Making the grade
Things looking up for Mayo as U-21 breeding ground provides platform for senior glory
MAYO fans have more reasons than most to be glad that the move to get rid of the U-21 grade a few years ago quickly fizzled out.
Had it succeeded, James Horan's new-look team might not be facing Kerry in the first of this year's All-Ireland senior football championship semi-finals at Croke Park on Sunday.
The U-21 grade not only brought Mayo a succession of Connacht titles in the past six years, it also secured for them their first All-Ireland title in 2006 after a nightmare run of 12 final defeats across all football grades since 1985.
And it has been new manager Horan's ability to harness and marry their recent conveyor belt of U-21 talent with established stars that has been the bedrock of this season's success.
The Connacht champions may have shocked everyone by ousting champions Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, but that victory was deja vu for anyone who attended the 2006 All-Ireland U-21 final in Ennis and saw Keith Higgins lift the trophy after a thrilling two-point defeat of the Rebels.
Cork's U-21s that night included Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Fintan Goold, Paddy Kelly, Daniel Goulding and Paul Kerrigan. As well as Higgins, Mayo's featured Kenneth O'Malley, Trevor Howley, Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe, Aidan Kilcoyne, Mark Ronaldson and Enda Varley.
And 2006 was just the start of an extremely valuable U-21 production line that is now bearing fruit at senior level.
Under the joint management of former county stars Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes, Mayo won the Connacht U-21 titles four times in a row from '06 as well as that All-Ireland in '06.
That was Mayo's first U-21 All-Ireland crown in 23 years, and while it is argued that one All-Ireland final appearance from those four U-21 provincial successes was not a big enough return, the grade has still proven to be an important breeding ground for this year's seniors.
It seems no coincidence that Cork, Down, Dublin, Kildare and Donegal were also prominent at U-21 level recently and Mayo, inevitably, crossed swords with Kerry at that grade also. Sean Geaney managed Kerry to the '08 All-Ireland U-21 title and when they met Mayo in the semi-final they found them quite a handful.
"We were very, very lucky to get out of it with a narrow win," Geaney says of their 1-9 to 1-7 victory in 2008.
"It was very tight the whole way, there was never more than a few points between us and late in the game David Moran got a vital free for us and then we got two late points to win it."
Mayo were trailing and played into the teeth of a gale in the second half but a Mikey Sweeney goal got them back into it and Sweeney put them ahead for the first time with only six minutes remaining.
But a good save by goalkeeper Tomas Mac an tSaoir and an injury-time insurance point from Tommy Walsh sealed Kerry's victory.
Captained by Killian Young and also featuring Kieran O'Leary, they went on to beat Kildare in the All-Ireland final. However, they are now without Walsh (playing Aussie Rules) and Moran (out with a cruciate injury).
Geaney still recalls some of those young Mayo players who pushed Kerry so hard.
"Tom Cunniffe and Tom Parsons stood out for Mayo and Aidan Campbell was also involved," he recalls. "Donal Vaughan was on that team too and he looks to have come on a lot since."
That '08 Mayo U-21 team also included Cafferkey at full-back, Jason Doherty at wing-forward and Seamus O'Shea partnering Parsons in midfield -- all now playing vital roles for their seniors.
The county also contested the All-Ireland minor final that summer (they lost to Tyrone after a replay) and two of those players, Aidan O'Shea and Robert Hennelly, won Connacht U-21 medals the following year.
"There is a definite connection between U-21 and senior success," Geaney says. "It doesn't necessarily follow through but it certainly helps.
"Darragh O Se and Dara O Cinneide won an U-21 All-Ireland for Kerry in the mid-90s and we got some more key players from the 1998 U-21s, as well as the 2008 team.
"It would have been a terrible mistake to get rid of the U-21 grade -- how else can players make the huge transition to senior level?" he adds. "There is a big gap in standard between minor to U-21, never mind senior.
"I don't like to see minors going straight into U-21, even at club level -- they need two years before they're really ready for it. But when they get into U-21 football, that's when you can see if a fella is really serious or not about his football, by how he plays and commits himself to it."
No coincidence then that 10 of Mayo's starters against Cork and two more of their subs have already won Connacht or All-Ireland U-21 medals.