IT is a well-worn adage that success at underage inter-county level in both hurling and football is a key ingredient to future success at senior level, but when it comes down to it, do the facts actually back up this perceived wisdom?
In the big ball game Cork have been the dominant force in this grade since its inception back in 1964 with them leading the roll of honour with 12 titles, notwithstanding that it is now the U20 grade rather than the U21 one it was for decades.
Cork have only translated those dozen wins into four senior All-Ireland triumphs, which does not represent a massive return, but on closer inspection it becomes evident as to just how instrumental those U21 triumphs were to their eventual Sam Maguire victories.
The U21 wins of 1970 and 1971 were key stepping stones that led to Cork beating Galway in the senior final of 1973. It is no surprise that the two in a row wins in 1989 and 1990 were preceded by underage Rebel dominance, as Cork won six All-Irelands earlier in the decade in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1989.
Almost every member of those ’89 and ’90 senior teams, bar the Kildare contingent and Dinny Allen, who had already won at U21 level in ’71, collected Celtic Crosses at the age grade in this era before graduating to senior.
Similarly, Cork’s U21 wins in 2007 and 2009 helped provide Conor Counihan with those final ingredients to win that long-awaited senior All-Ireland in 2010, with Aidan Walsh, Ciaran Sheehan and Colm O’Neill being part of the ’09 triumph, while Ray Carey, Eoin Cadogan, Michael Shields, Fintan Gould, Paul Kerrigan, Danial Goulding and O’Neill, again, being part of the ’07 victory.
So, there is definitely a link between underage and senior success in football. Probably the only frustration for Cork is that they did not turn more of these wins into September senior success.
Other counties have been more successful in this regard, with Dublin being the most prolific in this sense.
The Dubs have only five national titles at U20/U21 level, and interestingly four of these are actually relatively recent. These wins came in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2017. Four titles in this time span is impressive, but the fact that they have turned these into eight senior titles from 2011 is truly remarkable.
The likes of Rory O’Carroll, Johnny Cooper, Dean Rock, James McCaffrey, Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, James Small, Brian Fenton, Niall Scully, Cormac Costello, Eoin Murchan, Brian Howard and Con O’Callaghan all graduated from those underage triumphs.
Kerry are probably annoyed to be behind Cork in the U20/U21 roll of honour, with 10 titles garnered, but the four titles they won in five years from 1973 to 1977 led to the eight Sam Maguires that Mick O’Dwyer’s great side won from 1975 to 1986.
Likewise, the last great Kerry team of the noughties, which won five All-Irelands in that decade, emerged from the three U21 All-Ireland’s won in 1995, 1997 and 1998, while their great rivals from that era Tyrone won three All-Irelands which sprang up from the 2000 and 2001 All-Ireland victories.
Winning in spurts, like in the examples above, is clearly the best way of giving yourself a chance of gaining success at senior level. Further proof of this is Mayo’s record at the grade. They have the same number of titles as Dublin, with five wins, but all five were well spread out so one team was never able to build on the success of another. I don’t think anyone needs a refresher course on Mayo’s record at senior level since 1951.
Yet the evidence would suggest that for this to happen Cork realistically need, at least, another title in the next few years.
It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved.
Hurling at U20/U21 level shows similar patterns.
Cork are top of the tree, alongside Tipperary and Kilkenny, with eleven titles each, with Galway one back on 10. No one on Leeside needs reminding that the last victory at U21 level for Cork was way back in 1998, with there being no surprise that the wins at senior level also dried up soon afterwards, with the last All-Ireland coming in 2005.
Cork were, in fact, well ahead when they secured that 11th title in 1998. Since that victory Kilkenny have won five titles, while Tipperary and Galway have added three each.
Similarly, since Cork’s win over Galway in the 2005 senior final Kilkenny have collected eight Liam MacCarthys to Tipp’s three, Clare's 2013 victory and Galway’s sole win in 2017. The linkage between underage and senior success is clear for all to see on that score, and in case any more evidence is required, just look at Limerick’s U21 victories in 2015 and 2017 which teed up the senior wins of 2018 and 2020 nicely.
Obviously, Cork are sitting pretty in the All-Ireland U20 hurling final, awaiting the Leinster Championship winners. It is Cork’s third final in a row at that grade.
It goes without saying that the desire to get that 1998 monkey off the back is a huge one, as the stats would suggest that until the 1998 monkey goes at U20 level we can forget about the gorilla that is the wait at senior level since 2005.