Tomás ó Sé: There are horror stories of young players being pulled from their clubs for these elite squads
When Mick O'Dwyer placed his faith in a sheath of unrated Kerry kids in 1975, he wasn't maybe gambling as heavily as some imagined.
Some tough men with All-Ireland medals in their back pockets were left sitting that summer as Micko went with the contagious energy of young fellas willing to answer any question he had a mind to ask. But O'Dwyer knew he was working with footballers as distinct from rough and ready athletes too.
This wasn't a project built on chance.
Kerry mightn't have won a minor All-Ireland in the previous 12 summers and had claimed only a single U-21 title since 1964, but they knew how to turn kids into good footballers. Nobody would come through the Kingdom ranks without a decent grasp of basics. In other words, the players he got hold of in 1975 didn't need to learn how to play the game.
They just needed to be guided on which way. Now this isn't as simple as it might sound. Because the reservation I have about underage development squads is rooted in a sense of the cart being put before the horse in so many counties. How?
Let me put it this way: Every club needs to make sure that its coaches are educated properly, that they know what they're doing. Because, if that was the case, I don't believe we'd need these elite squads. The trouble as things stand is that, at both club and county level, there's an epidemic of spoofers.
Look, I completely respect people who volunteer their time. But if they don't know what they're doing, that time can do more harm than good.
I often think back to '93 and my introduction to the North Kerry U-16s. It was, basically, the North, Tralee and West Kerry together against South Kerry. We had maybe four trial games, no training, then a tournament to play. It felt massive, but hugely enjoyable.
Nowadays in Kerry, there are squads running from U-14 through to U-16 and I appreciate how the real benefit of this is that a decent footballer from a weak club doesn't slip through the net. That he doesn't get lost. And Kerry seem to have things pretty well sorted here; they don't flog these young fellas or fill their heads with guff.
They work on their weaknesses. Nurture them. Allow them grow.
And everybody can see the success of the Kerry model now, with four minor All-Irelands on the bounce. But elsewhere? I believe that's where the school comes in. Take Pobailscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, a school in West Kerry that has been a heavyweight presence in colleges football for the last seven or eight years from a ridiculously tiny base. Maybe 400 children, only half of them boys.
They're fed by An Ghaeltacht and Dingle but also by much weaker clubs like Lispole and Annascaul and it's the staff in the school who then work the magic of integrating everybody into a winning team.
These people represent the silent story of the GAA. Teachers coaching in their own time through simple love of the game. People we're still taking for granted in my view. Because it's the work they do that then pays off down the line for Kerry at minor level. They present footballers for selection, not machines. In my opinion, those teachers should be recompensed for that work.
Under the Croke Park agreement, teachers have to stay back for 26 hours over the course of the school year to do clerical work. But if he or she is coaching a team once or twice a week, it counts for nothing. That to me is scandalous.
Don't get me wrong. You don't hear teachers bellyaching about this, because they do it out of love. But imagine if that stopped tomorrow? Imagine what those kids would lose? I think that's something the GAA should be bringing up with the Department of Education.
You know people are complaining that football in North Kerry is poor at the moment and it's certainly no coincidence that the hub of that side of the county, Listowel, is really struggling at secondary level. If the production line isn't working at schools level, then you don't actually have one to begin with.
People go on about Dublin's money, but they haven't won a minor All-Ireland since 2012. For me, the big thing that has really catapulted them to the fore is the brilliance of coaches like Jim Gavin, Pat Gilroy and Dessie Farrell. The way they've pulled the threads of everything together is just outstanding.
But here's a statistic for you. There are seven Games Development Officers in both Kerry and Cork. Dublin have close to 40. That imbalance is crazy.
And trying to fill the resultant gap is an amount of volunteers, some of them doing more harm than good. Hearts in the right place, but not well enough educated in the game to be a coach. In a lot of cases, they're not equipped to teach their kids the most basic skills or how even to make space.
So a lot of children are being asked to jump from step two in their education as footballers straight to step ten. It's unrealistic. Then when it doesn't work out for them, they end up feeling discarded. How is that healthy?
For me, you cannot write off a teenager, any teenager, because you simply cannot tell what they might become. Yet, there are horror stories out there of a win-at-all-costs culture of young players being pulled from their clubs for these elite squads and having their heads filled with tactics before their skill-sets are anywhere close to being fully formed.
Worse, some kids are inclined to get ahead of themselves then. They consider themselves superior to their own club-mates. I saw the new GAA president John Horan making this point recently and I agree with him 100 per cent.
I'm just not sure kids should be brought into that kind of environment before the age of 17 because it ends up feeling like a constant trial. Do they really need that pressure? And, let's be honest, no matter what kind of squad a kid is part of, it will only be as good as the person in charge. And, sometimes, that's not very good at all.
I know I sound like an old fossil when I say this, but there's a lot to be said for kids banging a ball against the wall instead of sitting in front of their PlayStations. Working on their catching, on strengthening their weak foot, on doing stuff that costs nothing more than the price of a ball. I suspect we're filling kids' heads with too much tactical information before they're really ready to process it.
So 12- and 13-year-olds end up aping something seen at senior inter-county even when it palpably doesn't suit them. That to me is daft. A lot of these kids can't kick a point from 30 yards, but they'd blind you with science about use of a sweeper. They haven't a second foot to kick with. They couldn't dummy-solo to save their lives. Their foot-passing is mediocre.
Yet they're branded elite footballers, supposedly a cut above the rest. The responsibility for this has to come back to individual clubs because you've elite squads in counties where the clubs themselves are in rag order.
Unless the right people are in charge all the way up, you're not going to get footballers to reach their full potential. And these people should be in charge for the right reasons. For developing kids, not simply winning.
The necessary edge will come when the time is right, but don't force it. A 13-year-old is a 13-year-old, not a robot. This simply can't be about money. It's about people. But there are coaches in clubs today who don't even know the rules of the game. How in God's name is that meant to work?
In my opinion, that window between ages 12-16 should be about developing skills. Then and only then should you go hard for winning.
Like I look at a club the size of Kilmacud Crokes in Dublin, the hundreds of kids they probably have on a Saturday morning and I appreciate how difficult it must be to find enough of the right people to coach them. Because it almost becomes an exercise in crowd control. So many kids must fall through the cracks there whereas a tiny rural club is probably more likely to keep them and get the best out of them.
Put it this way, a club like Ballyhale Shamrocks probably wouldn't have more than a dozen U-14s in any given year. But just imagine the standard of coaching they'll get with All-Ireland winners occupying nearly every second house in the parish.
You know, Liam ó Rocháin was my coach at home right up through the age-grades and there was never anything too technical about what he taught us. Largely, he left us play but basic skills were never neglected. I know it was a different time, I know we didn't have any console inside to play FIFA on.
Like I limit my own son, Micheál, to one hour a day on his phone. After that, I tell him to get out and kick a ball, hoping that, in time, his instinct will be to choose the ball ahead of the phone or the iPad.
I remember Pat O'Shea used come to our school, Cillmhicadomhanaigh National School (he would have been Kerry's only full-time development officer back then) and we used have this pebbled yard, maybe 60 yards long and 20 yards wide, at the front where he'd coach us.
Think about that now. If the ball went over the wall, it was out on the main road. That was always the instruction. Don't put the ball out on the road!
I accept that kind of scene seems almost absurdly primitive and innocent in the context of today, but have we gone too far in the other direction? Are we imposing a straitjacket of structure and professionalism on an age group for whom football should, above all, be fun? My suspicion is that we are. And for a lot of counties it's just ruinous. In my eyes, getting the right coach with the appropriate knowledge and values is the single most important thing to a club or county. And, elite squads or not, that will never change.
All of the above said, let's be categorical on one thing: managers of senior inter-county teams have no obligation to the arts.
The amount of bellyaching over Fermanagh's tactics against Monaghan last Sunday would nearly have you believe that Rory Gallagher just ran a slab of tarmac across the Botanic Gardens. Lord Christ, the preciousness has been off the charts.
Look at it this way. Dublin play Longford in a Leinster semi-final tomorrow; Carlow and Laois meet in the other. The Dubs, logically, would probably beat the other three put together. So what do you do if you're, say, Turlough O'Brien?
Carlow have a chance of reaching their first provincial final since 1944 and you honestly believe his obligation is to the self-styled purists of the game?
I stand firm in my belief that underage football, certainly football up to the age of 16, shouldn't be all about winning. Too many kids are being lost by being driven too hard, too soon. But senior inter-county is a completely different animal. Of course, it's about winning. Always has been.
And who am I or anybody else to suggest that Fermanagh or Carlow should ditch all common sense and just go for a shoot-out when they'll just end up using rifle fire against tanks? Think of the excitement in both of those counties right now. That's something all the money in the world couldn't buy.
Carlow even have their own hashtag now - #carlowrising
I don't particularly like watching their style of football, but would they rather do what Clare did last Sunday, going toe-to-toe with Kerry and conceding 32 points? Like it or not, there's a huge gulf in standards in this championship and teams have the right to decide how they're going to try and minimise the damage that gulf can inflict on them.
In my opinion, Clare would be a stronger team than either Fermanagh or Carlow and I honestly wonder would Colm Collins do things differently if he could rewind the clock a week?
If there's any criticism deserved from the last couple of weeks, surely it's Kildare and Monaghan that should be getting it now. Neither could figure out how to beat a packed defence.
Fermanagh were ravenous last Sunday. They played for their lives and Monaghan just didn't seem prepared for that. The only question people were entitled to ask of Gallagher last weekend was 'Which system serves your team best?' Last Sunday, he gave them their answer.
The big teams, the really serious teams, will beat you either way. Look at Galway. Sligo set up really defensively but Galway found a way around and were 0-7 to 0-1 up after about 12 minutes. This forced Sligo to come out of their shell. Result? The concession of 4-24.
The best teams find a way.