Sunday 17 November 2019

Martin Breheny: Horan's stand on developing squads needs to be tough

Young county panels in new president's sights amid evidence of rampant elitism

Paul Murphy (pictured) never played minor for Kerry, yet was All-Ireland SFC final man of the match in 2014, while Kildare’s John Doyle and Galway legend Noel Lane were also ‘late developers’. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Murphy (pictured) never played minor for Kerry, yet was All-Ireland SFC final man of the match in 2014, while Kildare’s John Doyle and Galway legend Noel Lane were also ‘late developers’. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

John Horan chose the words carefully for his inauguration speech as new GAA president, but was more blunt later on.

That he opted to use his first address to GAA Congress to announce plans for a 'review' of underage county development squad practices indicates how high up his 'things to do' list it is. His charge sheet included: 'starting too early', 'creating elitism', 'having a detrimental effect on young players who end up being cast aside after a few years'.

Horan later elaborated on his concerns, alleging that players' best interests were not always a priority.

"Some people are getting carried away with their own self-importance. In some instances, they are under unnecessary pressure and are being deemed a failure before they have even graduated from minor," he said.

There was more too. Players in county development squads should train in their club colours to remind them of who they really were; their training load needs to be addressed; interference by parents is a concern; choosing the best mentors is vital.

"It's key to get the right people looking after these squads for the good of the young fellas, rather than promoting their own CV to become a future minor manager," he said.

John Doyle. Photo: Sportsfile
John Doyle. Photo: Sportsfile

Strong words from Dublin's first native-born GAA president since the 1920s, but since he had spells as the county's minor football manager and selector, he is obviously well-qualified to comment on the underage pathway process. Can it be taken that he is not happy with what's going on in his own county, even if others hail it as a template to be revered and repeated?

He knows the Dublin scene well so it's reasonable to assume that some of the people 'getting carried away with their own self-importance' and 'promoting their own coaching CV to become a future minor manager' have a blue background.

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Not that underage overloading is confined to Dublin. Nor indeed it is restricted to young footballers and hurlers. It's just as prevalent in other sports, including camogie and ladies football, but obviously Horan is only concerned with areas that come under the GAA's remit.

Anecdotally, there are stories of players as young as 13 years old so immersed in county development squads that they regard it as the most important thing in their sporting lives, certainly more central than their clubs. The same goes for parents. "Sometimes the parents take over and see it as more important than being at club training or playing with the club," said Horan.

Of course they do. After all, if the system is telling them that their little Johnny is, in effect, an elite athlete at the age of 13, most will go with it, basking in the thrill of possibly being on a journey to senior stardom.

As for little Johnny, it's encouraging him to believe that he is something special, operating several notches above his club colleagues who haven't made county squads.

Noel Lane
Noel Lane

Will he go back to his club, anxious to share the knowledge picked up at county level or, alternatively, will he think 'this lot are beneath me?'

It's hard to blame him if he opts for the latter. He has the status which goes with being on a county squad, complete with all the perks it brings.

All of which would be fine if it were good for the youngsters involved. But is it? If you think you're special at the age of 13 or 14, the chances are that life has noticed and is not very impressed. A belt of reality can't be far away.

Young talent should be nurtured, but does it have to be done while wearing county gear? After all, players of the calibre of Kerry's Paul Murphy, Johnny Doyle of Kildare and Galway hurling legend Noel Lane are proof that not lining out at minor level doesn't stop you from becoming a top-class senior hurler or footballer.

Apart from giving youngsters an inflated sense of their own talents and some mentors an over-sized impression of their managerial skills, it can form an exclusion zone which others find hard to penetrate.

Yes, there will be trial games, but in many countries, the nucleus that's brought together in the early stages of a development squad tends to be regarded as superior all the way up to minor level. Horan has identified an area that needs to be addressed and is obviously determined to do something about it.

Of course, the big challenge facing him is how to slow down the development train. Experience across the GAA shows that guidelines are a complete waste of time. Even rules and regulations are often ignored when it comes to county teams.

The ban on returning to senior county training until specified dates is largely ignored. So too with the restrictions on when training minor and U-21 (now U-20) squads can commence.

As for playing club games during the All-Ireland championships, it just doesn't happen in most counties.

It will be the same with attempts to curb development squads unless a really strict line is taken. At the very least, that should include abolishing all inter-county competitions below U-16 level. Horan will have a major input into the review of development squads and, having made his concerns clear so early in his presidency, presumably he is prepared to take a tough line.

The tougher the better.

Irish Independent

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