Thursday 20 June 2019

Nurturing Lyons' cubs

Kevin Kimmage

THE following is a statement on behalf of Mr Tommy Lyons, the Dublin senior footballers and the county board:

Contrary to speculation suggesting otherwise, the Dublin Senior football team wish to reiterate their intention to warm up at the Hill 16 end prior to today's Leinster semi-final, despite the unavailability of the terraces to our loyal supporters due to construction work prompted by Croke Park's hosting of the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

We would also like to confirm that, as per tradition, the team will wear sky and navy blue jerseys stamped with the Arnotts logo. Rumours in wide circulation around the city that our sponsors had been replaced in favour of more relevant patronage from Mothercare, Pampers and Fisher Price are completely unfounded.

Also unfounded are concerns about the team's travelling arrangements. A school bus, fitted out at the County Board's expense with state of the art child seats, has been temporarily procured from the Department of Education and each player will be picked up from, and dropped back to, his doorstep.

Each player lining out this afternoon does so with a note of permission from his parents and Mr Lyons has specifically arranged for a paediatrician to be on hand in the event of an accident.

Any members of the team unfortunate enough to incur a grazed kneesy-weesy, sprained fingey-wingey or swollen tootsie-wootsie will be immediately treated with a lollipop. Finally, we would ask patrons to kindly refrain from the use of foul and abusive language due to the presence of so many young and impressionable minds on the pitch this afternoon.

Thank you.

Okay, we admit it. The above is a complete fabrication, a product of our imagination. The Dublin board's budget certainly doesn't run to free lollipops for the players. The panel on duty aren't kids and probably isn't even the youngest ever to play senior football - Laois, after all, fielded a team topped up with junior infants when they played Kildare in 1998 - but it feels that way.

There are enough recognisable faces on the Dublin team to give it a familiar look, but also enough new ones to hint at the evolution underway. For the real revolution is taking place on the bench. Eight of the substitutes listed for Dublin's championship opener against Louth did not feature on the panel last year. Most of them are barely old enough to shave.

Dublin's centre forward this afternoon, Bryan Cullen, was the metropolitan's minor captain last summer. He also played in the All-Ireland minor final two years ago alongside the team's right corner back, Paul Griffin. Two more of their peers were on the bench for the Louth game - Declan O'Mahoney and David O'Callaghan, who made an appearance with 19 minutes to go. On and off the pitch a fortnight ago, the youngsters were hardly surrounded by grizzled old veterans.

Stephen Cluxton, Barry Cahill, Paul Casey, Darren Magee and Tomás Quinn all played in the All-Ireland U21 final last year. So did Alan Brogan and Liam Óg Ó hÉineacháin, who've already picked up another Leinster U21 title this season. Another panellist, the 6‘7" Brian McEvoy, was full forward on the 1999 Leinster title winning minor team.

After years of dire warnings about the ill-health of Dublin football, the county, it seems, is awash with youthful talent. They can even hope to have unearthed that most precious of commodities: natural scoring forwards.

Brogan proved his class last summer; Quinn caught the eye with a hat trick of points against Louth; O'Callaghan came in for the last 16 minutes of the same game and kicked two; Ó hÉineacháin's graduation to the seniors has been predicted for at least three years now.

To appreciate the difficulty in turning underage promise into achievement, the new men need only look at the recent example of today's opponents. Yet to judge their success or failure on their performances this year alone is to miss the point. The presence of so many young players among the squad is significant in itself. Proof that the hard labour conducted among the grassroots in recent times is finally beginning to bear fruit.

The renaissance began six years ago when Dublin football awoke from its slumber and finally acknowledged its neglect of the underage ranks. The fruits of the All-Ireland minor successes nurtured by Alan Larkin in the late 1970s and early '80s had been allowed to wither on the vine. For seven years - between 1983 and 1991 - the county didn't even bother to enter a team in the Leinster U21 championship. In the meantime, the County Board continued to employ underage structures developed sometime around the bronze age.

"In those days, the selection of the manager for the minor team was made on a yearly basis by the Dublin minor board," said one insider. "Sometimes the selection was made as late as January or February, which meant that the new man would have to go through a couple of hundred young lads in a couple of weeks of trials in the Phoenix Park."

As the results worsened, the penny finally dropped. "While Laois and Westmeath were dominating Leinster and winning All-Ireland minor titles, it got to the stage where Dublin was getting knocked out in the first and second round," said former minor manager Cyril Kevlihan. "It was clear something had to be done."

As the calls for change gathered weight, the key stumbling block was a political one. The Dublin Minor Board remained reluctant to give up its power of appointment, but it was ultimately brushed aside by a coalition of liberals led by the county's coaching officer at the time, Cyril Duggan, county secretary John Costello and the Board's coaching and development committee chaired by Kevin Heffernan.

Duggan drew up the blueprint which would see players taken from the ages of 14 upwards and coached by the same mentors through to the minor grades. Costello secured funding of £7,000 per annum for each squad (hurling and football) through the County Board - financial assistance previously unheard of in Dublin - and Heffernan used his political weight to shunt the proposals through the County Board.

In 1996, the county set up its first hurling development squad. The following year, an U16 football panel was drawn up, overseen by Cyril Kevlihan, Brian Ladden, John McHale and Brian Talty (Talty withdrew after a year, replaced by Pádraig McCarthy). Behind them, U14 and 15 squads were also introduced.

To widen the base, they introduced some strict ground rules. No player, regardless of his talent, was allowed to play above his exact age. "We looked at about 370 players to begin with and narrowed it down to around 100 over four months, then worked with 60 of those through the summer," recalled Kevlihan. "We were looking for fellows with a good attitude who wanted to play for Dublin. Okay, they'd have to show skill, but it didn't make any difference what size they were.

"Our aim was to blood young lads, get them used to the huge challenge of wearing a Dublin jersey. Sometimes that pressure will get to a young lad, won't allow him to perform. In the old days, a player like that got one chance and if he didn't deliver, he was gone. We got away from that, we tried to nurture them."

Within a year, 12 of those development squad graduates, including Brogan and Ó hÉineacháin, played on the team which, under Kevlihan and his selectors, won the 1999 Leinster minor title. Since then, Dublin have remained at the top at the grade in Leinster, winning another title and picking up two provincial U21 crowns.

For all the hard work done and the progress made, the holy grail of All-Ireland titles at both grades has eluded them. Yet its supporters say the scheme was designed primarily as a production line for senior level, not a tool for picking up underage awards.

With such a young team on display today, the question is have Dublin taken them off the production line too soon?

Clearly that production line is working. Eight members of the current senior squad came through the underage development system. But with such a young team on display today, the question is have Dublin taken them off the production line too soon?

Paul Griffin's displays to date suggest he has the potential to become one of the classiest corner backs in the game, but the Kilmacud prodigy is barely out of his teens and the few moments of discomfort he encountered against Louth were when the ball came in high and slow.

"Paul is a very quiet, intelligent fellow," says former Dublin U21 trainer Brian Talty.

"You can see the way he plays that he's an intelligent footballer - his anticipation is excellent. But he's still very young, still an U21 next year, and if I was looking for a weakness I'd worry about his physique. The question is how will he do if he's up against a big strong man under a high ball?"

Similar questions surround the Dublin forwards. Ó hÉineacháin's ability to fight for his own ball against tight, tenacious markers will receive its sternest test this afternoon - so will that of Quinn and O‘Callaghan, if introduced.

Clearly Lyons is taking a gamble, but it may be one calculated with more than just their opponents taken into consideration.

When the Dublin squad train in St David's Artane, the pitch is marked out to the same width as Croke Park. Such wide open prairie lands, as Meath defender Mark O'Reilly discovered to his discomfort a fortnight ago, provide rich fodder for speedy forwards supplied with the right ball. In opting, among others, for men like Griffin and Ó hÉineacháin, Lyons may thus have selected a team specifically designed to play at headquarters.

"I would imagine," added Talty, "that Tommy has looked at the size of Croke Park and said that, if there's anywhere you're going to get space, any place you're going to have a chance to lose your marker, it's there."

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