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Dessie cools U-21 hopes

ON the face of things, it's a swell time to be at the Dublin managerial coalface. Jim Gavin takes over the main gig, seemingly spoiled for selection choice between existing All-Ireland medallists and decorated -U21 graduates. And as Gavin takes the leap from U-21 to senior level, Dessie Farrell makes a similar ascent from minor to -U21.

Last September, Farrell led Dublin to their first All-Ireland minor football title in 28 years. Come the new year, he'll be working with several of those minor champions coupled with gilt-edged talents (such as Jack McCaffrey and Emmet O Conghaile) who suffered surprise All-Ireland minor defeat in 2010 only to bounce immediately by inspiring Gavin's Sky Blue colts to U-21 glory last May.


Dublin have won two of the last three U-21 All-Irelands ... who would bet against Dessie making it three from four?

The man himself, though, has never been one for shouting from the rooftops. Contrary to whatever outside perceptions linger from his pivotal role at the vanguard of those erstwhile 'renegades' in the GPA, Farrell tends to be very measured - bordering on cautious - in his public pronouncements.

Thus, during a wide-ranging interview with the Evening Herald, Farrell was quick to point out that in the absence of Aussie Rules recruit Ciarán Kilkenny, only a handful of All-Ireland U21 winners from 2012 are still eligible for U-21. Some of this year's minor crew will surely graduate too, but not every 19-year-old automatically makes the step up.

"If you consider the talent that made it through for this year's under-21 victory, Ciarán and Emmet and Jack were special individual talents," he says.

"At the same time, you'd be hoping that one or two of those (2012 minors) will come through. It will be interesting to see how it goes for us. People will have this perception that it should be a very strong team, but when you actually get under the bonnet a little bit, the age group that is properly 21 next year didn't do so well in their own championship campaign at minor level."

For the record, the Dublin minors of 2010 eventually fell at the Leinster quarter-final stage to Kildare after a marathon battle extending to two replays.

Still, given Farrell's relentless commitment to his Dub 'cubs' over the past few years -- through the development squad system and culminating in his two years as minor boss - it's safe to assume that no stone will be left unturned for the forthcoming Leinster U-21 championship. His hotly fancied Blues will open their campaign at home to Carlow on February 19.

Beyond his own U-21 ambitions, what of the bigger Sky Blue picture? Since 2010, while the flagship senior team has broken a 16-year All-Ireland duck as well as reaching three consecutive semi-finals, the conveyor belt has churned out a brace of U21 All-Irelands and that long-overdue minor success.

"Sometimes you sit back and you think 'Jesus, you might be in a position to dominate in the way Kilkenny have done so in the hurling.' But then, when you analyse it more closely again, obviously football is different to hurling - there is much more competition," Farrell cautions.

"And when you actually strip it back to see what Dublin have done, they've had two U-21 titles in the last couple of years, which is great and definitely is a platform.

"There has been no real success at minor level until the last two years, where you made it to a final and then eventually won it. So, is that a blip in the system?

"You may have to wait (another year or two) to measure it more closely. There's definitely an awful lot of good work being done. But, at the same time, we should always be critical and critique the thing properly."

He goes on: "It's a personal opinion, but one of the reasons I believe Dublin hasn't been successful at minor level emanated from the fact that at U-13, 14, 15, 16, Dublin were winning all these blitz competitions, for the most part. Then something was happening at U-17 level and minor level - you could see the change starting to happen.

"The theory I'd put forward is that players of that age from the country are playing senior football with their clubs, and it's not happening in Dublin. So, the advantage Dublin may have had up to U-16, it starts to erode at 17 and by the time they reach minor it's completely eroded."

The difference wasn't simply a case of rural rivals becoming more physically hardened by adult club combat. "The games are quicker, you've to react and think more quickly," Farrell explains. "You're playing with older players, cuter and more experienced."

His solution, as minor manager, was to facilitate clubs who wanted to blood their teenage stars: "If the policy within the club is not to play minors at adult level, that's fair enough. For clubs that were interested in doing that, we'd co-operate in terms of making players available to them. The other thing we did was ensure that most of our challenge games were against senior division one or two sides in Dublin."


Farrell's formula delivered one All-Ireland; it could so easily have been two. Dublin carried the aura of champions-elect as they blazed a trail through 2011 only to be overhauled in the home straight by Tipperary. Looking back, he reckons part of the problem for underage players is that they don't have a "huge bank of experience" to fall back on, and hence can go "off-script" when the pressure comes on.

"Maybe in that last 15 minutes (against Tipperary) there were about 10 different incidents that if players had taken different decisions, it could have changed the course of the game," he speculates.

"That was something we learned and had spoken about ourselves afterwards, for the following year. It was something we'd worked on during the year, not to allow a sense of panic creep in."

Thus, after blitzing most opponents en route to last September's final, a pressurised Dublin conceivably could have imploded after Meath converted a second-half penalty to edge within a point.

Instead, Farrell's hot favourites pressed onward and upward ... something his U-21s will hope to replicate once February comes around.