Ger Fitzgerald says full decoupling for U18 minors hinders development

GAA Congress next month will determine the future of the grade

Former Cork star Ger Fitzgerald remains hopeful that a compromise will be found whereby minor grade returns to U18, with a modified decoupling model to allow final-year minors play at adult level.

At last month’s annual county convention, Cork delegates voted in favour of a motion from the executive to return minor from U17 to U18. With a 60 percent majority required, 64 percent supported the call to reverse the move made in 2018 – however, if such a motion were to pass at the GAA Congress, players at minor level would still be prevented from playing for adult teams even after legally becoming adults when they turn 18.

West Cork club Clann na nGael had brought a motion, based on a proposal from Tyrone’s Errigal Ciarán, whereby the decoupling would only apply to players aged 17 and under, but this was withdrawn after the executive motion had passed.

There remains a possibility that something like this may still be proposed by a GAA task force set up to look at the issue. Fitzgerald, who led Midleton to the 2021 Cork Premier SHC title with three teenagers – Brion Saunderson, Ciarmhac Symth and Sam Quirke – on the team, feels it would be the best scenario.

“I’m not in favour of decoupling, but I think that the solution that they’ve proposed in relation to decoupling is workable,” he says.

“It’s not ideal, but it provides the clubs with an option. I was of the opinion that the decoupling was being used as a divide-and-conquer mechanism by Central Council – it was like a belt-and-braces thing tied on to U17, to ensure that U18s were decoupled and that was it.”

A big complaint regarding having minor at U17 was the fact that the leap from there to adult grades was too big.

“In their first year out of minor, unless they’re exceptional, you’re looking really just to integrate them into the adult group,” Fitzgerald says.

“You’d be very lucky if 17-year-olds coming on 18 would be up to playing senior hurling, really.

“We were blessed in 2021 when we won the county that three of the lads that we brought through were up to starting, but they would be the exception to the rule.

“Otherwise, you’d be looking to integrate them through the campaign as they get used to playing adult hurling.

“Before this, we would have always wanted that minors on their last year came to the adult training, just to get familiar with it. Not all of them will ever aspire to be senior players – that’s not the objective, it’s to get them into the adult club and used to the training and they’ll find a level then as they go on.

“In my opinion, when you’ve a good underage structure, the big success for that is bringing as many of those players through to contribute in the adult club for whatever team they find themselves in.

“None of them are ever all going to be senior players, in any club, but the big thing is that they keep playing.

“Where the fall-off comes is at 17 or 18, if they’re not properly crossed over, then they drift a little bit.”

For 2022, Cork County Board did look to bridge the gap from minor to adult level by holding U19 competitions while divisions were allowed to run U21 championships if they wished.

Midleton won the top-tier U19 hurling, beating Valley Rovers on penalties, though Fitzgerald – who feels that U20 or U21 is the optimum – feels that these competitions were not given the respect they deserve.

“Some clubs pulled out, for genuine reasons,” he says, “but overall, it was shabbily run.

“The final was superb, I have to say – the Valley Rovers lads were very good and it ended in a blaze of excitement, like the World Cup, with the penalties, even though I felt they’d both have deserved another day at it.

“Both teams got a lot out of that game but the competition itself needed to be run better. There was an U21 trophy lying idle this year and that should have been presented for the U19, I think.

“I think that the inclination might be to park it but I think having an extra grade after minor is critical in terms of the development of players.

“The U21 was a great competition later on in the year, even back to my own days playing in it and later on managing teams in it. It gave us in Midleton an enormous boost kicking on to senior level.”

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