THOUGH it’s given a large measure of prominence, there isn’t really a correlation between doing well in the All-Ireland minor football grade and subsequent senior success.
Since 1984, Dublin’s only minor title came in 2012, while Kerry went from 1994 to 2014 without a minor win while they annexed senior titles on seven occasions in the same period.
Cork’s win in 2000 remains the last time the county came out on top and, while James Masters, Noel O’Leary and Kevin MacMahon went on to senior, they were the exceptions.
Instead, the team that won the senior title in 2010 instead drew heavily from the U21 victories of 2007 – Fintan Goold, Daniel Goulding, Eoin Cadogan, Michael Shields, Ray Carey, Paul Kerrigan and Colm O’Neill all featured – and 2009 (Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan).
That wasn’t just a one-off occurrence, either. Cork first won the U21 in 1970, retaining it the following year, and senior success followed in 1973. And, while the two-in-a-row of 1980 and 1981 didn’t reap immediate rewards, Conor Counihan, Dave Barry, Jimmy Kerrigan, Colman Corrigan and Micheál Burns were all on the senior panels of 1989 and 1990, joined by the alumni of the U21 wins of 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1989.
The pattern applies to other counties, too. While minor success has eluded them, Dublin won three U21 titles between 2012 and 2017, Tyrone claimed Sam Maguire in 2003 on the back of U21s in 2000 and 2001 and their 2015 win has helped the re-establish themselves as bona fide senior challengers. Likewise, Galway’s re-emergence at senior has been based on the U21 wins of 2011 and 2013.
While the change from U21 to U20 might mean a slightly longer lead-in time for transition to senior, the likelihood of the results providing a guide for the future remains strong, which is why Cork’s success in Portlaoise on Saturday can be greeted with such delight.
When Keith Ricken was appointed earlier this year, there was a sense that Cork were playing catch-up on the rest of the counties but the progress made since then has been excellent. Playing in the John Kerins Cup against Kerry, Kildare, Galway and Dublin gave them good-quality opposition before the championship and the Munster final performance against Kerry was the stuff of dreams, one of those nights when everything goes right.
In recent years, we have seen Kerry do similar to Cork in Munster but then fail to back it up in the All-Ireland series and there was a feeling that Cork had failed to bring the same game to the semi-final against Tyrone last Sunday week.
However, despite the odds being stacked against them at half-time, the young Rebels didn’t panic and managed to extract the win. There was an expectation that Dublin would be tougher again and when the Leinster champions raced into a 1-6 to 0-0 lead, the fear was that Cork might have been beaten before they even got out of the blocks.
Ricken has always preached the importance of equipping players to learn to solve problems for themselves and they more than lived up to the faith placed in them, with three goals before half-time ensuring that they were right back in the game.
That they were able to then push on and dominate the second half was a most unexpected surprise and rounded off a great day, on the back of the U20 hurling team’s win over Kilkenny.
They will have a re-match with Tipperary in the final and it will be a case of double revenge, seeking to overcome the result of last year’s All-Ireland decider and this year’s Munster final. As with the football, an All-Ireland hurling title is well overdue and would leave the landscape looking somewhat brighter facing into 2020.
And that’s the case with the senior football too, despite the fact that the loss to Roscommon on Sunday meant Cork’s Super 8s campaign ended with three defeats from three. A record of four reversals in six championship games doesn’t look encouraging but in each of those four losses there were positive signs.
With the experience put to good use and the stars of the U20 win coming on stream – and able to be integrated in a Division 3 league campaign – there is no reason why next year cannot be a further improvement.