Blitz plan dilutes benefits of teens' tournaments
GAA needs to look again at decision to water down popular competitions, writes John Greene
The names Leo Halpin or Eddie Reilly will not mean anything to most people, nor should they really because they are like a lot of men and women up and down the country who go quietly about their lives, doing pretty extraordinary things in their community as a matter of course.
Leo and Eddie are from the north Meath town of Oldcastle and for the last 25 years or so they have organised a football competition for under 16 inter-county teams. In its current guise, four counties take part, Meath, Dublin, Cavan and Westmeath, but others would love to be in it also.
It's known as the Gerry Reilly tournament, named in honour of a young footballer from the area who was killed in the late 1980s. It is run on a round-robin basis and attracts large crowds throughout the month of July, when it is traditionally played.
There are other similar tournaments across the country – the best known and longest running of which are probably the Fr Manning Cup, organised by Longford and in existence since the mid-1960s, and the Ted Webb Cup in Mayo, also called after a young man who was tragically killed in the early 1970s.
Tournaments like the Fr Manning Cup and the Gerry Reilly have down the years provided a platform to launch inter-county football careers, and they are under threat because, in order to be sanctioned for this and future years, the organisers must agree to run them off on a blitz basis, preferably over one day but the option is there to do it over a couple of days. These outstanding tournaments are no longer in line with Association policy.
All of these competitions grew from small beginnings to go on and play very important roles in underage player development, especially for smaller counties. Proof of this is that the likes of Longford, Westmeath, Roscommon and Cavan have been able to compete against bigger, better resourced counties at underage level and they argue that this is because of their involvement in these competitive tournaments and that those counties not involved in similar competitions don't fare as well.
The idea that such prestigious competitions are not 'policy' is risible and has predictably provoked quite a backlash. It seems absurd that the very idea of these tournaments for kids aged 16 is deemed contrary to the GAA's wishes. Longford officials, who are leading the opposition to this move, say that this 'policy' in no way considers the needs of a county like theirs, that it is entirely geared towards top-tier teams and that if it goes ahead the gap between the strong and the weak will widen further.
Even a traditionally stronger county like Meath is up in arms over the move. In appealing to the GAA to allow their tournament go ahead, Halpin and Reilly argued passionately in a letter that they "strongly feel there is a need for an outlet for the elite players at this age to play for their county".
They added: "The managers of all the participating teams down the years have praised the tournament for its valued contribution to the development of county teams."
The counter-argument from the GAA is that it is merely implementing rules passed at a Special Congress in 2008 – and in particular in relation to player burnout, which some argue had started to become a factor at underage levels.
By doing away with these tournaments, and switching instead to blitzes, the view is it allows for policing of development squads and, by extension, lessens the impact of inter-county football on club activity. To me, though, it sounds like they've taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I have personal experience of the Fr Manning Cup. It is a fantastic championship for the teams which take part in it – Longford, Roscommon, Offaly, Leitrim, Sligo and Westmeath – and all are vehemently opposed to the proposed change.
The committee charged with implementing the rule is known as the National Games Development Committee and it argues that there is no dilution of the competitions by enforcing these measures, whose purpose is to try and reduce the number of occasions players are away from their clubs, and to tackle the burnout issue.
Since the rule change in 2008, there have been some derogations granted, but following a comprehensive review at the end of last year these are to be removed. The belief is that this is the best way forward.
Yet, it doesn't seem to make sense that a solution to burnout is to play two or three games in one day; maybe it does for larger counties who can easily use large panels of players, but that's about it.
Whether the GAA likes it or not, 16-year-olds do not react well to the blitz format. In fact, the experience on the ground is that they are likely to turn their backs on them.
They want proper competitive games, the sense of occasion that comes with playing in a real and meaningful championship over a period of time and exposure to the level of football in these games which is just not matched in the watered-down format.
As Meath County Board argue, they consider these blitzes to be an extension of what they have experienced at under 12 and 14 and they want to move on from what they perceive to be 'kids' stuff'. They are no longer children and require a competitive element to their football and if they don't get it they will certainly get it by switching to another sport.
Remember, too, there is a proposal to change the minor age limit from 18 to 17, which doesn't seem
to be in line with the current fad for forcing development squads between the ages of 14 and 17 to stick rigidly to blitzes.
The GAA world can be a peculiar one, where often the things that are really troubling it are not what we read and hear from day to day. Often the real troubles are happening well below the surface.
Patrick Kavanagh's poem Epic begins: 'I have lived in important places, times/When great events were decided, who owned/That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land/Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.'
The county boards in Longford and Meath are stiffly opposed to what they see as an effective dumbing down of their 'half a rood of rock', and they have a lot of support from other counties. A vote will be taken on the matter at next Saturday's Central Council meeting and there the fate of these tournaments will be decided.
It may appear to be just another 'local row', but it is one with far-reaching consequences. In recent memory, Westmeath and Roscommon have won All-Ireland minor titles, Longford have contested two of the last three Leinster under 21 football finals and Cavan have won the last three Ulster under 21 titles. This level of progress was achieved on the back of developing a squad of players fit to compete with their peers, not on the back of blitzes for 16-year-olds.
This appears to me to be one of those proposals which is not in the best interests of the game.