DESPITE how slow the GAA can be to change, it can instigate it quickly when it wants to get something done.
Last year’s All-Ireland U-20 football championship concluded in excitement, drama, hype, and euphoria on a Saturday afternoon in August, as Cork beat Dublin in an action-packed final in Portlaoise.
Eight months on, the first game in this year’s competition — a first-round clash in Ulster, between Derry and Fermanagh — was played in Celtic Park earlier this month, when most people were unaware that it had even begun.
The U20 championship last year was buried because it was played in the summer, when it was competing with the All-Ireland senior hurling and football championships for air-time.
And yet, the U20 championship still thrived, primarily because the players could give their full focus to the competition (no senior inter-county players could play).
Players’ schedules were lighter than they would have been earlier in the season, especially those involved in colleges or third-level football, while young footballers had the opportunity to express themselves on good pitches in good conditions.
Cork got the balance just right.
The management afforded their players time off to concentrate on their Leaving Cert, before the football ramped-up in high summer.
Now, many players still in school are preoccupied with upcoming mock exams as they get ready for the U20 championship.
The rescheduled provincial U20 championships has been a squeeze, but its timing has had a huge impact in Ulster, because the schools and the U-20 grade have been pitted against each other for player availability.
“The timing of the summer competition seemed to work well,” said Mickey Donnelly, Derry U20 manager, before his side played Fermanagh.
“But to bring it to the schools’ calendar is just a total disaster. It’s been a maelstrom of in-house fights and wranglings.”
The move has spectacularly collided with the A and B post-primary competitions in Ulster.
Once the GAA granted Fermanagh special dispensation to call upon their 13 school-tied players to field at U20 level, other counties made similar requests.
With St Pat’s Maghera and St Mary’s Magherafelt involved in the MacRory Cup (Ulster Colleges A) at the time, Derry could have demanded the players be released through the relaxed rule.
But Donnelly chose not to for the Fermanagh game.
“It’s difficult to have a player at the end of a barrel of a gun and force that on them,” said Donnelly. “Surely, inter-county football is the pinnacle for anybody and we’re actually depriving these lads of inter-county football.”
The new system also punishes players from schools that are doing well in their competitions.
Derry, who beat Fermanagh in that opening game, after extra-time, were down nine players for that match, because of those players’ involvement in the MacRory Cup, whereas Fermanagh had a full squad to pick from, after St Michael’s Enniskillen were beaten by Holy Trinity Cookstown at the end of January.
None of this is surprising. When the U20 competition was changed at short notice, just three months ago, Cork U20 manager, Keith Ricken, predicted what is now happening.
“It is never a negative that a young lad goes out to play a match,” said Ricken, in November. “What can sometimes be a negative is that too many matches are happening at the wrong time.
“Everything should be about the player experience. It would be much easier to improve that experience if the games were during the summer,” Ricken said.
Unlike last year, most young players’ experience of elite football now is in poor weather, on wet and soft pitches. Another downside with the rearranged format is that it has denied players any real break, because, with players involved with their clubs throughout the autumn and winter, the 2019 season has segued straight into the 2020 U-20 campaign.
The short notice of the change also impacted on team preparations. Plans had to be ripped up and redrawn.
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.
However, with most young players now doing transition year, more players are doing their Leaving Cert at U19, which puts them on a 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 school teams.
Colleges are also involved in this chaos, especially with Freshers football, at the moment.
Cormac Ryan, a chartered physio and former Dublin underage hurler, tweeted recently: “Spoke to an U20 player last week, who was beyond distressed at the position he was in.
“Threatened with being dropped from county panel, if he played his third-level game, and fearful of losing financial aid if he didn’t line out for the college. They’re not pieces of meat; they’re kids.”
The show still goes on.
The Munster U20 campaign begins tomorrow evening (Cork play the winners of Clare and Waterford).
Midweek games don’t make it easy for players travelling from college, but despite all the work that has been put into trying to streamline the GAA calendar, it is still like a matrix.
“The calendar needs to be ripped-up, because it’s definitely not working,” said Donnelly. “With the U20 grade, schools are flexing, counties are trying to flex. It’s just a battlefield.”
And that isn’t fair on young players who just want to play.