The dilemma facing Cork underage teams is whether player development without silverware is enough right now

The dilemma facing Cork underage teams is whether player development without silverware is enough right now
Paul Ring and Brian Harnett combine to stop Dublin's James Doran. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

AFTER Kerry’s win over Tyrone last weekend, Eamonn Fitzmaurice contradicted the perception that Kerry’s younger players were inexperienced. 

He said that they had plenty of big-game experience from their underage careers, and from their 18 months or so of league/championship with the seniors.

Young lads like David Clifford and Sean O’Shea have spent their developmental years at the top of the elite level, playing in Munster finals and All-Ireland finals with the county and with their schools.

That’s years of high-pressure occasions, where improvement was expected. Winning (and popping over points at clutch moments of games) has become so natural for David Clifford that it hardly matters whether it’s a Derry minor or Ronan McNamee hanging off him 40 yards from the Hill in Croke Park.

This is becoming part of the conversation in Cork GAA, where, after years away from the big days out at minor and U21 level in football and hurling, there are signs of resurgence. and we’re getting to wonder again about what exactly the main purpose of these age groups is meant to be.

Hugh Murphy bursts past Mayo's Eoin Gilmore. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Hugh Murphy bursts past Mayo's Eoin Gilmore. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A Cork minor football team has had a proper run at the summer for the first time in ages and it’s hard to measure how experiences like that win over Mayo, last weekend, can improve a group.

A Cork U20 hurling team is in a second All-Ireland final in a row. A Cork U20 football team has just spent a summer winning hearts and restoring hope to Cork football.

This Cork hurling group has been coming with a while, but the expectation is that they must progress from promise to winning a title for this to be considered a successful period. Is this fair or correct, in a game of tiny margins at an elite level?

Brian Turnbull. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Brian Turnbull. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

That Cork U20 football team provided enough sparkle and grit and individual excellence, against Kerry and Tyrone, to sustain serious hope for the future. And still, there was something extra in their ability to produce that kind of statement win against Dublin in the final. It felt important that they’d shown that mentality to back up the momentum, with both a performance and a result, in the end.

There’s a balance here. There’s a sense that some of the underage tournaments have turned into monsters of stress and pressure to win, instead of focusing on development, yet wins and successes still get referenced as evidence of the right path.

Some analysis can point to lack of titles up to minor and U20 as proof the system isn’t working; others will argue that youngsters evolving into proper senior players is a more relevant measurement.

The ticking clock on the time since Cork’s last minor hurling All-Ireland, or U20/U21 All-Ireland, gets louder with every senior defeat and the production line of the likes of Coleman/Fitzgibbon hasn’t lifted this feeling of underachievement. Cork’s senior hurlers have gotten stick, mainly, for not being able to close the deal or for just not quite having that knack of winning on the biggest days.

Cork’s underage sides haven’t won for years. If they start to win, will the seniors start to win?

There’s hardly an argument here that exposure to the elite level as often as possible won’t help development, but does the experience of winning titles make a difference in the end? A win in the minor football final will be seen as another step in the road back, another little moment of feelgood. A loss in U20 hurling will be seen as more evidence of a fatal flaw in the Cork game.

The work will go on in both, either way. It feels like we’re headed into a game-changing period, here in Cork GAA, where decisions being made about the structures and development of players will have a real impact. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of emphasis is put on the importance of winning and even at what age winning titles becomes a priority.

In Ben Lyttleton’s fascinating book Edge, he describes a highly-regarded goalkeeping coach, Hans Leitart, who asks his players to consider their most important game ever and if they’d pick a brilliant performance in a 1-0 loss over a poor performance in a 3-2 win; he prefers players to pick the first, as it shows they care about the performance, the process, rather than the outcome.

A Dutch football federation study into how to turn the country from recent failures identified a lack of winning mentality (the plan was even called ‘Tomorrow’s Winners’) and yet the new approach had multiple angles. Coaches at AZ Alkmaar, at a tournament, asked the young players, the night before a game, which of them were afraid to take a penalty; they picked those fearful players as the penalty takers the next day and they all scored.

They call it learning to win, a mindset as a long-term development rather than as a short-term focus.

The idea is that the right process will lead to the desired outcome more often than not.

Cork would do well to remember that in the decisions ahead.

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