From 2018, the U21 grade in inter-county football will be replaced with an U20 competition, with the minor switching to U17. Sean Hayes manages Cork in this evening’s penultimate All-Ireland U21 football final and believes the change is a mistake.
The All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship was first played in 1964. Cork have most wins, with 11, with Kerry next on 10. There have been 16 different winners. Cork’s last title came in 2009, while the last of Mayo’s four wins was back in 2006.
Q: Do you agree with the changes to the underage grades?
I don’t. I have found it a very worthwhile competition which develops fellas from minor to senior. I do realise some fellas play Sigerson, some fellas play senior inter-county but the benefits to the players that have played is enormous and the attitude of any fella who’s been asked to go to a trial or a training session has been fantastic.
I think it’s a pity they are going to do away with it, to be honest. I think it’s disappointing. I won’t be around that much longer anyway, but my experience of my three years, the attitude of players and everyone has been fantastic. And I think it’s a loss to the GAA overall.
Q: What impact will moving the age grades back a year have?
In Cork, for instance, a new thing is after developing where parents don’t want their kids playing extra ball when they’re doing the Leaving Cert. And a lot more kids are doing the Leaving Cert at 19 now because of the Transition Year. We lost a few players this year because of the Leaving Cert. So it would be a major problem for fellas starting their development for under-20. Because they won’t finish the Leaving until June so they’ll be going straight into matches in July. And you also have the problem of guys in college for their first year, who tend to go for the J1. That will affect it as well.
Q: So while the move to U17 and U20 was partly designed to avoid exam clashes at minor level, you feel it will shift the problem to U21?
We had four or five players this year who were affected by the Leaving Cert. Three of them are now committed but it took a while. And I can see where the parents are coming from, to be honest. To me, a better solution (to workload) would be if inter-county senior managers said you’re either going to play senior or U21 and let the U21 suffer because of it if needs be. Or else leave the U21 player alone and see how good he is U21 and then add him onto the senior panel for the championship.
Q: Has the never-ending club v county debate been a frustration?
My own opinions now, involved with a county team, would be different to three years ago.
I’ve been involved with clubs for years, and clubs are very important. But I think there’s a time and a place. If you’re in a Munster final or an All-Ireland final, the county team have to get a small bit of grace. A club has to field its team and you can’t have clubs giving walkovers because of inter-county either. Clubs are very important. Without them, the whole thing is crocked. But there has to be give and take from both sides. When we’re playing Clare and Waterford, you can live with it. When you’re playing Kerry or Monaghan or Mayo, you need a bit more of a break. That’s why we looked for matches off in the last few weeks.
Q: How would you divide the responsibilities of an U21 manager between winning and producing players?
When you set up a panel at the start of the year, your goal is to win the competition. When we met this year we had a five-step plan and Saturday is the fifth step in that. And if we can achieve that, we’ve reached our goal. But when you step back in three years time, it’s how many of those players are playing very well at senior, that you get more satisfaction out of.
With U21, you’re going out to the county and you’re trying to pick the best fellas you see at trials. You’d know some fellas played minor last year or the year before, but in general you don’t know the guys. So you’re watching them playing and picking them up from that. And every year you always get one or two that never played minor that come through.
The match down at Páirc Uí Rinn this year, between Cork and Roscommon, had something like 11 or 12 fellas who had been involved in the semi-final of the All-Ireland U21 two years ago. So it shows it’s a step in the right direction for players if they can maintain it and keep improving.
Q: Are there players whose progress from minor have really surprised you?
Everyone gets a great kick out of seeing a fella who hasn’t made it as a Cork minor making it on an U21 panel. It’s not something we go out to do, but it’s good to see fellas grabbing your attention and saying I’m worth playing.
Ronan O’Toole, this year, has come from nowhere and has been great for us, and for himself as well. It’s great to see that. Sean Daly from Doheny’s, these kind of guys, coming from nearly making a minor panel, to making our panel. It’s an opportunity for these guys not to give up on football. My biggest enjoyment out of the whole thing; if you had a trial in January with 40 players, none of which would have played last year, without doubt nearly 40 of them would show up. That shows the desire of fellas who are still playing football at 19, 20 to play Cork U21.
Q: Are you more aware of the issues around player welfare and burnout now than when you took the job three years ago?
The important thing is you work with the other coaches. This year, we had Billy Morgan involved with UCC Sigerson and Tony Leahy and Ray Keane involved with IT Sigerson. Depending on what matches were coming up, and the importance of the matches, we worked together. Every team, especially at inter-county, has strength and conditioning guys who are in contact with the players the whole time, that know exactly what their weekly intake and output is, whether it’s food to matches to training. And that has a big bearing on it.
Our lad, Adam Doyle, will tell us that this guy needs a break. And if he tells us that, that’s what he gets. There’s an awful lot more technology involved and a lot more cop-on too. And fellas do realise the importance.
If you’re playing with UCC, the Sigerson is very important to you, so you have to take that on board as well and give fellas a break there too. But now, Cork U21 is the most important thing to us and that’s why we looked for matches off in the last few weeks to get fellas totally focused on that role.
Q: There has been some dissent lately about GAA players’ responsibilities when it comes to drug testing. Do U21 players face the same testing regime as seniors?
To date, none of our fellas have been tested. I saw Jim Gavin giving out about it after the Kerry-Dublin match, but I haven’t seen any of our fellas being tested yet.
Q: Does that surprise you? Should there be more scrutiny?
Well, I don’t see any fellas doing anything out of the way, after training or anything like that. I’ve never come across anything where you’re going, ‘that’s a bit suspicious’. I don’t see any fellas over the six months we have improving more than they should. You had the fella in Monaghan a couple of years ago so there’s no doubt there are players somewhere who take the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I think, being an amateur game, it’s not as prevalent as it might be in other sports. But I’m not saying it’s not happening somewhere. But I take players are face value that they’re not doing it.
Q: What are the challenges working with young players in the week of a All-Ireland final?
The job this week is to get fellas focused on the final. That’s the big challenge. Up to this, it was getting to the final. But now we’re there, people sometimes think, ‘oh we’re in an All-Ireland final’ and that’s their goal. Whereas it should be to win the All-Ireland.
It’s getting fellas to think there’s a big job ahead of us and that Mayo are quite good and to be prepared for what’s ahead and to try and fulfil the dream of winning. Make it more about the game than anything next.
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