THE link between progress at development squad level and success at the top level of inter-county is a hot topic given the Cork minor and senior hurling double last weekend.
While the terminology may be incorrect, I include minor and U21 grades in the ‘development’ bracket, because while you aim to win All-Irelands at those grades, you must also try to develop more players good enough to play at senior inter-county level.
The topic has come into spotlight more recently with the Cork senior teams having mixed fortunes in their respective Munster finals. Rather than stating you need to win at underage level to ensure success at senior, I think it is much more complex than this. It depends on many factors and in some cases good timing, like for this year's Cork senior hurling team.
The Cork senior hurlers' fortunes have turned around partly due to the impact of young hurlers Mark Coleman, Darren Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston and Luke Meade. Along with the minor hurlers' victory last Sunday, the development squad process appears to be making a difference.
Now, rightly so, there has been much good work done with the aforementioned players when they were teenagers. Under-age competitions have been won lately from U14 to U17, but winning at minor had still proved elusive until this year.
Minor silverware can be important but good players can still progress through the system irrespective of minor performance. This year is an example of that.
Now considering the disappointing senior hurling campaigns lately you would feel it was imperative from a psychological or belief point of a view that the next group of young players to progress to senior inter-county level, were winning at underage grades. Not just for the young player’s development but more importantly to aid the senior team's progress.
While not winning at every grade, the aforementioned players had a history of performing well at underage. It is the influx of talented young players is what gives many a club team hope in January that yes, this could be our year to finally win the county!
Kieran Kingston and management obviously deserve credit for trusting these players since the start of the year and creating an environment for them to flourish.
A contrasting example to this would be the Kerry U21 footballer team, who were hammered by Cork in 2011 which has been highlighted many times. You wouldn’t maybe have expected then for eight of that panel to be involved in the recent Munster senior football win over Cork although those players did have success at minor level.
Rather unlike the Cork hurling scenario these players were joining a Kerry senior football panel that was regularly contesting All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. I’m sure after a period training in the Kerry set up the likes of James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney were well able to compete and get the upper hand on fellow Kerry players who were considered some of the best in Ireland.
This, in turn, gave them belief that they could be top level inter-county footballers and ensure Kerry had a strong enough panel and collective belief to compete for further honors.
Another factor is the coaching or the type of player we are developing. A wing-back’s strength from U14 level to minor might be carrying the ball. This player stands out at youth levels but then struggles at adult level because he is now required to kick pass the ball more.
This is maybe due to the young player no longer having a physical advantage on his opponent or it could be due to a style of play dictated by the manager. This link needs to be there, developing the right type of player and not just about results.
This point came to mind watching the semi-final of the Humphrey Kelleher Munster U15 competition last Saturday between Cork selection and Kerry North. Cork struggled initially in the game through too many turnovers from poor kick-passes in the middle zone of the pitch.
Some errors were due to poor execution while most mistakes were down to poor decision-making, players passing when the pass wasn’t on. You could understand that some mistakes were due to nerves or players possibly trying too hard but it was interesting to see how Cork got the upper hand due to a change in approach.
Cork had strong athletic wing-backs that carried the ball at pace into the Kerry defence. Then they showed the composure to either handpass the ball off to a free Cork forward in a better position to score or by delivering a shorter kick pass into the Cork full-forward line.
This led to some great scores for Cork and, in the end, a comfortable win as Kerry couldn’t cope with Cork’s physical advantage on the day. It will be interesting to see how both Cork and Kerry fare in two years time at U17 level where Cork may have less of a physical advantage.
While a disappointing result for Kerry North, when looking beyond the result I could see similarities between the movement of some of the Kerry forwards and from what I have seen from James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper at senior level. There were deficiencies in team performance, no doubt, but still individual talent that you know could prosper at senior level.
What I am trying to highlight is that winning at underage level is desired but not necessarily needed for young players to have a major impact at senior inter-county level.
There are many other physical, technical, tactical and environmental factors, which can influence this process. The biggest asset though can be the belief that you can make it, as illustrated in Thurles last Sunday.