Juniors a modern gateway to senior glory
IT WAS a striking feature of last August's All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Dublin: a host of players on both sides that day hadn't risen to county level via the traditional route of minor and U-21 sides, instead forcing their way up via junior teams.
And with junior football deciders tonight in Leinster (Cavan v Kildare) and Munster (Cork v Kerry), inter-county managers are increasingly recognising the significance of the grade.
In all, 11 of last year's Cork squad won junior All-Ireland medals in the past decade, while Dublin pulled four from their victorious 2008 team.
Going back as far as the start of the last decade, a Roscommon team that included Shane Curran and Karol Mannion beat Kerry in the final. In 2003 a Meath team featuring future All Star Stephen Bray and Brian Farrell, won the All-Ireland.
But the Rebels are the best example of what can be achieved. In such a vast county, players can fall through the net but with the help of four junior titles in the last decade they now boast one of the strongest squads in the country.
"That grade has been very beneficial to Cork," explained senior selector Ger O'Sullivan, "particularly since the senior panels have been cut back to 26 from 30 this year. In Cork we like to have in-house 15-on-15 games and we'd look to the junior panel to make up the shortfall.
"Senior management will be at the Munster final (tonight) while the junior management will look at the lads on the fringe of our panel. We use it to blood players who are obviously talented but aren't quite ready for senior football. Sometimes players need a different level of exposure than minor or U-21 can give them."
The competition is only loosely regulated. Eligibility can vary from county to county while it is almost totally ignored by Ulster, with the exception of Cavan, who have recently opted to play in Leinster and contest their second consecutive final.
Indeed, a number of the players who formed part of the Cavan squad for last year's provincial final defeat to Louth would go on contest the recent All-Ireland U-21 final. That Louth side was also controlled by Peter Fitzpatrick's senior management team as the Wee men took their second straight crown.
This year, Kieran McGeeney has been keeping a close eye on the Kildare juniors, where Mikey Conway has been easing himself back into action after a nightmare couple of years with injury. Last year, first-team players such as Tomas O'Connor and Peter Kelly lined out for the Kildare juniors.
Reigning All-Ireland junior champions Sligo pursued the title vigorously last year and are through to the semi-final once more, despite being forced to field an entirely new team due to competition rules.
Senior manager Kevin Walsh is in charge of the juniors again this term, with last year's crown only the second All-Ireland to be won by the county.
And by the end of that campaign, players like Keelan Cawley, Stephen Gilmartin and Noel McGee forced their way into the senior side.
It appears the significance of the junior grade is only set to rise.