Young hurlers and footballers at all levels either have too few or too many meaningful matches

Young hurlers and footballers at all levels either have too few or too many meaningful matches

UCC’s Michael O’Halloran scores a goal from Cork’s Colm Spillane during the Canon O’Brien Cup clash at The Mardyke recently. UCC and Cork have had a hectic start to the year. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

IT is not exactly ‘hurling weather’, yet January has been jammed with action.

All-Ireland club semi-finals in both codes, Harty Cup and Corn Uí Mhuirí matches at second level, the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup for colleges, the U20 football league – in memory of the late, great John Kerins – as well as preseason competitions at senior level.

The leagues start next weekend as well and one of the major flaws of the GAA calendar is that so many matches take place in the worst conditions. The prestigious Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups are being rushed through this year with, as UCC football boss Billy Morgan pointed out last weekend, some teams eliminated before the students are back on campus.

UCC footballer Brian Hartnett.
UCC footballer Brian Hartnett.

That can’t be right. Everyone prefers games to training but not like this.

The All-Ireland club series has been brought forward in line with a tightened fixture list for 2020, though that’s a positive step as it gives the clubs a chance to catch their breath before the new campaigns in their own counties. Previously you could reach a final on St Patrick’s Day and be back out in the first round a few weeks later.

Of course no one really has a solution to the fixtures situation. Once young GAA players go beyond Primary School level, where they can comfortably sample a host of sports, there’s a huge strain on their time.

For those fortunate enough to make development squads and on to inter-county minor, they’re in constant demand when you add in their multiple club and school teams. For the rest, their games have to be scheduled around the main players.

And that’s the crux of it. Hurlers and footballers across the country either have too few or too many meaningful matches.

Shane Kingston, Douglas, takes on Cian Kiely, Ballincollig. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Shane Kingston, Douglas, takes on Cian Kiely, Ballincollig. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The Cork County Board, catering for a huge membership with a chunk of dual players, have attempted to stablise the calendar with a round-robin format. As in recent years, the league will be concluded in July rather than drag into the winter. For all that, clubs will stay go from their April first round until late in the summer when Cork are eliminated without championship activity.

After the U21 grades rolled all the way into December and January, the board had to trim those competition. The move was inevitable but for the young players at that level who aren’t featuring in the top teams with their clubs, fewer matches will only see them exit the GAA quicker.

It’s back to the old scenario where a handful of wins could be enough to secure silverware. Player development hinges on game-time, and not in challenge matches. For every promising young gun who is involved in both codes with his club’s adult teams, there are four more with only U21 and second or third team games to sustain them.

It mirrors the change of the inter-county minor and U21 tiers to U17 and U20, which will inevitably be pushed onto clubs. No one is denying the burnout concern but at the lower levels it’s likely to see more 17-year-olds fail to progress.

The majority of U13s are still be in sixth class until June which means on-the-age minors are largely in fifth year in secondary school. Exam pressure is usually cited as one of the reasons to alter the minor grade but that’s not valid these days.

What should have happened was minors were restricted from playing with adult teams. It was mooted previously but shot down because of how it would impact on smaller rural clubs.

A genuine concern in some cases but clubs would have adjusted to not utilising their best U18s at senior, intermediate and junior. Instead the nuclear option of dropping minor to U17 was taken and we’ve seen at inter-county how that diluted the standard of provincial and All-Ireland championships.

Cork minor graduates Hugh Murphy and Conor Corbett. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork minor graduates Hugh Murphy and Conor Corbett. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

We weren’t complaining when Bobbie O’Dwyer’s charges came through the backdoor for a first minor All-Ireland football victory in 19 years, and in Conor Corbett we saw some of the most exciting displays from an underage Cork forward in the modern era. However it’s very hard to gauge who will make the step up to senior in the coming years when the heroes of the extra time triumph over Galway last September were only 16 and 17.

Again, that’s focusing on the handful of elite players left after coming through the inter-county development structure. The main aim has to be keeping as many as possible pulling on their club, school and college colours for as long as possible.

For clubs in suburban Cork with huge numbers like Douglas, Sars-Glanmire, Ballincollig, Carrigaline, Midleton and more, player retention requires two teams, with everyone getting competitive games, whether they’re on the ‘first team’ or not.

Keeping strong numbers, gives clubs a chance of unearthing late developers like Seamus Harnedy and Daniel Kearney, who weren’t Cork minors, but also being vibrant. Playing a load of games in muddy January, doesn’t benefit anyone.

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