West Cork soccer must find balance for young players when sport returns

Talented teens will be in high demand once Covid restrictions ease
West Cork soccer must find balance for young players when sport returns

The 2017 West Cork Schoolboys U14 ETP Inter-League squad that competed at the Kennedy Cup and many of whom went on to represent their region at U15 level in the Subway SFAI Munster Championship.

THE FAI’s suspension of football until January 31 came as little surprise.

The FAI’s statement explained that the new, Government Level-5 guidelines do not allow for any adult amateur and underage football and futsal, including the underage National Leagues and all schoolboy and schoolgirl football.

Castlelack FC’s DJ Curtin is the head co-ordinator of the WCSL ETP, overseeing 120 players across numerous age grades. The FAI’s ruling means West Cork’s elite players will have to wait until the restrictions are lifted before being allowed train and play friendlies or competitive matches. The WCSL ETP shut down shortly before Christmas and a return date remains undecided until lockdown rules are eased.

“Our last ETP session in West Cork was back on December 16,” Curtin told the Echo. “Our WCSL Kennedy Cup squad did complete an additional training session, the following weekend, and were in the middle of a three-day Christmas training camp before the new HSE restrictions came into play, postponing their third and final day. I guess, everything shut down on December 27 and our U12, U13, and Kennedy Cup squads have not been together since then.

“We are not classed as ‘elite football’ under the HSE guidelines, so all training sessions are completely suspended until further notice. That goes for every club in the West Cork Schoolboys’ League and not just the region’s ETP squads,” Curtin said.

“Children can train away individually, at home, but, long-term, that’s not feasible for an Emerging Talent Programme with over 120 players. It has to be a complete shutdown for now, but that’s completely understandable in the current circumstances.”

Each year, West Cork competes in the Subway SFAI Inter-League Championships at the U11, U12, U13, and U14 (Kennedy Cup) grades. Those provincial tournaments, between Emerging Talent Programme squads from competing counties, produce qualifiers for the semi-finals and finals of the SFAI’s national competitions.

Via improved coaching and more competitive domestic tournaments, the WCSL’s inter-league results have improved over recent seasons. The region’s U13s won an SFAI Munster Plate thanks to victory over Clare and were denied an All-Ireland final spot by Cavan-Monaghan in 2018.

Shane Hurley led a West Cork U13 Inter-League to victory in the 2019 Blackpool Cup, in England, before going on to claim a second trophy, the SFAI Munster U13 Plate, with victory over Kerry, in Killarney.

Question marks surround when, or if, the 2021 Subway Inter-League Championships will go ahead. DJ Curtin recognises the uncertainty, but hopes an updated fixtures calendar incorporates enough preparation time whenever inter-league football resumes later this year.

“All schoolboys’ leagues would have been busy preparing their squads for the 2021 championships since before Christmas,” DJ Curtin said.

“Those (provincial) Subway SFAI Championships were originally due to start in February. That seems highly unlikely now, even though we haven’t got official word from the SFAI just yet. As it was, we would have little or no time (or ability) to organise friendlies before the championships were due to kick off anyway.

“Our ETP players’ last competitive inter-league match would have been last March, which is closing in on 12 months now. So, your first game back being an important championship game would not be ideal without having played a friendly or two, but that is the way things are, at the minute, because of Covid. 

"Obviously, West Cork is no different to anyone else, in that regard. Every other schoolboy inter-league set-up is facing the same challenges.” 

It is a frustrating time for young footballers all over the country. The same is true of those players’ parents and coaches. SFAI inter-league football will return, possibly in a reduced capacity, later in the year, and face the prospect of an over-crowded sporting calendar.

Absolutely, a crowded sporting calendar is inevitable, once everyone gets back to active training and playing competitive matches.

“You are going to have a lot of different sports looking to get going, whenever we get the all-clear, be that in February or March. That is something we in the West Cork ETP are used to, at this stage. We don’t want to hinder any one of the players’ ability to take part in other sports. At the same time, we don’t want players turning up for ETP training just for the sake of it, either.

The West Cork Schoolboys U14 ETP Inter-League squad that competed in the 2019 SFAI Kennedy Cup tournament campaign at the University of Limerick.
The West Cork Schoolboys U14 ETP Inter-League squad that competed in the 2019 SFAI Kennedy Cup tournament campaign at the University of Limerick.

“If our players have trained or played a match the day before with their school, or whatever other sporting body, we understand that they are going to be tired. So, if players are very tired or experiencing muscle soreness, then we don’t want them ETP training, if that is only going to worsen an existing injury. We must be practical, as another training session is not going to benefit them, their teammates, their coaches, or the group,” Curtin said.

“It will be a case of managing our players and their workloads as best we can, once sport returns in earnest. Our focus is always on trying to minimise the risk of injury, but I accept that we are heading for a congested sporting calendar.

“Some parents are going to be stretched when everything gets going again and pretty much at the same time. It will be tough... Everyone will be trying to finish off their own competitions within a small window.”

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