mid-80’s.

Seán Boylan’s second empire as Meath manager nearly twenty years ago was built on the foundations laid down by great U21 players like Giles, Fay, Reynolds, O’Reilly and Callaghan.

Prominent players from the Kerry teams that won three of the four U21 All Ireland finals in the latter years of the 90’s helped their county to emerge from the wilderness years at senior level.

Kerry’s nemesis in the noughties, Tyrone, had a decent sprinkling of U21’s on the first of their three All Ireland winning sides in 2003. Even as recently as Dublin’s last All Ireland success at senior level in 2013, three U21 players featured on the starting fifteen – Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion.

Significantly, however, as Mayo started to throw the kitchen sink at Dublin, those three U21 stars were among the first players substituted - Mannion on 16 minutes, McCaffrey at half-time and Kilkenny on 42 minutes.

Much was made last year of the fact that nine players used in Kerry’s All Ireland run had also featured against Cork in that infamous Munster U-21 final in 2011 which Kerry lost by 22 points.

Significantly, too, none of those nine Kerry players (apart from a few very brief cameos from James O’Donoghue) made the breakthrough to senior ranks whilst still at U21 level in 2011.

The likes of O’ Donoghue, Paul Geaney, Stephen O’Brien, Peter Crowley, Jonathan Lyne and company were at least two years, three years, or, in O’ Brien’s case, four years, off becoming reliable senior performers.

In fact, it has become a feature of both Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s and Jim Gavin’s reign that they tend not to select U21 players for big matches. It begs the question, why not?

Both men have managed teams at U21 level, Fitzmaurice for a short one-year term in 2012 and Gavin with great success in a four-year spell (2009-2012) that yielded two All Ireland titles. So one would imagine that both would have a natural affinity with the grade.

From their playing days, both men will recall the impetus and energy a youngster with the x-factor can give an experienced team. Twenty years ago this week, Jason Sherlock was all the Dublin public wanted to hear about as ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! Let me hear you say Jayo!’ became the soundtrack to the summer. Seven years later, when Éamonn Fitzmaurice was at the peak of his playing powers, the Gooch arrived and things were never the same again in Kerry football.

Both managers know that young, fearless, once-in-a-generation players can give teams the jolt that can make the difference between the winning and losing of an All Ireland. So why then are there no U21 starlets togging out on Sunday?

The simple and most obvious answer is that there hasn’t been a youngster good enough in Kerry or in Dublin to force their way onto either team in recent months.

The next logical argument to make is that, given the tactical nature of the game, it takes a bit more than youthful exuberance and raw talent to make an impact at senior level these days.

Because senior coaches haven’t had enough contact time with younger players yet, those players haven’t fully absorbed whatever set of values are now required when the heat comes on at the highest level. Most younger players can’t be trusted to do the right thing often enough, tin order to s to get over the line. Teaching how to play winning football, or winning hurling as the Kilkenny coaches would call it, takes time. And while still at U21 level, you are probably not yet mature enough to play that type of game or to display the sort of tactical discipline now demanded by the highest achievers.

Jim McGuinness took a bit of flak this time last year for gambling on young Darach O’Connor’s talents ahead of the slightly more experienced, Patrick McBrearty. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that both O’Connor and McBrearty still have a way to go before becoming the blue-chip inter-county forwards that their potential suggests.

Although no longer under-21, the Ballymun Kickhams player John Small seems to best represent just how hard it can be for a young talented player to break into the starting fifteen at the moment. He couldn’t have had a better pathway to senior football. One of three or four standout performers with the Dublin minors that lost to Tipperary in 2011, he made his senior debut the following year under Pat Gilroy as an under-21 All-Ireland winner. But the following season, he couldn’t nail down a spot on the Kickhams’ senior team. It seemed he had to take a step backwards before he could move forward again.

Earlier this year, he looked right at home at centre back. Suited physically to the position, he was aggressive, made all the right decisions in possession and was decisive in almost everything he did. Yet come championship Cian O’Sullivan was the one trusted to man the centre and Small has seen very little championship game time.

Ironically, it has been the emergence of another player just out of the U21 grade, Brian Fenton, that has allowed for Cian O’Sullivan’s move to centre back. Fenton has more than held his own with a string of impressively mature showings at midfield for the Dubs all season but, no more than Ódhrán Mac Niallais this time last year, it will take something remarkable for him, just a year out of U21 grade, to impose himself against Anthony Maher and David Moran on Sunday.

Moran himself, it seems, is emblematic of the level of patience required of a young Kerry footballer if he is to make the grade. At just 20 years of age in the semi-final replay of 2008, he made the match-defining catch that led to the Gooch goal that finally saw off Cork, but it wasn’t until last year, at the age of 26, that he finally started back-to-back senior championship games for Kerry. Serious injuries, of course played their part in his stalled progress but there is a strong argument, too, that Moran, for all his undoubted talent, simply wasn’t ready to lead until last year.

This year’s championship has been speckled with fine performances from U21 players.

At different stages Tipperary’s Stephen O’Brien and Colin O’Riordan have looked good and Damien Comer had his moments for Galway. For Tyrone, Conor Meyler and Mark Bradley, in particular, made the step-up and Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor was, perhaps, the most impressive of all U21 players to feature in this year’s championship.

Sunday, however, tells a different story.

As the two best teams in the land face off, it seems that Croke Park on All Ireland final day is no country for young men.

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