Is U-21 success essential for senior glory?

Seamus Moynihan, Kerry, in 2006.Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Seamus Moynihan, Kerry, in 2006.Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Paul Brennan

With a perceptible slip in the fortunes of the Kerry senior team over the last couple of seasons, much has been made of the fact that Kerry have won only one All-Ireland U-21 title since 1998 (along with no minor title since 1994).

There is a school of thought, which is gaining traction, that a lack of success at the underage grades is now adversely affecting Kerry's chances of continued success at senior level.

In other words, Kerry's failure to be consistently successful in winning minor and U-21 All-Ireland titles is going to catch up with them sooner rather than later.

However, the statistics would seem to tell a differect story, and at the very least show that while some counties have followed up U-21 success with senior success, there isn't always a direct correlation between the two.

There's little doubt that Kerry's All-Ireland U-21 winning teams in 1995 and 1996 sowed a seed for the county to win the Sam Maguire in 1997, while the 1998 winning U-21 team produced players that would win a senior title two years later.

Tyrone are the other example in recent times where successful U-21s teams has transferred directly into senior success. All-Ireland U-21s titles in 2000 and 2001 formed the bedrock on which Mickey Harte built three winning All-Ireland senior teams over the next seven years.

Cork, too, are another county that got the best from recent U-21s successes to capture the Sam Maguire. Their 2007 U-21 team provided Ray Carey, Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O'Neill and Daniel Goulding to the senior team that won the 2010 senior All-Ireland, while Aidan Walsh and Ciaran Sheehan came from the 2009 All-Ireland winning U-21 side.

However, it's not always the case that U-21 success means senior success. Take Galway. Since 2000 the county has won three All-Ireland U-21 titles - 2002, 2005 and 2011, yet at senior level Galway hasn't reached a semi-final since they won the All-Ireland in 2001. Indeed, right now Galway football is arguably at its lowest ebb since that 2001 All-Ireland senior win.

Armagh lifted the U-21 title in 2004 – two years after the county's only All-Ireland senior title win – and while they have promoted several of that U-21 team to the senior ranks the Orchard county hasn't really threatened to win a second senior title.

Elsewhere, Mayo were U-21 champions in 2006 - the year they lost the senior final to Kerry - but last year's All-Ireland final defeat to Donegal is as close as they have come to winning the Sam Maguire.

Dublin have won the last two All-Ireland U-21 titles, with their 2011 win preceeding by a few months their All-Ireland senior title that year.

With the Dubs going for a third consecutive U-21 title this year there is a feeling that they will be a major force to be reckoned with at senior level for a few years, with their success at U-21 (and minor) level being a significant factor is their expected breakthrough as a major power at senior level.

Beaten U-21 finalists haven't exactly reinforced the argument that success (or near success) at this grade transfers to the senior grade. Limerick (2000), Down (2005 and 2009), Laois (2007) and (Kildare 2008) have lost U-21 finals, and although Down contested the 2010 All-Ireland senior final and Kildare have threatened to make a significant breakthrough, none of the above have emerged as genuine contenders to claim the Sam Maguire.

There are exceptions, of course, as Donegal lost the 2010 final to Dublin with a small core of players including Paddy McGrath, Declan Walsh, Michael Murphy, Mark McHugh and Leo McLoone graduating to the senior team to win the senior title last September.

It remains to be seen if the 2011 beaten finalists, Cavan, and last year's losing finalists, Roscommon, can improve the fortunes of their senior teams on the back of those near misses at U-21.

All told there isn't any solid basis to the argument that success at U-21 level is needed for success at senior level - or that a lack of success at U-21 will inevitably mean that success at senior level will dry up.

Certainly, on an individual basis an U-21 medal isn't a prerequisite to do great things at senior level when one considers that Seamus Moynihan, Marc O Se, Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan - to name just four Kerry greats - don't have a single U-21 medal between them but do have 16 senior medals between them.

In Kerry's case their greatest difficulty at U-21 has been coming up against very strong Cork teams in a championship that offers no back door.

It's knockout football at its best and most cruel, and Kerry have been caught out more than they would have liked. Still, there is no argument with a return of five senior All-Irelands since 2000, two more than their closeest rival, Tyrone, who have won only one more U-21 title in that time.

Kerry, and Darragh O Se, will desperately want to win an All-Ireland U-21 title this year - as will Mickey Ned O'Sullivan with the minors - but so far there is no need to think that a lack of either title this year or next will adversely affect how the senior team performs over the next couple of seasons.

The senior team might be suffering its own difficulties right now but there doesn't seem to be a direct link between a lack of underage titles and a decline in the fortunes of the senior team.

Of course, winning becomes a habit and the next generation of senior Kerry footballers could probably do with a few underage All-Ireland winners among irs number. It certainly wouldn't do any harm!