The Christy O'Connor column: Some smaller clubs need their younger players to be able to field teams at adult level

The Christy O'Connor column: Some smaller clubs need their younger players to be able to field teams at adult level
Hugh Murphy battles David Managan last season. As an U17, Murphy wouldn't be entitled to play for Éire Óg's U21s under a new rule. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

ON THE day of the South Kerry final between St Mary’s and Dromid Pearses last December, the Valentia Island team which won the 1993 championship celebrated the 25-year commemoration of that success.

Yet the most unique aspect of that jubilee is that four of that 1993 team are still togging out for the club. The eldest of the four, 52-year old goalkeeper Richard Quigley, had even played against his son when Valentia lost to St Mary’s in the semi-final.

When Valentia Island won promotion to Division 4 of the Kerry county league last year, and beat Waterville in a South Kerry championship match, both may have seemed insignificant achievements for a strong traditional club which has won 20 divisional championships. But drilling down into the minutia of the detail underlined just how much Valentia Island defied their size and numbers; they only got over the line because Quigley injured himself in the process of making a crucial late save.

Survival in 2019 though, is going to be a whole different challenge. Last year’s panel of 20 has been thinned down in recent months, ranging from long-term injuries, retirement and relocation for work and education.

In December, the club convened an emergency meeting to see if they could field a team for the coming season. They stopped counting at 11. Ahead of next week’s opening league game against St Michael’s/Foilmore, just 13 players have declared themselves available for 2019.

This day has been coming for Valentia Island but they aren’t the only club in a similar situation in south Kerry. All the clubs have gone through amalgamations. A few years back, six clubs met in the final of the South Kerry minor championship; St Mary’s and Renard amalgamating on one side, Valentia, Portmagee, Derrynane and Sneem on the other.

Valentia though, are at such a crisis stage that they drafted a motion that went before delegates at last week’s Annual GAA Congress in Wexford.

The motion stated: ‘A county may have a bye-law whereby a player who shall have celebrated his 16th birthday prior to January 1 of the championship year may play non-championship games with his club where such club is graded as Junior Championship status with one adult team.’ The motion was narrowly rejected.

“What we’re asking is to allow clubs let children play with adults,” said John Prenty, Connacht Council secretary. “Is that what we’re about? We’ve done huge work in this area trying to put a structure in place to decouple adult (games) from underage. This is morally wrong.”

It makes perfect sense to ensure that young players are not fast-tracked by adult team mentors blinded by ambition than a duty of care. But with clubs everywhere being ravaged by depopulation, the availability of three or four 17-year-olds could be the difference between fielding an adult team or not.

Micheal Martin, who chaired the Minor Review Committee — the body effectively responsible for changing the rule a few years back — stressed at the time that any evidence they had during the course of their research suggested the impact of the change would be very minimal.

Martin also said that the aim was to protect the best young players in that age group from excessive exposure. By drawing a line at the age of 17, the rule aimed to preserve those players to play with their clubs for a much longer period.

The whole burnout issue was exacerbated with the pressure on young players doing the Leaving Certificate but reducing the minor age from U18 to U17 alleviated some of that stress on young players.

That reasoning was sound but one rule doesn’t fit all, especially for clubs struggling to field adult teams. The Valentia motion was ring-fenced in that it was limited to junior clubs with one single team and excluded those U17 from playing championship.

The good players will always be hammered because they are in such demand but could the rule have been amended to cater for clubs below a particular threshold with numbers? If a club doesn’t have the numbers to field an adult team but would have if they had access to no more than three 17-year-olds (not including a county minor), would that not help some clubs stay alive? 

If the motion had been passed, Valentia had four young lads they could have brought in. And that would have represented a clearer future for the club than the current bleak picture.

It’s a difficult middle-ground but the reaction to the defeat of the Valentia motion last weekend was very strong. It has been even stronger again after a Central Council meeting last weekend agreed that the minimum age for players representing their clubs at U21 level was 17 on January 1st, thereby preventing those who celebrate their 17th birthdays in 2019 from playing.

However, that was never the understanding of several counties when the rule was amended at last year’s Congress.

When the North Tipperary U21 B football final was played last week, county secretary Tim Floyd had to tell both finalists – Ballina (who had six players turning 17 in 2019 on the panel) and Kilruane MacDonaghs that they could no longer play in the competition. Ballina played their U17s while Kilruane opted not to, with two players set to start being withdrawn beforehand.

The Central Council rule interpretation may be reversed but it has still left another bad taste, especially with so many rural clubs battling to stay alive. And it has certainly made it easier for the critics to accuse the suits in committee rooms of never being more detached from the grassroots.

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