FOR those thinking that development of players to elite level is the most straight-forward thing in the world, a few things to remember.
When Pep Guardiola went on his revolution at Barcelona several years back he was able to call on a number of players who’d come through the system at the club's famous La Masia academy – Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Busquets, Puyol, Pedro – all players who knew exactly the Barca way, all of which made the entire process easier, more emphatic and more of an obvious success.
But now, nothing.
When Neymar left this summer they needed to go out and spend over €100million on a 20-year-old from Dortmund who’d been developed in France and their entire drift over the last few years has been down to a lack of access to any homegrown players good enough to compete.
The Barca way, for all the coaches and philosophies and work done with youth players, had sort of stalled and they’re hardly alone.
Man Utd’s academy has never replicated the 'class of 92' batch again. Man City, after pumping hundreds of millions into a cutting-edge campus academy, with a global scouting network and the best of coaches and backroom staff, haven’t yet managed to create even one first-team regular from their new system.
These are top European football clubs with all the modern coaching, staff, knowledge and data, working with players from six-years-old to 18 at times and still they’re far more likely to need to get the chequebook out than rely on introducing young players, simply because they’ve failed in the task of developing young players to the required level despite everything at their disposal.
So, putting together a functioning inter-county underage system isn’t quite an exact science.
A few years ago now we spent a couple of hours chatting with coaching officer Kevin O’Donovan about Cork GAA underage development squads where he went into serious detail about the sort of player Cork hurling/ football were hoping to develop, how exactly they were trying to do that.
It was obvious the ambition and scale and progressive thinking of O’Donovan and still he knew there were too many unknowns and doubts to be sure it would work.
There are no guarantees in developing players of any age but 14-18 is particularly volatile and open to variables.
The success (or not) of the squad system to the general GAA public would very much depend on results and he referenced the ticking clock to a minor hurling title.
Still, anybody who’s been involved in Cork underage in the last two or three years has been saying that there were better times on the way - Noel Furlong told us last autumn about the sort of specific game-based work that was being done with underage teams and left us with the genuine sense of hope.
And here we find ourselves, Cork minor hurlers Munster champions and in an All-Ireland final again, surfing the feelgood wave, bringing crowds of eight thousand plus to a provincial championship game on a weeknight.
It’s pretty difficult not to get that feeling of a definite journey here, that this run from this group is a result of something rather than just a random occurrence.
That there was planning and hard work and real proper focus on how to best develop a group of players went into it and that this All-Ireland final is neither the beginning nor the end of the story.
Of the 15 who started the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, nine of the ten on the age played with Cork U14 competition teams in 2013 (and the last was on the Cork U15 team by the following year).
Of the five U17s, three of them played Cork U14 in 2014.
This team has been spotted and targeted and improved and exposed to best practices from a long way out and advantage has been taken of the emergence of a strong group, even if their individual stories can hardly be linked to any obvious pattern.
Sometimes it can be circumstance and timing. Look at the senior team for example.
When we spoke to Blarney GAA about Mark Coleman recently they put a lot of weighting on the club’s intermediate run bringing in a group of young lads who subsequently grew up pucking around together down the local field.
Alan Cadogan gave a brilliant insight into his development during the summer when he spoke about sessions down the ball alley when he was younger with his brother and Donal Óg Cusack, the type of specialist training in teenage years that basically nobody else in the country could have had access to.
Or this current minor team has some obvious seeds.
It’s hardly a teaser to wonder where say the goalkeeper might have gotten inspiration from, with two older brothers who’ve played minor or U21 goalkeeper for Cork and from the club who produced the last Cork minor goalkeeper who won an All-Ireland.
Seven of the side played a Harty Cup semi-final last January.
Guys like Evan Sheehan and Brian Turnbull have been seen coming from a long way.
This kind of experience does matter even if it’s not necessarily an indicator of thing to come.
Last weekend we spoke to a Roscommon U17 coach at Croke Park who’d been telling his players to play a particular way leading up the game but when it came to the big occasion on the big stage they hadn’t been able to follow it through.
We saw Darragh Canavan light up to the place like he belonged.
It’s been an awful long time since Cork won a minor All-Ireland – John Gardiner’s been and well gone as a senior hurler for example – and it’d lay down a decent marker to do so now again, a kind of obvious end point to the time where Cork hurling lacked an idea for the future and the starting line for a new beginning based on the process that’s guided this group and those following behind.
A Cork win can’t offer any sort of guarantees.
How this Cork group has been actively evolved can offer hints that something is being done correctly for now though.