When the ‘Talent Academy and Player Development Work Group’ went on the road collecting and collating data during a six-month period in 2018-2019, the U16 players involved in the consultation process told their own stories.
Most were positive experiences. Players spoke at those workshops about the pride of playing for their county, but the collateral cost was often a convenient oversight or an unrecognised horror story.
One 15-year-old told of getting on a bus after school on a Monday to do a collective weights session two hours away. The player arrived back home at 11.15pm.
When quizzed about his homework, the young player said he didn’t do homework on a Monday.
“I take a detention every Wednesday,” he said.
When asked what his parents thought of that arrangement, the player replied:
They don’t mind because I’m playing for the county.
That may have been an extreme case but the ‘Work Group’ still heard enough similar stories to be alarmed by the pathway many elite underage players find themselves on. Proper player development needs a stable base of communication, synergy and complete function but the underage county pathway is too often largely defined by dysfunction.
When the work group released its report in December, the body proposed recommendations under four headings — creating a new player pathway that moves away from academies and development squads to return the club to the centre of player progress, improved education, better governance, and an altered games programmes.
Most of those plans will come on stream in time but trying to till the ground for that future growth is already proving a difficult task.
After the success of last year’s U20 football championship, the GAA’s decision to move that competition back into the spring immediately placed it on a collision course with second and third-level colleges’ competitions.
Initially, players were supposed to give their first allegiance to schools over U20. But once the GAA granted Fermanagh special dispensation to call upon their 13 school-tied players for Fermanagh to field at U20 level, other counties made similar requests.
It became a free-for-all, with many young players caught in the middle.
With St Pat’s, Maghera and St Mary’s, Magherafelt involved in MacRory Cup (Ulster Colleges A) at the same time as Derry’s first round U20 clash against Fermanagh, Derry were down nine players because they chose not to play their schools players.
Derry beat Fermanagh after extra-time before subsequently losing to Antrim, but the new system effectively punishes players from schools that are doing well in their competitions.
It was more complicated in Ulster because the MacRory Cup is more elongated than all of the other provincial formats, with two play-off rounds (eight extra games) played in January before the quarter-finals.
There have already been 32 games played in the MacRory Cup, with the semi-finals fixed for tomorrow and Friday, and the final scheduled for its usual slot on St Patrick’s Day.
However, that will all change if the national fixtures calendar review taskforce’s motion to conclude the All-Ireland post-primary football A and B championships by the fifth Sunday of the year, and the hurling equivalents by March 17, is passed at GAA Congress on Saturday.
There is room to clip some schools’ fixtures, especially in the MacRory Cup, but that is missing the point.
“The first thing our guys say in school is ‘When is the (Dr) Harty (Cup) draw, we want to get to the Holy Grail after the 17th of March, into April’,” said Derek McGrath ontwo days ago.
It sustains them. In an era where we talk about mental health and balance, I would find in school that the lads get great balance from looking forward to the game, and playing the games after Christmas.
If the motion is passed, the Croke Cup (All-Ireland Colleges hurling) would be the least effected. But part of Motion 41 also proposes that the C and D championships “shall be organised on a provincial basis only”.
“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” said McGrath. “The irony of this is that the GAA has spent a lot of time setting up the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Joe McDonagh Cups. But they’re now saying that the (All-Ireland) C and D competitions at secondary school level will be no more.”
Depriving young players of what may be their only chance to compete for an All-Ireland makes no sense but it’s even more of an insult when its driven by politics and elitism. Proposing to complete the A and B All-Ireland Colleges football finals is designed to suit the U20 football championship, which the GAA have already disrespected by shoehorning into the calendar at the busiest time of the year for young players.
Most young players’ experience of elite football now is in poor weather on wet and soft pitches. When the U20 grade was changed from U21, it was largely designed to close that gap from 18-21, and to decrease the load on 18-year-olds doing their Leaving Cert.
Yet with most young players now doing transition year, more players are doing their Leaving Cert at U19, which brings many of the better players on an inevitable collision course with the U20 grade.
And the gap between U17 and senior is all the bigger again if some players can’t play U20 because of their involvement with schools’ teams.
Only the elite schools’ players will be good enough to play at U20 level anyway, but trying to create a window for them is doing a complete disservice to the rest of the schools’ playing population.
If the motion is passed, the vast majority of young players would play no schools football after November.
And more importantly, they’ll have no football — and all that goes with it — to look forward to for the rest of the school year.