Thursday 22 March 2018

Martin Breheny: U-21 grade is worth fighting for

Costello right to challenge reasons why third-level colleges aren't part of burnout solution

Sigerson or U-21? DCU’s Tom Flynn celebrates after defeating UCC in the Sigerson Cup final in February
Sigerson or U-21? DCU’s Tom Flynn celebrates after defeating UCC in the Sigerson Cup final in February
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

I'll miss getting a call from Dave Billings this morning, as happened in the past any time I suggested that third-level college activity disproportionately influenced the GAA's competition structure.

I'd usually get a text from him around 8.30am, delivering a sharp, mischievous rebuke on why he considered my view as the ultimate in crass stupidity.

It would be followed shortly afterwards by a phone call, fleshing out in detail why not even crass stupidity was an excuse for including third level in the chaotic fixture mix that bedevils the GAA.

Dave was so deeply immersed in the Association that when he died suddenly last April, a genuine sense of loss was felt, not just in Dublin and St Vincent's, both of which he served so loyally, but also among the many students from that all over the country that he mentored and befriended during his 18 years as head of GAA affairs in UCD.

Our phone chats always ended with a good-humoured exchange but not before he had issued a roguish admonishment to "stop writing that sort of rubbish".


If Dave were still alive, he would probably have phoned fellow Dub and county CEO John Costello on Monday, challenging him forcefully on his views that the Sigerson Cup competition should be played in a more condensed format.

Now, in fairness to Dave, it's likely that as a former Dublin U-21 manager, he would disapprove of the current proposal to scrap the grade in football. Instead, he would have looked for a way of accommodating third-level competitions in their current format while also fitting in U-21.

Costello raised the issue in his annual report under the provocative heading: 'Which is more important, U-21 or Sigerson?' He is of the firm opinion that if faced with a straight choice between U-21 and Sigerson, a majority of young players would opt for the county competition. He also argues that there's no comparison in terms of public interest between U-21 and Sigerson/Fitzgibbon Cups.

The respective attendance figures support his view and while that may not be a sufficiently sound reason for its retention if it's contributing heavily to player burnout, the wider landscape has to be examined too.

Páraic Duffy's suite of proposals for eradicating burnout and improving the lot of the club player involves scrapping some inter-county championships and amending the format and timing of others but calls for no change to third-level competitions.

Asked at the launch of his plan why Sigerson/Fitzgibbon could not be played in December/January, thereby easing the pressure on young players, he said that it wasn't possible because many colleges hold exams during those months.

Yet college teams play in inter-county competitions in January, although Munster have blocked it next month.

Not, mind you, on the basis that it's a bad idea but because there were complaints over a high number of mismatches in recent seasons. Duffy's blueprint left the clear impression that college activity is sacrosanct and not amenable to any tweaking to suit the broader fixture plan.

It was a theme which carried through in an interview I did with GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail two weeks ago.

"Abolishing U-21 football at county level only is a judgement call. You can reduce activity at third level and stick with U-21, but we think getting rid of it is the way to go because, on balance, we believe it is a greater contributor to burnout.

"Activity at primary, secondary and third level is very important to us at a number of levels. We won't do anything to damage that," he said.

Effectively, the two top men in the GAA - both of whom are experienced teachers - are saying that change is needed across a wide range of areas, but hands off the colleges.

Of course, it's important to have a vibrant college programme, including at third level. But shouldn't it contribute something towards improving the overall fixtures' structure, especially when the alternative includes the abolition of the U-21 grade, which has served the GAA so well for over 50 years?

Costello is calling for compromise, rather than scrapping U-21.

"If something has to give (and evidently a pre-Christmas Sigerson switch is probably not feasible) my argument is that the U-21 inter-county grade is more deserving of preservation, with the Sigerson played in a more condensed period early in New Year," he wrote.

It's a suggestion that not only deserves to be considered but to be implemented as well. The fight to retain U-21 needs to be stepped up.

Otherwise, the GAA could find itself answering the wrong question.

Irish Independent

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