When Mickey Heeney was manager of the Louth U21s, over 20 years ago, his trial process involved holding seven-a-side blitzes in which the majority of clubs entered a team.
It, according to the Castletown-native, was a raging success and helped him compose a panel that would go on to lose narrowly to a star-studded Meath in the 1996 Leinster final.
Ultimately, Heeney and his selectors were able to see almost every available player in the county in vulnerable situations – man-to-man, limited a-side, fast-paced, up and down the field football. And the ‘trial’ process was fair to everyone.
‘Sevens’ suits ‘heads up’, fit and skilful players. Hence the annual competition run by Kilmacud Crokes every year draws serious teams from all over the country.
The circuit has somewhat dwindled courtesy of Covid, although it already seemed to be losing its prestige beforehand. Louth GAA hasn’t organised a ‘sevens’ event since the second – and last – annual tournament in memory of Stephen Melia in 2017.
I suppose your writer has a particular grá for the limited-a-side game because, well, Roche proved to be quite good at it both years it was run, reaching the final against Dreadnots in 2016 and semi-final 12 months later. In between, we qualified for the semi-final of the Crossmaglen Rangers’ tournament.
Ultimately, it didn’t translate into success in the 15s game, but the days’ worth of craic and bonding was worth the exhaustion entailed in the combat. Festivals of football, the GAA at its purest.
It was interesting to read the comments of Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary, the 2021 Footballer of the Year, in regard to the All-Ireland champions’ development as last season developed. They went from a zonal outfit to ‘every man for themselves’ in terms of going toe-to-toe with the opposition.
Despite the Red Hands being devoured by Kerry in the National League, they stuck by their overhauled approach and it paid off.
"It’s very easy now for everybody to look back and say, ‘Killarney was the kick up the backside they needed,’ McGeary told The Irish News.
“But it’s only a kick up the backside if you make it a kick up the backside,” says the 27-year-old.
“After that, it would have been very easy to revert to a defensive style of play, dropping behind the ball. But after that, the exposure we had to one-vs-ones in training, was incredible.
“At the start, it was scary. You could have had Conor McKenna, an Aussie Rules professional, coming like a gazelle at you. Sidestep, your feet are in a twist and he’s gone past you.
“But if you do that time and time and time again, you start to learn where you need to get your feet placed or what you need for your body position.
“It goes right back to the two men who took us this year. What way was Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher football’s played back then? You’re a wing-forward, you’re a wing-back, that’s who you’re marking – go out and do your job.”
‘Sevens’ is a way to make players vulnerable in a real-life scenario, especially if played on the full-size pitch. Kick, pass and move forward; offer support; team work and positional play; comfort defending difficult situations; all the while mounting fitness and workrate levels, and learning the value of possession. The core principles of Gaelic football.
The teachings may be all the more valuable to underage players and we may find it as a viable alternative to the ever-growing quantity of combinations, allowing clubs and players to retain their primary identity.
It would be a spectacle for supporters as well – fluid play, plenty of scores and no lack of energy. The good players will stand out as well, the skilful ones who development squads, both adult and juvenile, would be advised to hoover and develop.
As effective as Dublin’s Niall Scully is when playing wing-forward or -back, he’s the prototype sevens player, and yet there is nobody in this county who could hold a candle to him.
Louth needs to begin producing skilful, athletic players as opposed to one or the other. Conditioning and coaching are key elements, but sevens may be the way forward, particularly during the height of the inter-county season.
Stephen Melia did an incredible amount for Louth GAA before his untimely passing. Bringing back the competition in his honour – and more besides – is both fitting and necessary.