Friday 9 December 2016

U-21 grade peaks at point of abolition

Published 13/04/2016 | 02:30

Monaghan's Conor Forde celebrates at the final whistle of their Ulster U-21 FC final win over Tyrone Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Monaghan's Conor Forde celebrates at the final whistle of their Ulster U-21 FC final win over Tyrone Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Had Congress not strayed from its traditional mid-April slot back to late February in recent years then it's quite probable that one of the major decisions approved in Carlow would not have been taken.

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The scrapping of the inter-county U-21 Football Championship was a mild surprise, given that some significant voting blocks appeared to have been mandated to preserve the status quo.

No doubt, the idea of cutting a year off the upper age limit and moving it away from that February/March bottleneck that overlaps with so many college fixtures, not to mention an intense period of League activity, was generated for all the right reasons.

At the very least it was a statement by delegates that burnout was, if not an absolute priority, then at least a growing concern.

If Congress had been this weekend, though, as it was for many years, would the same proposal have squared the required two-thirds majority?

After four provincial finals in a five-day period that dripped with quality and divided teams by three points at most, the pulling power of such entertainment would surely have ensured the magic figure two-thirds would not be reached. A touch of revisionism and regret is about the place.

Boom

Just as the Association has decided to draw the curtain on it and locate a different grade elsewhere, the soon to be defunct competition is enjoying boom time.

Significantly, in all four finals, the champions had to come from behind at some stage to win it, Dublin by the biggest margin after they trailed Kildare by seven points in the first half. But Mayo also had a sizeable slope to negotiate, coming from six off Roscommon, while Monaghan and Cork both had to wrestle back supremacy from Tyrone and Kerry.

Incorporate last year's quartet of provincial finals (Tyrone 1-11, Donegal 0-13; Dublin 3-10, Kildare 1-12; Tipperary 1-15, Cork 3-8; Roscommon 3-14, Galway 3-11) and the average winning margin is just two points, with four of the eight finals in 2015 and 2016 won by the minimum, a statistic that points to arguably the most competitive era it has enjoyed and, quite possibly, the most competitive of all competitions.

But will there be "pangs" as Dublin manager Dessie Farrell, who himself as Gaelic Players Association chief executive was supportive of the move, said after his side's recent Leinster win?

While one of Farrell's opposite numbers, Kerry's Jack O'Connor, has given the change his blessing, citing the problems they had finding pitches around their county that weren't weather-beaten, the view from Tyrone is entirely different.

Tyrone's 2015 All-Ireland winning manager Fergal Logan chooses his words carefully, mindful of the good intentions of those seeking to address an ongoing problem.

But no matter how he phrases he can't escape the feeling that it is "mistake." Logan's concerns are based on what fills the gap.

Beyond 2017 the grade takes a different shape with the introduction of a summer-based U-20 competition, and perhaps that will find its own niche and serve as a more than adequate replacement at a more benign time of year.

But the preclusion of any player who has been named on a 26-man panel for a senior Championship squad played beforehand is likely to be problematic, certainly for counties with smaller playing pools.

"I wrote an article for the programme last week but the part of it where I raised the issue of the U-21 abolition was scratched," said Logan.

"I wrote of the challenge to fill the void, about retaining the competitiveness and integrity of the competition. If that doesn't happen from the get-go then it's doomed to failure.

"The competition in its current format is as good as there is. I genuinely believe that. Jim McGuinness spoke in his book about the purity of U-21 football. I was told after last week that the outsiders in all four provinces, according to the bookies, were beaten.

"To me there's enough room in the calendar to stretch out all competitions over 52 weeks. But you play a first round of an Ulster Championship and then can wait four or five weeks for your next game.

"I'd be concerned about an U-20 competition running into trouble at the height of the club season. But we're a great association for being overly critical. My respect for so many of the current GAA administrators is great so we'll have to reserve judgement."

Graduated

Interestingly, if the current All-Ireland U-21 semi-finals had been played as an U-20 competition last August, only three players from the four provincial winners would have been excluded on that condition - Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor, who played a Championship match in 2014 and has bedded firmly down since and Monaghan's Ryan McAnespie and Cork's Stephen Cronin, who both graduated to their senior teams last year.

Dublin don't have any and may not have by the end of the summer unless Con O'Callaghan can weave his way through the queues to find some game-time in the side's attack.

This weekend's semi-finals have the potential to throw up two more games that will further the underline the great sacrifice that abolishing the grade may turn out to be.

Donegal Bonner appeal

Donegal are appealing the proposed 24-week ban for their U-21 football manager Declan Bonner after an alleged incident at the end of their Ulster semi-final against Tyrone.

They are also appealing a €2,000 proposed fine on both counties after an ugly melee at the end of the match.

Referee Barry Cassidy reported Bonner after the Na Rossa clubman man confronted the Derry official at the end of a full-blooded affair.

Meanwhile, Tyrone defender PJ Quinn has been forced to retire from inter-county football due to injury.

The 2008 All-Ireland winner had surgery on a hip problem last year, but has been unable to regain full fitness.

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