Underage ladies football success key for Cork to hold off Dublin's blue wave

Rebel county desperate for U14, U16 and minor All-Irelands to go ahead after gap of two years
Underage ladies football success key for Cork to hold off Dublin's blue wave

Cork players celebrate after defeating Dublin in the 2007 All-Ireland Ladies Football Minor final at Templemore. Picture: Denis Minihane.

IN the middle of the last decade, when Dublin were desperately trying to crack Cork’s grip on the All-Ireland ladies senior football championship, it still looked only a matter of time before Dublin would hit back with a vengeance and establish their own level of dominance in ladies football.

In those years when Cork lost three successive senior finals to Cork between 2014-’16, Dublin won three All-Ireland U21 titles in those same seasons.

Eight of the Dublin starting team in the 2016 All-Ireland senior final had won All-Ireland U21 medals, with Carla Rowe, Molly Lamb and Olwyn Carey having played on all of those three All-Ireland U21 winning teams, two of which were secured against Cork.

It was no surprise that Cork and Dublin were dominating at senior level. Cork’s senior crusade was largely a continuation of their dominance at minor level in the 2000s, but Dublin were gradually catching up.

In the first 10 years of the All-Ireland U21 championship between 2007-‘16, the competition was owned by Cork and Dublin, with both counties sharing five titles each. They’d also met in six of those 10 finals.

With numbers on the rise in ladies Gaelic football in Dublin, their potential to expand the game’s growth and match it with success was clearly limitless.

“There is a vision within Dublin,” said Gregory McGonigle, then Dublin senior manager, before the 2016 All-Ireland senior final. “If Dublin can put that huge emphasis on underage structures I think the ladies could do possibly what Dublin men could do. There could be a blue wave.”

The blue wave is now threatening to engulf the ladies game. And Cork – Dublin’s biggest rivals in ladies football - know that the one way of halting that charge is to keep the underage conveyor belt oiled.

When Cork won the All-Ireland minor title in 2019 against Monaghan, it was their ninth U18 title in 17 years, and their fourth over the previous five seasons. 

Cork though, haven’t played a game at U18 since.

Tara Maguire, Cork, in action against Aoife Caffrey, Dublin, in the 2011 Ladies Football All-Ireland Minor final. Picture: Sportsfile/Paul Mohan
Tara Maguire, Cork, in action against Aoife Caffrey, Dublin, in the 2011 Ladies Football All-Ireland Minor final. Picture: Sportsfile/Paul Mohan

After the LGFA cancelled national underage inter-county competitions for 2021 for the second year in a row, Cork minor ladies football manager Joe Carroll was all the more exasperated again when the U17 boys competition from last year is set to be completed, along with the 2021 season’s competition.

“There seems to be one rule for the boys’ competitions and another rule for the girls’ competitions, that they’re not even being considered,” said Carroll. “I think these decisions put us back years.”

Considering how important the underage grades have been for the modern development of Cork ladies football, Cork were never going to take the decision lying down. The Cork LGFA Executive subsequently launched a stinging attack on the national body, claiming their reasoning for not running the competitions as having “absolutely no credibility.”

Cork LGFA claimed that 75 girls in Cork had already pulled out of trials at U16 and U18 since the announcement. Their statement asked: “What message are we sending to these girls? You are too weak to handle the multiple facets of life, but a boy can. Your drive to succeed and achieve is admirable but not equal to that of a boy.”

A couple of days later, the LGFA released a lengthy statement defending their decision. LGFA CEO Helen O’Rourke said scheduling All-Ireland U14, U16, and minor championships would see too much overlapping between club and county and would not be conducive to player welfare, especially when ladies football clubs “depend” on U16 and U18 players to field adult club teams.

Both sides made legitimate arguments, but it was another example of women’s sports – especially in the GAA – becoming immersed in controversies. 

A few weeks earlier, the Camogie Association rowed back on their plan – which 82% of players were not happy with – of a scheduled sequence of intercounty league, club season, and intercounty championship. The decision was reversed after a club poll saw the majority vote for the split season.

The latest incident again underlined the broader issue of integration. In 2017, the ‘One Club’ model guidelines designed to improve the working relationship between ladies football, camogie and GAA clubs were unveiled but the recent controversies have again shown the ladies organisations not to be at one with their own memberships, never mind the GAA.

Successive GAA presidents and, by extension management committees, have wanted not just closer relations but full integration where the responsibility for the running of all games comes under one umbrella. In that scenario, it’s unlikely that the Galway ladies footballers would have been rushed into a 1.10pm start for their All-Ireland semi-final in December against Cork, because the Mayo-Tipperary senior football semi-final could also have been pushed back at the same venue.

Integration would have guarded against such a situation even getting that far because the Cork-Galway semi-final was shifted to Parnell Park in the first place after The Gaelic Grounds was unavailable due to the Limerick hurlers preparing for an All-Ireland final a week later.

Having all three bodies under the one umbrella makes perfect sense but there are clearly wider issues at play here. There are obvious benefits to remaining separate organisations, especially in terms of autonomy and central decision making, but recent events have shown that remaining apart is causing more division than harmony.

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