Grade needs to be fostered properly

Jason O’Connor argues that more counties – and indeed the GAA in general – need to take the junior grade as seriously as Kerry do

The Kerry team celebrate following their victory over Meath in the All-Ireland Junior Championship Final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
The Kerry team celebrate following their victory over Meath in the All-Ireland Junior Championship Final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

While it can be easy to take such success for granted with the amount of talent on show, Kerry Junior All-Ireland wins really are different from the rest in that bar a one week period before an All-Ireland decider, there is no protection from the players from other commitments that arise at club and district level.

In a lot of ways it's down to the players to give the team the necessary drive to succeed and without doubt playing with the Kerry Juniors has become a more attractive prospect in recent years with the emphasis more on developing future prospects.

This year's campaign started in convincing fashion in Ennis, eleven different scorers contributing to a twenty point success over Limerick, but the real test would come in Pairc Uí Rinn with the Munster Final with Cork.

The Rebels were a driven outfit that night and looked to be well on their way to victory as they led by nine points early in the second period.

Kerry didn't falter, however, as Tomas Ó Sé and Phillip O'Connor found the back of the net twice in reversing the tide and a 16 point turnaround saw Kerry win in the end by 4-24 to 3-20 after 80 gripping minutes.

The character and spirit that can be gained from such a success can be worth all the training sessions in the world and, while Leitrim didn't leave the Juniors brush them aside that easily, you felt the benefit of the Cork performance would really come in the All-Ireland final.

Ó Sé's time at home has served as a big boost to the juniors this year giving them an option for a lively forward well-honed in speed and movement from his other significant past time!

Brendan O'Sullivan's performances have been eye-catching as well.

Even though officially the penalty for his anti-doping violation had ended before it became public knowledge, the Valentia player had to go through the rigger again as the rights and wrongs of the whole affair were debated in public.

To see such a public show of support in Ennis the first day when he was substituted could only have been a big source of comfort to him in knowing that he wasn't by himself in having to deal with the fallout.

In Roibeard Ó Sé he had a good midfielder partner. Injuries have set the An Gaeltacht player back in his time since coming out of the minor ranks, but he is a great asset to whatever team he is playing with in full flow.

Defensively Eamon Kiely and Jack Maguire had good campaigns in general, while Pa Kilkenny served as a good link-up with the forwards as Dan O'Brien showed some promise throughout his own campaign.

It's a sign of how good a set-up Kerry had when a player like Liam Carey can't make the starting 15. The Beaufort player was the subject of a lot of discussion after not featuring with Jack O'Connor's Kerry Under 21s, but his influence off the bench in the Cork game was arguably one of the main reasons Kerry pulled through that night in Pairc Ui Rinn.

Jeff O'Donoghue and Phillip O'Connor had their moments in the campaign, but Conor Cox provided the cutting edge sides with aspirations of All-Ireland success need to come out on top when it's all said and done.

After not featuring at inter-county level since 2011 when he departed the senior set-up, Tomás Mac an tSaoir showed he is still a quality goalkeeper as he started attacks as well as prevented danger at both ends of the pitch. Age-wise he is still the right side of 30 but whether he has aspirations to try again for the senior squad is hard to say.

Ultimately with all the success the juniors have had it is still missing another consistent breakthrough player at senior level besides Tadhg Morley to give the work being done greater credence. Phillip O'Connor and Brendan O'Sullivan have threatened to do so, but the competition's eligibility rules mean it can't be a proper second string squad particularly when the winners have to field a new line-up the following year.

The value and relevance is a constant debate about the competition independent of the respect Kerry are showing for it but it's interesting to note that since 2005 only three other counties bar Kerry or Cork have won it namely Dublin (2008), Sligo (2010) and Cavan (2014).

The thrilling nature of the game with the Rebels would suggest that maybe the best two teams (they share 35 titles between them at Junior after all) are not meeting at the pinnacle with the general level of interest elsewhere.

An open draw would arguably serve this competition better and if it could be integrated into a meaningful B championship believed to be best for weaker counties then you would have to think that standards, interest and competitiveness should increase all round.

When half of the Leitrim team that won the Connacht Championship for them at this level were pulled after for the senior ranks then you know some is wrong with the structure.

Returning to Kerry, however, credit has to go to Jimmy Keane and his management for being understanding of all the other demands placed on the players with other fixtures.

Recovery was the mantra throughout and the case of Killian Spillane playing an All-Ireland Semi-Final in this competition, an Under 21 Final and two County League games in the space of six days shows you what has to be juggled by those involved!

Maybe the attraction is the fact it doesn't require the same all-consuming commitment of senior inter-county level and a more show up and play feel, but where the competition comes in the future is hard to say.

Kerry's idea is right in terms of what this grade should be used for, it's really up to the 'powers-that-be' to come up with a format that matches it and prevent this competition from becoming a farce like the Intermediate Hurling equivalent this year where only three teams participated.


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