Loss of underage grades could deny players last chance to wear county jersey

Loss of underage grades could deny players last chance to wear county jersey

The Cork U20 hurlers in a huddle before their win over Kerry. Will they get the chance to complete the provincial championship? Picture: Domnick Walsh

AT THE time, nobody could have known that the rich harvest from Dublin’s golden underage generation would be reaped from the blackest of winters.

Two weeks after Ciarán Kilkenny had lost an All-Ireland minor hurling final to Galway, Kilkenny lost an All-Ireland minor football final to Tipperary.

In the showers after that football final, Kilkenny spoke to Jack McCaffrey about the pain of defeat again.

“Our attitude was,” said McCaffrey in 2018, as he recalled that moment, “ ‘let this hurt drive us on and, hopefully, we won’t be in this situation again’.”

Jack McCaffrey, Dublin, in action against Adrian McGuire, Tipperary, in 2011. Picture: Barry Cregg/SPORTSFILE
Jack McCaffrey, Dublin, in action against Adrian McGuire, Tipperary, in 2011. Picture: Barry Cregg/SPORTSFILE

Dublin haven’t been. Kilkenny and McCaffrey won All-Ireland U21 medals in 2012, while the bulk of the 2011 minor squad secured the 2014 All-Ireland U21 title.

While they didn’t win that All-Ireland, the 2011 Dublin minor team is surely the greatest in history. 12 of that squad went on to win All-Ireland senior medals: Kilkenny, McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, John Small, Cormac Costello, Davy Byrne, Niall Scully, Conor McHugh, Shane Carthy, Eric Lowndes, Robbie McDaid, and Emmett Ó Conghaile. Brian Fenton couldn’t even make the squad.

One of the dominant themes of Saturday’s (now cancelled) All-Ireland U20 football final was how much the recent hurt of All-Ireland final defeats had driven Galway and Dublin: Dublin lost last year’s All-Ireland U20 final to Cork; Galway were beaten in the 2019 All-Ireland minor final by Cork.

The manner of both of those defeats added to the pain. Eleven minutes into that All-Ireland U20 final, Dublin looked to be cruising to the title, leading 1-6 to 0-0, but they were eventually overrun by Cork. Galway led last year’s All-Ireland minor final by three points after 63 minutes, but a Conor Corbett goal rescued Cork.

Galway then had a chance to win the match with the last kick, but Tomo Culhane’s free, from a difficult angle, just tailed wide. Cork ran out six-point winners in extra-time.

“The boys are in there and they are numb,” said Galway manager, Donal Ó Fátharta (who is now the U20 manager), afterwards.

“Can’t move, a lot of them. They can’t believe it. It is going to be a difficult one for them to take.”

It was harder again for the four Galway players who had also experienced All-Ireland minor final defeat (on the field) to Kerry in 2018. Yet, similar to many of the Dublin U20s, they were using this year’s U20 campaign as a means of atonement.

However, the final has now been put on hold, with no indication of when it may be played.

The only flipside, especially with only two teams left in the competition, is that it will be.

But for platoons of minor hurlers and footballers and U20 hurlers, starting out in their championships, their ambitions are now hanging by the barest of threads.

The GAA released a statement on Wednesday to say that all minor and U20 games had been “paused until further notice”.

Ciarán Kilkenny in action against John Meagher and Colin O'Riordan, Tipperary in 2011. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE
Ciarán Kilkenny in action against John Meagher and Colin O'Riordan, Tipperary in 2011. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE

Yet, the burning question now is when will the play button be pressed?

Will the games be played in December and January? Or will they be pushed further out into the new year? If they are, how will that impact on next year’s competitions?

Could the age-grade be redrawn to U18 and U21 next year? It’s unlikely, but nothing is certain anymore.

In the vacuum of uncertainty, the heartbreak is all the more real for teams that had yet to play in the championship.

It doesn’t make it any easier for teams that had already played and won, but who now don’t know when, or if, they’ll play again. But at least they got to experience that big championship day.

At least the U20 football championship went ahead this season. The majority of minor hurlers and footballers will, hopefully, get the opportunity to play U20 in the coming years.

Yet, if the season is eventually sundered, many U20 hurlers, who won’t progress on to senior inter-county careers, may be fearful that their last chance to wear that coveted county jersey could have passed.

The upset is all the more after the massive effort players and management had put in, and particularly when their chance to play — which looked slim earlier in the year — had finally come around.

Now that those hopes have been indefinitely dashed, it will be harder again for some of those young players to keep focused on a date that ultimately may never arrive.

Clare’s Patrick Crotty and Cork’s Shane Kingston in last weekend’s minor hurling championship. Those players must now wait to see when the games can begin again. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Clare’s Patrick Crotty and Cork’s Shane Kingston in last weekend’s minor hurling championship. Those players must now wait to see when the games can begin again. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

The Government did have a lot to process in recent days, but their own Level-5 guidelines said that “elite sports and inter-county Gaelic games” were permitted to continue behind closed doors.

However, the recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency (NPHET), outlined by Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, in an October 15 letter to Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, said that “senior inter-county” competitions should be allowed under Level 5.

Poor communication and that lack of clarification gave false hope to so many young players around the country.

This is a different form of disappointment than just going down in a big game.

They would not have thought so at the time, but losing the 2011 All-Ireland minor football final was the making of so many of those Dublin players.

So many of the current generation of minors and U20s would give anything now to experience that kind of disappointment and hurt — because it would at least mean that they played.

Now, they’re unsure if they’ll even get a spin on that roulette wheel.

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