Sunday 17 December 2017

Alan Brogan: Winning at U21 was a career highlight - the new competition won't have the same prestige

The new under 20 competition won't carry same prestige as best players will be ruled out

Alan Brogan celebrates winning the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Brogan celebrates winning the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2003. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

The under 21 championship always fascinated me. As a senior footballer, I would watch Dublin closely to see who was the next young player likely to make the breakthrough into the senior ranks. Often the guys who shone at under 21 level would be catapulted into the senior panel to see could they make the step up.

In fact, I remember travelling to Portlaoise to watch Dublin play Cork in the 2012 semi-final. Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey both starred that day and showed all the signs of being stars of the future.

My own experience with the under 21 championship was largely a positive one. In 2001, straight out of minor, I played wing-forward in the Leinster Championship. Wayne McCarthy and Collie Moran were our marquee players that year. After the semi-final, Moran travelled to Kerry to play a senior league game the day after and pulled a hamstring, subsequently missing the Leinster final.

This was a huge blow as Collie was our only senior inter-county footballer of substance. It doesn't say much for player welfare in those days, but it was a theme that followed Collie throughout the early part of his career - being such a great talent he was pulled all over the place and ended up retiring early with a hip problem.

Guys with senior experience were worth their weight in gold at under 21 and facing Meath in a Leinster final without Collie was too big an ask. Meath trounced us 0-10 to 0-5. In fairness to Wayne McCarthy, another with senior experience, he performed well that day, kicking all five of our points. I was 18 playing against much bigger guys but it provided great experience for me in the years ahead.

In 2002, we fared much better, beating Kildare and Tyrone on the way to an All-Ireland final against Galway. We had a number of guys who had debuted for Dublin seniors that year so we were fancied to land Dublin's first under 21 All-Ireland.

Stephen Cluxton, Barry Cahill, Paul Casey and myself had all featured in the narrow defeat to Armagh in Croke Park a few weeks before we resumed with the under 21s for the All-Ireland series. In fairness to Tommy Lyons, he had sent the four of us with girlfriends for a weekend in Kilkenny to recharge the batteries ahead of these games and we gladly used the opportunity to enjoy a bit of down time.

The day before the All-Ireland final, Barry Cahill was struck down with back spasms. He was a massive loss and I think it affected the mindset going into the game. Galway beat us by eight points. I think we trailed by 0-8 to 0-1 at half-time.

Galway has some really good footballers playing that day in Michael Meehan, Kieran Fitzgerald, Kieran Comer, Matt Clancy and Joe Bergin. It's strange they didn't push on a little more at senior.

By this stage, Tommy Lyons had brought in Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy to train the under 21s. Looking back, it was strange as Tommy had kind of moved them on from playing into coaching in the space of six months. Maybe both knew their time was up as players.

This was an early indication of both Jim and Dec's commitment to the Dublin cause. Most players that have long careers like they had take a few years for themselves, but here they were straight into coaching. They made a huge difference and even though Tommy is in the record books at the manager of the first Dublin team ever to win an under 21 All-Ireland, both these men played a huge role.

I captained that team to a famous win against Tyrone in Navan in October 2003. In the end we won convincingly enough and it goes down as one of my favourite days in blue.

My club Plunketts had three men on that panel - myself, Bernard and Nesty Smith. En route back to Dublin from Navan, the team bus pulled in to Plunketts for a pit stop. A proud moment for the three of us.

Dublin, under Dessie Farrell, secured the last ever under 21 All-Ireland title last month. Next year the grade will change to under 20 with senior inter-county players not eligible. I can understand the move from a player welfare perspective, but I think the GAA is going to lose out in terms of prestige and coverage of the competition. Part of the attraction to watching the under 21s was seeing if the guys who play senior would stand out.

I don't think the under 20 competition will grab the attention of the public in the same way. In saying that, the GAA have reacted to the very important issue of player burnout with a solution that will help cut the demands on our top young players.

It will be interesting to see how county boards, sponsors and supporters respond to a competition that will probably be played without the best talent at that age. For example, the great white hope in Kerry, David Clifford, will no doubt feature with the Kerry seniors next summer so this will make him unavailable to the under 20s.

If the under 20 grade was in place when I was that age I would have got one year in 2001 and would have been illegible in 2002.

It's a short a step in the right direction for player welfare, but the prestige of an All-Ireland under 20 medal won't match that of an under 21 medal. I'll miss it.

Sunday Independent

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