Are development squads still the best way to nurture Cork's most talented young hurlers and footballers?

Are development squads still the best way to nurture Cork's most talented young hurlers and footballers?
Brian Turnbull excelled for Cork at minor last year, having progressed through development squads and underage with Douglas and Rochestown College. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

THERE was a rush in the English media last week of pieces about the emergence of Scott McTominay, the midfielder who’s broken into the Man Utd team in recent times. 

The narrative was interesting to follow, where an initial suggestion of a player who’d come from nowhere led into a more detailed background story about a young footballer who’d been at the club since age nine and had grown (literally in part, rising from 5’ 7’’ to 6’ 4” at the age of 18) into a Premier League player over more than a decade of development and coaching and waiting for a chance. 

The talent identification process has become a bit of an issue here now, where the concept of picking players at a specific age range and deciding that these are the guys to make Premier league footballers or county hurlers or footballers out of is being pondered. The academy system in the world of Premier League has been seriously questioned for its worth and efficiencies. 

Huddersfield Town's Danny Williams and Man United's Scott McTominay battle for the ball.
Huddersfield Town's Danny Williams and Man United's Scott McTominay battle for the ball.

The inter-county development squad system in these parts has become divisive and where there was a thought process of being completely behind the times in not having incredibly comprehensive work done with elite players from 14 onwards, there’s a backlash now. 

The seriousness of inter-county GAA has filtered down a little to underage squads and they’ve become one of the battleground areas for the fight between the idea of elite professional inter-county set-ups and the more traditional club-based ideal. 

Cork’s academy system has had its positives and its doubts forever really. For an age, there was talk of what Tyrone and Tipp and Kilkenny were running through their elite footballers and hurlers from fourteen onwards, of what Cork was missing out on physically especially without direct access to the players at that age. 

Yet it’s hardly overreaching to say attitude to these development squads are mixed in the grassroots element of clubs especially. Only last month Brian Cuthbert spoke of his research into academies and the thinking now that schools are the possible way to go, away from the more traditional Cork squads from U14 upwards. 

I remember speaking with one person heavily involved with the Cork underage squads who spent an age explaining all the reasons why they were working and a great idea but was genuinely torn as well with the creation of the ‘county’ player and ‘club’ player divide at too young an age. 

The Rebel Óg U16 football squad 2017 at CIT. Picture: David Keane.
The Rebel Óg U16 football squad 2017 at CIT. Picture: David Keane.

At a Cork GAA club forum meeting a year or two back it was striking to witness the toxicity of the feeling towards academies. My mind goes back also to a conversation about a breakthrough county star last summer with a person from that club where a simple query into the role of Cork’s academy system in his evolution was met with complete silence and more than a little hint of annoyance. 

There’s always been a sense of distrust in clubs about inter-county teams taking their players, especially if they feel they’re not benefitting.

This progression of players has tended to follow the same familiar route as always. 

Take say the Cork football team that played Mayo last summer. Of the 26 players used that day by Cork, only three hadn’t played intercounty minor or U21 (the vast majority had done both) for Cork and one of those was James Loughrey from Antrim. 

Or even go back to the Cork football team that won that All-Ireland in 2010.

Aghada's Pearse O'Neill, taking on UCC's Fionnain Clifford. He won a senior in All-Ireland in 2010 having missed out at minor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Aghada's Pearse O'Neill, taking on UCC's Fionnain Clifford. He won a senior in All-Ireland in 2010 having missed out at minor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Of the 20 players that played the final against Down that day, only two hadn’t played minor for Cork. 

Basically, the pathway to becoming an inter-county player has been almost exclusively weighed towards the idea of being a standout player at 16/17, getting onto the minor squad, pushing onwards onto the U21 level and then eventually making that step up to senior grade. 

It’s remarkable in some ways that there is so little space for a player to emerge after the age of 18, that the core of inter-county senior squads are almost completely made up from minor and U21 groups from the last decade or so. As an aside, it must say something about the fixtures and meaningful games problem that it’s so so difficult for a player to improve to the necessary level through club activity alone from the age of 20 onwards.

And yet there must be a balance here, a place where players of a certain ability and mentality are allowed access to a different level of training and coaching and development and where high performance and participation aren’t exactly the same thing. 

The Cork hurling academies have seen the most obvious results in the last few years where there’s been a definite progress on improving players and bringing them through, where there’s been a batch of bright coaches with a focus on developing the skills necessary for inter-county. 

Six members of last year's Rebel Óg U14 hurling development squad Sean Ó Mathúna, Cian Ó Conaire, Micheál Ó Maoláin, Micheál Ó Rinn, Ben Ó Conaill and Ryan Ó Loingsigh at Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG, pictured with minor stars Craig Ó hAinifín and Daire Ó Conaire. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Six members of last year's Rebel Óg U14 hurling development squad Sean Ó Mathúna, Cian Ó Conaire, Micheál Ó Maoláin, Micheál Ó Rinn, Ben Ó Conaill and Ryan Ó Loingsigh at Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG, pictured with minor stars Craig Ó hAinifín and Daire Ó Conaire. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Noel Furlong spent time talking me through the detailed ways in which they might focus on a particular area one night and in any conversation with coaches involved I’ve always been struck by the thought that everything being done is absolutely worthwhile and for the right reasons. It’s hard to pick fault with the idea of young players getting the basics right on how to run properly, how to train, how to hold a hurley, how to tackle, how to attack, how to defend. 

The theory has always been that the work being done with a group of Cork U15 footballers one year would filter into the divisions and the clubs and the schools with time and that seems to be the most likely way forward now. 

County squads have already been layered into divisional squads across the county. Anybody who follows any of the GDAs or coaches on twitter will know the work being done in Clonakilty or Mallow or Páirc Uí Chaoimh across the whole year. 

Clubs still need to be sold on the idea to fully buy into it. The school's process can’t and won’t be an overnight job. 

It’s likely this conversation on player development will drag on for a while.

Former Cork boss Denis Walsh working with an U17 development squad in 2009. Picture: Kevin O'Callaghan
Former Cork boss Denis Walsh working with an U17 development squad in 2009. Picture: Kevin O'Callaghan

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