U-21 championship central to game's vibrant future
Any time sporting history is being made is worth savouring, which is why I intend to get to Portlaoise early this evening to settle in for the clash of Longford and Wexford in the Cadbury Leinster U-21 football final.
Neither county has ever won the title before so by 9.05 tonight one of them will have scripted a new line on the championship roll of honour. And, since both have won provincial senior, junior and minor football titles, this is about trying to complete the set.
They have been here before (Wexford seven times, including replays, Longford five times) but failed to close out the deal.
Wexford will be attempting to join Dublin, Offaly and Laois as the Leinster counties who have won U-21 titles in both codes. And if Longford triumph, it will complete a quite remarkable double in the space of nine months as they won the Leinster minor title last July. Not bad for a county with a population of only 35,000 people.
Longford's graph is on the up at senior level too as they will clinch promotion to Division 3 if they beat Carlow next Sunday. Wexford will be promoted to Division 2 if they beat Limerick so there's certainly a warm glow across the broad hinterland for both of tonight's finalists.
There's more U-21 action tonight when Cork play Kerry in the Munster final and Monaghan take on Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.
Connacht completed its championship last Saturday, with Galway winning the title for the first time in six years to provide the county with a much-needed boost.
It might even have been the catalyst for the power surge from the seniors in Armagh 24 hours later. Then again, that was probably down to the return of Padraic Joyce, possibly the greatest footballer Galway has ever produced, which is saying something given that it's also the land of the late Sean Purcell.
Joyce and Galway need a quick maturity option on the U-21 bond but, whether or not they develop into solid seniors, their success raises hope.
Isn't that what it's all about for every county? And isn't that why it would have been pure madness to abandon the U-21 championships?
That proposal, backed up, it must be said, by some senior GAA figures, did the rounds for a while and continues to pop up whenever the difficult issue of fixture-planning generates a fresh controversy.
It seems there's still some support for scrapping the minor and U-21 grades and creating an U-19 competition. Despite the popularity of the U-21 grade among players and public, it's an easy target for those who believe that the solution to player burnout is to cut back on competitions, even if the competition in question isn't remotely responsible for the problem.
Indeed, I hope to see a few of the anti-U-21 brigade in Portlaoise tonight and will take considerable delight in pointing out that if they had their way, Longford and Wexford would be denied a historic opportunity.
I recall the sheer emotion at Walsh Park on a September evening in 2003 when Shane Walsh punched a late goal which clinched Waterford's first U-21 Munster football title with a win over Kerry (Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy etc). It was the same last year when Tipperary won their first Munster U-21 football title.
Tonight, it will be the turn of the Longford or Wexford players to experience that special feeling and to make people in the winning county feel that bit better about themselves. In the current climate, that's quite a contribution.
In Ulster, Cavan are chasing their first U-21 title since 1996, while Monaghan last won in 1999. Tyrone have been regular winners -- indeed it was the U-21 All-Ireland successes early in the last decade that laid the platform for the senior breakthrough -- and would dearly love to showcase a new crop of young achievers.
And to think that there are still people who see the U-21 championship as a problem rather than a solution.
Tonight, they should be at O'Moore Park, watch the joy on the faces of the history-making winners and then consider whether this grade represents a plus or a minus.
Unless they are totally detached from the reality of sport, they can only come to one conclusion.
Gardai get ready for pitch battle
When the Gardai call, they're best heeded. So I'm happy to accede to an instruction (although he insisted it was a request) from Limerick minor football manager Tom McGlinchey to mention that the ninth annual Seamus McIntyre Garda hurling tournament will be staged in Killarney tomorrow.
Held in honour of Garda Seamus McIntyre, a Kerryman who died on duty in Cork 10 years ago, it will feature a championship between the various Garda districts.
Among the big names in action will be Eddie Brennan (Kilkenny), Jerry O'Connor and Michael Cussen (Cork), Ken Hogan (Tipperary) and Peter Queally (Waterford).
The group games will be played at the Dr Crokes club (starting at noon) with the final at Fitzgerald Stadium at 5.30.
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