Cork football is caught between player development and the need to win at underage again

Cork football is caught between player development and the need to win at underage again
Colm McFadden, Donegal, in action against Michael Shields, Patrick Kelly and Graham Canty in 2012. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

THE obsession with the next big thing goes on. 

It took all of one breakthrough victory a while back for all of European football media to go all in on the Ajax model of player development, the in-depth analysis of how this group of players have taken Europe by storm with the suggestive idea that there are hidden ideas that could be copied and pasted. 

It happened with France after the World Cup when everyone discovered the worth of the banlieues and with Croatia when everyone discovered that there was no plan at all beyond having some very good players arrive together. 

There’s a rush to look for meaning here. 

La Masia in Barcelona got feted when Pep’s first team emerged ten years ago now yet there was clearly a generational element of a special group with one out-of-this-world talent that made everything work. 

Ajax’s academy has always had a rep for producing players, yet this is their first proper European run for over twenty years and there are worthwhile discussions about why that took so long and if this is just maybe as much about one or two club-changing footballers who happened to come along through sheer random occurrence (De Jong, De Ligt) more than a grand design.

Ajax's Frenkie De Jong. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Ajax's Frenkie De Jong. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

All of which goes some way to the heart of the idea of player development now, both in how exactly players can be produced and in how we can measure the success or not of the system that produces them. 

There was an interview by James Costello, the Kerry minor football manager, last week where he referred to All-Ireland titles not being their priority, how pinpointing and then helping players become Kerry seniors (he even specifically mentioned finding real defenders being more on the list than knacky forwards or athletic wing-backs) was more important than another trophy day out at Croke Park. 

There’s an element of being easy to say when you’ve just won five titles in a row that you’re not bothered but it opens an interesting angle on the idea of what underage groups and competitions are there for. 

People inside the Cork development squad system in hurling especially have admitted there’s an expectation that a minor All-Ireland has to be delivered on the way to making Cork great again. 

And still there’s a flow of players that have come through and are coming through the squads' system over the last five years now that are hitting the senior panel off the back of several years of decent coaching and growth as a group from the age of 14 to 21. 

It’s probably worth pondering what exactly it is we want here now from the development of young players in the GAA, whether it’s creating elite footballers and hurlers to compete for All-Irelands at senior level or to just go onto play senior for Cork or improve the standards across the county at club level or the more holistic (yet by its nature vague and incalculable) concept of developing people first.

Let’s take an example here. 

The Cork minor footballers start championship next Tuesday. 

Cork’s last All-Ireland title was in 2000 and if that team wasn’t quite considered an All-Star group that would dominate the football world, that year was still unquestionably seen as a success on its own. 

Afterwards, from the final team, six from fifteen went on to play for Cork seniors, just three regularly. 

The next Cork team that reached an All-Ireland final was 2010, again five from the starting fifteen played senior championship for Cork with four on the current panel. 

The group that brought the most players through in recent times was probably the 2003/04 team that had as many as nine players that played senior football for Cork afterwards (that was the Paddy Kelly, Shields, Cadogan, Goulding group). 

Dan MacEoin tussles with Tyrone's Hugh Pat McGeary in 2010. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Dan MacEoin tussles with Tyrone's Hugh Pat McGeary in 2010. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

These are reasonable ratios, the Tyrone team that beat Cork in that 2010 final had in and around five or six future senior footballers as reference and some Kerry teams in the same timeframe had one or two or even none in some years that went on to play for Kerry seniors. 

Look back at that 2000 winning team now and there’s the usual blend of fellas who went onto more significant things (James Masters won senior Munster titles with Cork and several counties with Nemo, Noel O’Leary won an All-Ireland with Cork as starter), players who never quite achieved potential for various reasons (injury mainly) and others who just drifted from the top level of the game into their clubs or who hardly played beyond three or four years after. 

That All-Ireland minor win was the highlight of their GAA careers, which would hardly invalidate the process in any form.

Do Cork want to win All-Ireland titles at minor football or progress players through the grade with access to a top development environment and experience of meaningful games against other counties? 

Can the experience of winning an underage title be a worthwhile standalone achievement or does it have to measured against a future legacy? 

I remember an interview with Jamie Wall a few years ago where he spoke about playing minor on that 2010 team and how those experiences with those players and against other county players would always stick with him.

This is a new kind of question. 

Cork were slaughtered previously for a lack of underage work but they’ve been progressive for a while now, have broadened the base from U14 to allow as many players as possible fall into the system and benefit from access to more coaching and ideas. 

A massive percentage of these squads will never play for Cork but the tracking of the positive developments is more difficult. 

Almost all the senior inter-county squads will be made up of players who’ve come through from U14 to U16 and you can make arguments that this is good (long-term pathway allowing continuous progress) and that this has problems (creation of elite bubble too early). 

There is some serious research being done in CIT currently on the idea of talent identification and player development within these squads and Cork are properly looking at what the purpose and long-term aims of these groups needs to be. 

The search for that perfect process will go on.

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