The admission of former Irish footballer Damien Delaney that his summer with the Cork minors was “one of the greatest of my life” was held up as a shining example of the benefits of non-specialisation in sport by teenagers during Wednesday’s health, exercise, and sport panel discussion at MTU Cork.
In his final summer at home in Cork before moving across the water to begin a two-decade long career in professional football, Delaney was called into the Cork minor football panel for their 1999 championship campaign.
“It came out of the blue. I chose soccer, and all of a sudden, Cork minors were playing and soccer was finished [for the season].
“I got a phone call asking me what I was doing for the summer. I replied, 'nothing'. They asked me did I want to go down to an A versus B match in the Páirc. I went down and played in it. It was one of the greatest summers of my life,” recalled the nine-time capped Irish International during yesterday’s HEX-SPO event at MTU Cork.
Delaney was a key figure as Kerry were comprehensively beaten in that year’s Munster final, and even in defeat to Mayo at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, he stood out with two goals from midfield.
“Beating Kerry in the Páirc in 1999, then we lost to Mayo in Croke Park; it was an awesome experience. It was one of the best summers of my life. I still speak to and see the lads that were part of that minor team.”
Galway football coach Cian O’Neill, who heads up the Department of Sport, Leisure, and Childhood Studies at MTU Cork, facilitated Wednesday’s discussion and expressed delight at hearing Delaney’s fond minor memories before the latter immersed himself in cross-channel football.
“I really have an issue with this whole specialisation argument whereby kids are being encouraged to pick a sport at 13/14, and removes all the opportunities of developing transferable skills across sports,” said O’Neill.
“I know at some stage you have to pick, but it is great to hear that at 18 years of age that you were playing Gaelic football just before you crossed the water to England for your pro career.”
Another member of the panel, eight-time All-Ireland footballer winner Juliet Murphy, questioned the competitiveness of sport at underage and how big a determining factor this was in young teenagers focusing only on one sport.
One possible remedy, she suggested, was delaying the competitive aspect of sport until the U14 or U15 age grade.
Murphy, as well as being one of Cork’s greatest ever footballers, played international basketball for Ireland and is an All-Ireland road bowling champion.
“If we looked at sport a little bit differently, like they do in New Zealand, we'd possibly have more children playing different sports for a longer period of time and then specialising,” she remarked.
“If it wasn't so competitive from U14/U15 down, if competition really started thereafter, I know there is big for and against, but we wouldn't maybe lose children to other sports. You'd be catching all children; they'd all get an opportunity to play because it is not just about winning.”
Cork GAA icon Jimmy Barry Murphy said the preparation underage players receive through the GAA development squad model is “very good”, but wondered if the development squad environment can be “a bit cutthroat” at times.
Jimmy revealed that his most enjoyable time in management was his stint in the mid-90s overseeing the Cork minor hurlers.
“It was the most enjoyable three years because you were dealing with lads who were coming out of school, they were getting ready for their Leaving Cert. It was just so enjoyable to see them developing as people, as individuals, and as a team.
“An awful lot of that group went on to be serial All-Ireland winners. It was a tremendous time to be involved in, really, really enjoyable.”