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U20 players Conor Shields of Tyrone, Liam O’Donovan of Cork, Fergal Hanratty of Monaghan and Ryan O’ Donoghue of Mayo at the launch of the EirGrid GAA Football U20 All-Ireland Championship.
U20 players Conor Shields of Tyrone, Liam O’Donovan of Cork, Fergal Hanratty of Monaghan and Ryan O’ Donoghue of Mayo at the launch of the EirGrid GAA Football U20 All-Ireland Championship.
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In the new U20 structure serious preparation suggests Cork will push hard for Munster glory

A FEW weeks back, Séan Hayes, was livid. 

And rightly so. 

His Cork U20 side had arranged a challenge game against Roscommon for a Sunday but it was cancelled on Saturday, because of a rule; U-20 challenge games can only take place on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Shane Curran, the Roscommon U20 manager, was also furious. 

With so many of their players in college around the country, and getting ready for final exams, the weekend seemed the best time to play the match. But the GAA decided against it.

The fixtures planners haven’t exactly crowned themselves in glory with the U20 competition because many games are clashing with the Leaving Certificate. As well as being insensitive to those young players, the timing highlighted a complete lack of vision. 

There is no good time anymore in such a condensed calendar but the whole U20 championships smack of tokenism.

The biggest drawback with the competition in its current form is its complete lack of profile and public interest. 

There already have been some good games in the provinces over the last few weeks but the wider GAA audience are almost completely unaware that they’re taking place.

Cork begin their campaign on Saturday evening against Tipperary in Páirc Uí Rinn. The winners play Clare just six days later while the Munster final is scheduled for the following week. 

The competition has to compete with so many other senior inter-county games for any notice but running it off within 13 days completely devalues the whole concept.

Last year’s Dublin-Galway All-Ireland U21 final was the last inter-county football match at that grade but it offered a telling glimpse into the future. 

It was another All-Ireland U21 title for Dublin, their fourth in eight seasons. Just as previous U21 teams provided new players to keep the senior machine raging on, that Dublin side was packed with quality talent; Con O’Callaghan, Colm Basquel, Brian Howard, Evan Comerford and Eoin Murchan.

Galway though, have also reaped a rich crop from that harvest; Michael Daly, Peter Cooke, Sean Kelly and Séan Andy Ó Ceallaigh, all of whom have already played in this year’s Connacht senior championship.

The fundamental point of the U21 grade was always about development but the competition was on its last legs by last year when GAA Congress decreed that it be replaced by U20. On the same afternoon, it was agreed that the age at minor level [in football and hurling] be reduced to U17s.

The thrust of the changes was obvious: underage structures needed to be streamlined in a bid to ease the physical and mental burden on the teenage playing population.

The U17 concept was primarily to take players out of the State exams (ironic considering that many are now involved in the U20 competition, smack, bang in the middle of the Leaving), and to end U17s playing adult games. And with the gap between U17 and U21 too big to bridge, an U20 competition was drawn up.

Apart from the age-difference though, there were huge changes to the competition from how it was run at U21; it is played between June and August; a player cannot play U-20 and senior championship simultaneously.

The timing certainly alleviated the strain and pressure that had occurred for so many young players in the early part of the season. 

Between Sigerson Cup, National League and U21, some players were trying to serve too many masters, and were completely exposed to burnout and fatigue.

Underage competitions are highly competitive and are taken very seriously, but they are still essentially development teams. It could be argued that players already playing senior are depriving other young players the opportunity to play at the U20 grade. 

In that sense, the new rule makes sense from a developmental point of view.

On the other hand, it suits the stronger counties, who have more resources, and more players, at their disposal. 

They have the luxury of allowing their younger players to stay at the U20 grade in order to let them develop.

Yet in other counties, there’s a greater reliance on promoting U20 players to senior level out of necessity. Consequently, that can weaken a county’s chances at U20 level.

The elite will always make the transition; David Clifford, who was one of the best minors to ever play the game, was never going to stall his senior career with Kerry for a couple of years spent with the U-20s. 

Clifford didn’t need to spend time on that pathway anyway because he was already good enough to make the step-up before he’d even turned 19. 

Clifford may miss out on potential glory at U20 level but, after winning four All-Ireland minor titles in-a-row, Kerry will be well able to survive without his brilliance.

Yet there is bound to be potential friction in some counties with elite players, especially when the senior team’s prospects may be deemed much lower than the U20s. 

Cian Johnson, who is currently sitting his Leaving Certificate, featured in five of Offaly’s league games this year, but he could only line out for the U20s this summer. 

Offaly created a by-law last September that players still in the U20 age bracket will play at that grade only.

Despite all the drawbacks, Cork certainly haven’t been distracted by them. They have trained extremely hard over the last few months. Cork have played more challenge matches than most other counties. 

And they look ready.

Cork are without two of their better players; Mark White is the senior goalkeeper, while Matthew Taylor came on in the senior semi-final against Tipperary in the 68th minute.

Kerry may be the favourites in Munster but Cork look well equipped to give this competition a real rattle.