Our players need to be looked after before it's too late
Colm O'Rourke believes proposals to change the minor grade make perfect sense for player welfare
When the GAA president said he is actively looking at the possibility of switching minor to under 17 from under 18 there was very little in the way of public comment.
Many will wonder if it is just a bit of kite-flying but any reader who has a son who is a good footballer aged 14 or 15 should be hoping this comes to pass sooner rather than later. In fact, this proposal is likely to be discussed at next year's Congress with implementation in 2015 if it is passed.
Player welfare is ignored continually with the governing authorities either actively acquiescing in this or else being completely indifferent. At the extreme end there is total ignorance of what is going on.
At present, a minor player could be playing for any number of teams in a year, school, club minor, county minor, under 21 and adult competitions as well. In the middle of all of this comes the Leaving Cert, one of the most important determinants of future careers whether we like it or not. And while research shows that sport can contribute to improved academic performance, this does not take into account the overload factor for a big number of minor players who are loyal to a fault but are expected to serve a variety of masters and study hard as well.
Fixtures in the GAA are a complete mess at almost all levels. There is no fixed season for nearly anything apart from some county fixtures. competitions overlap and the club season is a moveable feast with some players tied up with a variety of teams at the same time. Present arrangements for inter-county championships are unsustainable, but better systems normally run foul of the 'save the provincial championships at all costs' brigade.
So an overall strategy is needed. However, it is possible to make small gains by beginning at the bottom. At the moment good minor players in the post-Christmas period are caught between minor and school competitions. This year for example, the Leinster minor league ran at the same time as the Leinster post-primary schools competitions. In every county this causes conflict. Minors preparing for this league are forced to train in January which is against the rules laid down in the official guide. Schools are squeezed out in many cases.
It is becoming increasingly obvious to school principals like myself, at our regular meetings, that schools are exactly that and should stick to that and leave the clubs and counties to look after football. When that begins to bite there will be the usual closing of the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The Leinster minor football championship started this year on the same weekend as the All-Ireland colleges and vocational schools finals, so some of the minor games had to be postponed to give a few days off to the footballers of Navan and Granard who were on their county panels.
What is even more ludicrous is the fact that provinces can run their minor championships in different ways. In Leinster and Munster, for example, there is a back door for first-round losers. If they get to the provincial final there is a back door for losers there too. A team could lose a first-round game, a provincial final and an All-Ireland final. In other words, lose three times in the one championship. That defies all logic.
In Ulster, the minor still runs alongside the senior championship with no back door. This means the championship does not start until late May, which adds to the schools competitions as minor selectors can view the best players in action in these early-season games. There is only one Ulster team involved in each of the various schools competitions after St Patrick's day.
This year St Patrick's Maghera, who beat us in the final, had a brilliant team. Many will be part of the Derry minors who don't play championship until June 2. It means plenty of time with the county minors after schools competitions finish and gives some order to a player's football life. Early in the year in Ulster, a good player concentrates on schools football and when that is over they move on to county minor.
Of course in the midst of all this early-season activity a good minor player will also be expected to turn out with the club minor and adult team, especially if the club is a junior side. Study is what suffers most at this time, and this is a by-product of mental, emotional and physical fatigue.
There are many people who still claim that this burnout idea is all nonsense and a young hardy fellow is fit for anything. There are plenty of concerned parents at this time who see the effects of it and are very worried about career prospects after the Leaving Cert.
It does not have to be one or the other, football or study. An under 17 competition removes the vast majority of players from this
trap while an 18-year-old could give much greater attention to what is the most important thing in their final year at school. Ensuring that 17-year-olds cannot play adult football would cement the player welfare issue at this age.
Of course there will be a hue and cry from clubs who will say that they won't be able to field a team; this argument will be advanced on the basis of emigration affecting numbers. This is not an argument at all in the face of minding players and clubs would be better getting out a lazy 25-year-old than playing a youngster who is more susceptible to injury.
In the end this comes down to a vision of where the GAA is going. The best footballers need to be minded not abused by layers of competitions where it is expected – or maybe even demanded – that they play. And it is up to county boards to have at least 15 games a year for all underage club players rather than allowing county competitions dominate.
How many counties are giving minor players 15 games a year at present? Not many I would imagine, but they get them in rugby and soccer. All young lads want games, the level does not matter.
Of course the reduction in age of minors should naturally lead to a reduction in under 21 to 20 to take that grade away from a big year in college. That would involve opening an even more nasty can of worms with the traditionalists. Even at the cost of mixing metaphors, I think I will let that sleeping dog lie for the moment.