Dublin and Galway to bring curtain down on 53-year long Championship
When the competition investigators examined the case, they decided that an 88-year-old was to blame for many of the problems experienced by younger players.
Part of their remedy was to change the minor championships, which had run on the same path since 1929. They proposed cutting the age limit from 18 to 17 years from 2018 on.
That would necessitate an adjustment of the next grade, replacing U-21 with U-20. GAA director general Páraic Duffy was a powerful driving force behind the proposals, which won majority support at Congress last year.
And so, the last action in the 53-year history of the All-Ireland U-21 Football Championship will take place in O'Connor Park, Tullamore this evening when Dublin play Galway in the All-Ireland final.
Those who supported the changes argue that dropping the minor age grade to 17 years makes perfect sense from an educational viewpoint as it removes the pressures loaded on elite young players in their Leaving Cert year.
Reducing U-21 to U-20 will, we're told, help the many players who come under intense pressure in the early part of the season, when they can be drawn in different directions by managers of senior and U-21 county football teams as well as colleges.
The U-20 competition will run during the summer months and players will either operate in that or the senior grade, but not both, which will prevent fixture clashes.
It means that a talented 19/20- year-old cannot play U-20 if he is on the county senior panel.
"That will hit small counties more than bigger ones. The big ones have far more players to choose from and don't need U-20s as much as the rest," said Dessie Dolan, who won an All-Ireland U-21 medal with Westmeath in 1999, the year he made his senior Championship debut as a 19-year-old.
"Smaller counties have to pick up the best young talent so those lads won't be available for the U-20 competition. That's a bit of a drawback."
On the minor age limit, Dolan fully accepts the need to switch from U-18 to U-17. As a teacher, he sees the pressure that good young players come under when trying to combine Leaving Cert studies with minor training and believes it is deeply unfair.
Like Dolan, Aaron Kernan also regards his All-Ireland U-21 medal, won in 2004, as a prized possession, but he is happy with the change to U-20.
"There might be some teething difficulties as lads of 21 miss out next year because of the change but that's a short-term issue. The public will probably take a while to get used to U-20 too but once they do, I have no doubt it will be as popular as U-21," he said.
But what of the player who is deemed good enough to be on the senior panel, thereby ruling him out of the U-20 set-up? He could find himself not getting any game with the seniors, yet is unable to play U-20.
"Managers have to decide what's in a young player's best interests. If he's not going to get a game with the seniors, there's no point having him sitting on the panel when he could be playing U-20. It should be all about giving a young player the best pathway through his formative years and into the senior scene," he said.
Kernan does not believe that public interest will drop because no established senior players will be on U-20 squads.
"If the quality of what's on offer is good enough, the public will be happy. I sat down two weeks ago to watch the Kerry-Galway U-21 semi-final and, like a lot of people, I wanted to see how the Kerry players, who are so highly rated after coming through as minor winners, had progressed," he said.
"As the game went on, I kept asking who's the Galway full-back, the No 7, the midfielder and various others. Besides Michael Daly, I didn't know any of them. They're not on the senior scene yet, but they played so well you wanted more. It will be the same with U-20. If the games are good, the public will respond. U-21 or U-20 shouldn't make any difference.
"On the broader scene, changing the age limits will help young players, which has to be good for everyone. We all know the problems players have with fixture issues and the like, so anything that improves it is good."
Tipperary senior manager Liam Kearns, who steered Limerick to their first Munster U-21 title in 2000, understands the rationale behind the move to U-20, but still regrets the scrapping of a grade that served the GAA well for so long.
"Some of the best games you've ever seen have been at U-21. It was a great stepping stone to senior level. I'm not so sure U-20 will have the same impact," he said.
Whatever it produces, U-20 is on its way, which bestows a historical dimension on this evening's final, where Galway are attempting to move into third place on the All-Ireland honours board behind Cork and Kerry, while Dublin will be bidding for a third title in six seasons
It comes 53 years after Kerry won the first U-21 title, beating Laois in the final. Laois reached two others finals, losing both, to remain one of 16 counties who never captured the ultimate prize. Sligo, Carlow, Longford, Wicklow, Clare and Kilkenny are the only counties who failed to win a provincial title.
It remains to be seen how the public respond to the U-20 grade. The presence of some established senior players always added to the appeal of the U-21 competition. Without that, U-20 could be seen as an extension of the minor grade rather than a close step behind senior, in which case it would lose public appeal.
However, supporters of U-20 believe that playing it on summer evenings, rather than in spring as is the case with U-21, will help to persuade the public that it's an exciting new entity worthy of support.
Aaron Kernan (Armagh)
Everything changed for Aaron Kernan and his Armagh U-21 colleagues in April 2004.
They had watched in wonder as the county’s seniors won the All-Ireland for the first time two years earlier but still had doubts about themselves. “It was all Tyrone and Derry at minor and colleges. Armagh lads had their fill of them – they always seemed to beat us. I wouldn’t say we had an inferiority complex but it was getting close,” said Kernan.
And so it remained until the 2004 Ulster U-21 championship when Armagh beat Tyrone and Derry before going on to bring the All-Ireland title back to the Orchard for the first time.
“We beat Tyrone in extra-time in Dungannon, which was huge for us. They had won four Ulster and two All-Ireland U-21 titles over the years just before that while we hadn’t done very much so they were hot favourites. Seán Cavanagh had won a senior title in 2003 but was still U-21 in 2004. They had a highly-rated team so beating them really was special. We were buzzing. We went on to beat Derry in the final – it was all over in 20 minutes. We were on a mission.
“People would say that Armagh seniors winning in 2002 was a great lift for young lads coming through in the county and of course it was a help but it’s not until you do something for yourself that you know you’re good enough. Beating Tyrone and Derry in 2004 did that for us – it broadened our horizons as developing players,” said Kernan.
The Ulster success whetted Armagh’s appetite for more glory but they had to wait until the autumn to pursue it. Bizarrely, the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals were played in September/October back then. It meant that players who were in good form in spring could have dropped off by autumn or, alternatively, others may have put themselves in contention.
Gareth Swift was in the latter category, having forced his way into the Armagh squad with good club performances during the summer before playing a big part in the wins over Cork and Mayo. The final was played a week after the senior decider where Mayo were hammered by Kerry. Now, it was the U-21s’ turn for heartbreak as they lost 2-8 to 1-9.
“Mayo lost but they had a very good team. I was marking Andy Moran and they also had a fair number of other lads who had been on the senior panel but after winning Ulster and beating Cork, we felt we could take any opposition,” said Kernan.
He and his Armagh colleagues, which included his brother Stephen, Andy Mallon, Ciaran McKeever, Finian Moriarty, Malachy Mackin and Brian Mallon, were confident their careers would go on to include an All-Ireland senior win but it wasn’t to be.
Dessie Dolan (Westmeath)
Kerry 52 Westmeath 1. That was the All-Ireland title haul at senior, minor and U-21 level as the U-21 finalists headed to the Gaelic Grounds for the 1999 final.
Westmeath’s sole title had been won at minor level in 1995, so very few of the 1999 U-21 team had experienced any big success.
Kerry had some survivors from the previous year’s All-Ireland success and were odds-on favourites to retain the title after winning Munster for a fifth successive year.
“It wasn’t surprising they were so well-fancied. And when you look at what many of the 1999 team did afterwards, it’s easy to see why,” said Dessie Dolan, left full-forward on a Westmeath team that had earlier survived replays against Kildare and Laois, en route to winning the Leinster title for the first time.
Included on the Kerry team were Tomás O Sé, Tadhg and Noel Kennelly, Paul Galvin, Tom O’Sullivan, Tommy Griffin, Aodán MacGearailt and Seán O’Sullivan, all of whom went on to even greater things.
The 1999 final won’t go down as one of the classics. Level at half-time, Westmeath moved ahead in the second half and then set about defending the lead.
They did it especially well too and were greatly encouraged when goalkeeper Cathal Mullin saved a penalty.
Tommy Griffin came close to scoring a Kerry goal late on but Westmeath held on a for a three-point win (0-12 to 0-9) to become the 15th county to win the title.
“We were very well-organised. Luke Dempsey was in charge and did a great job. We had a tough run through Leinster, especially in the final, where we beat Laois who were favourites. They were producing great underage teams around then and had won three Leinster minor titles just before that,” said Dolan.
He still recalls the joy and emotion when the Westmeath team returned home with the Cup as thousands of supporters turned out to greet them.
Coming four years after the All-Ireland minor success, Westmeath’s future at senior level looked bright. A first – so far only – Leinster senior title was duly delivered in 2004 but the All-Ireland title ambitions remained unfulfilled.
“You look at the number of All-Ireland senior medals won the by the Kerry team we beat in the 1999 U-21 final and wonder why not us. But then it was never that simple progressing from U-21 to senior,” said Dolan.
He – and some others – did it very successfully but, unlike Kerry where the supply lines rarely slow
down, Westmeath have to deal off more modest resources.
Westmeath reached only one Leinster U-21 final since 1999, losing to Dublin in 2010.
Liam Kearns (Limerick)
By the start of the new Millennium, Kerry and Cork had won every Munster U-21 football title, a monopoly that didn’t appear to be under any immediate threat.
However, things were about to change. By April 2000, both of the superpowers had been beaten, leaving Limerick and Waterford in the final.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system in Munster. Kerry and Cork don’t expect to lose to any of the others in any grade,” said Liam Kearns, the Kerryman who guided Limerick to only their second Munster U-21 final. And this time, they took the prize.
Both semi-final successes were achieved in unlikely circumstances. Waterford beat Kerry, who had won the previous five Munster titles, by three points in Killarney and Limerick beat Cork by a point in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Limerick beat Waterford by a point in the final in Dungarvan before dethroning 1999 All-Ireland champions Westmeath in the semi-final.
They faced Tyrone in the final, a bridge that proved too far (3-12 to 0-13) against a team that included Cormac McAnallen, Stephen O’Neill, Owen Mulligan, Brian McGuigan, Kevin Hughes, Ciaran Gourley, Gavin Devlin, Pascal McConnell, Mark Harte and Declan McCrossan, all of whom were on the Tyrone squad that won the All-Ireland senior title for the first time three years later.
“It was very close just after half-time when we had a goal chance but unfortunately the ball crashed off the crossbar. Who knows what might have happened if we had got a goal at that stage. We were playing really well,” said Kearns.
Despite the defeat, it was a memorable season for Limerick with a squad that went on to make quite an impact at senior level. Kearns moved with them, steering them into Division 1, where they came within two points of Kerry in the 2004 league semi-final, beat Cork in the 2003 Munster Championship and drew with Kerry in the 2004 final.
“The U-21 team of 2000 was the mainstay of the senior side for many years. It was a special group who did an awful lot for Limerick football. They brought a great buzz to the county for a long time,” said Kearns.
They were denied victory in the 2004 Munster final by a late fetch just above the crossbar by Darragh ó Sé for what would have been the winning point in the Gaelic Grounds. Kerry won the replay in Killarney.
“It was unfortunate for Limerick alright and a great pity they didn’t win that Munster final. They deserved it – they were the better team that day. You could see there was something different about them as U-21s and they carried that on as seniors too,” said Kearns.
Willie McGee (Mayo)
Kevin Heffernan once identified him as a forward he would like to have signed if a transfer market applied in the GAA. The reason? Because ‘Heffo’ had seen Willie McGee play for Garda in the Dublin club championship and knew that the Mayoman possessed an instinct for sniffing out goal chances and the confidence to take them on, even if the odds were against him. McGee announced his arrival as a deadly predator in the 1967 All-Ireland U-21 final replay, scoring four goals in Mayo’s 4-10 to 1-9 win over Kerry in Ballinasloe.
All four required different skills, with one where, in virtually the same movement, he gained possession on the 21-yard line (as it was then), turned and blasted the ball to the net being the highlight.
“I’d always go for goal if the half-chance was on. It was just something I did. I didn’t notice it myself but people said I had a deceptive style, where I threw the ball down at my foot in the kicking movement. It increased the power of the shot. I always felt that if a goal chance was on, you should go for it. Goals turn games. Thankfully, that was the case in the replay (1967) against Kerry anyway,” recalled McGee. this week.
It’s nearly 50 years ago since his goal blitz helped Mayo to their first U-21 title, a success which, when coupled with some other promising circumstances, left green-and-red supporters believing that the senior breakthrough was imminent.
“Mayo won the minor All-Ireland in 1966, our seniors beat the great Galway three-in-a-row team in the Connacht semi-final in 1967 and then we won the U-21 final later in the year.
“I suppose we thought it was only a matter of time before we won the senior All-Ireland but we’re still waiting. It’s amazing how fortunes have gone against us over the years but I still feel we have a team capable of winning it,” said McGee.
He played 71 senior league and championship games between 1967 and 1976, during which he scored 27 goals, all from open play. Unfortunately for Mayo, the hopeful signs of 1967 didn’t come to anything. They won the Connacht title in 1969 but lost their way and didn’t land their next provincial crown until 1981.
McGee’s four-goal heroics were one of the defining events in the early years of the U-21 championships and that it was achieved against Kerry made it all the more special.
“We came back to draw with them in Croke Park and felt we had the beating of them in the replay,” he said. While All-Ireland senior glory eluded him he later won two All-Ireland over-40 titles with Kildare.
In 1984, he was chosen at full-forward on a special GAA Centenary team, comprised of players who never won an All-Ireland senior title.