Saturday 18 January 2020

Bright young U-20 stars have football world at their feet

Galway’s Liam Costello. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Galway’s Liam Costello. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cork’s Cathal O’Mahony is one of seven Rebel players to be honoured with an EirGrid U-20 Award. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Cork's Josh O'Keeffe. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Tyrone’s Darragh Canavan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin’s James Doran. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

In sport, there are few ceremonial engagements where caution is more necessary than the coronation of teenage talent. After all, everyone knows a tale - perhaps many - of the bright, brilliant protégé whose ability simply burnt out or faded away long before it shone at senior level.

All the same, there's simply no way to survey the roll of honour for this year's EirGrid U-20 Awards without taking a quick glimpse into the crystal ball. While this crop of 20 young footballers did more than enough to create lifelong memories this summer, they'll know it's what comes next that counts.

Of course, the seven award-winners from Cork have no need to gaze too far ahead, not when a look into the recent past offers such a pleasing vista. None more so than Cathal O'Mahony, the Mitchelstown player who scored 2-20 in four games and was man of the match as Cork came from nine points down in the final to beat Dublin by 3-16 to 1-14.

Shortly after that game, O'Mahony was flanked by a horde of overjoyed Rebels in O'Moore Park: the drought was over, his county winning its first All-Ireland football title at senior, U-20 or minor level for nine years, the young Rebels showing a spine of steel for a second straight game, having come from seven down to beat Tyrone in the semi-final.

"We thought it was gone in the first 10 minutes," admitted O'Mahony. "But we kept to our system and we knew we'd come through eventually."

Before the game, Keith Ricken - who was awarded EirGrid U-20 Manager of the Year - offered his charges a mantra: "Hope never shatters."

Archer on target: The St Maur’s marksman shot the lights out for Dublin, hitting 8-30 in four games. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Archer on target: The St Maur’s marksman shot the lights out for Dublin, hitting 8-30 in four games. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

As O'Mahony said: "If we drop the ball the whole county is behind us and when we score, they're still behind us. Hope never dies so we just kept hoping."

The awards are now in their fifth year, with winners chosen by the Gaelic Writers Association. Cork goalkeeper Josh O'Keeffe was a deserving choice having been beaten just twice all summer, while Maurice Shanley, Paul Ring and Cork captain Peter O'Driscoll were among the seven defenders.

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Douglas's Brian Hartnett was one of the midfielders honoured after an impressive campaign, while it was no surprise that fellow Rebel Mark Cronin was chosen in the forwards after he bagged 3-14 in four games. When the stakes were highest, the Nemo Rangers marksman hit the net against both Tyrone and Dublin.

Ricken is full of praise for his Cork charges. "They are a pleasure to work with, very unassuming young lads and very grounded. They worked very hard every night."

O'Mahony offered an insight into just what was required when revealing he and other forwards spent a full hour kicking frees before every training session. "It takes huge commitment and calmness in the head," he said. "You can't let the crowd put you off."

Indeed if there's one key trait imbued at this level, it's mental toughness, the callousing effect of performing under extreme expectation. One award winner who seems destined for much bigger things is Ciarán Archer, who was EirGrid U-20 Player of the Year.

The St Maur's marksman shot the lights out for Dublin, hitting 8-30 in four games - a higher tally than the rest of his team-mates combined - to help them to the All-Ireland final.

He scored an additional 1-5 in the decider - just under half of Dublin's tally - but it wasn't enough to halt the Rebel rampage. Nonetheless, any time the 18-year-old got on the ball there seemed a sense of electrified expectation, his slick skills undoubtedly helped by his years as a soccer prodigy.


Once he chose Gaelic football, a dream took hold that one day he could pull on the sky blue jersey. Little did he know that in the summer of 2019 he would form the focal point of Dublin's All-Ireland U-20 drive. "I didn't expect to be scoring as much as I did but I was happy I could help the team progress," he said.

Dublin U-20 manager Tom Gray didn't mask his belief that Archer has something special. "He has a fantastic interest in getting better as a footballer, very curious, very ambitious and very determined. It's a bloody difficult thing to get into the Dublin senior forward line, so it's something we'd been keen to protect as far as possible - to enable him develop as a footballer in his own time."

Archer was one of four Dubliners honoured along with defender Kieran Kennedy, midfielder Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and forward James Doran.

Gray is keen to stress the need for patience when it comes to them taking the next step, but he sees no reason they can't populate the senior team in the future. "So as long as these guys continue to improve, show good form, I've no doubt Jim [Gavin] will give them their chance."

Green shoots, too, in Tyrone, with four of their players honoured: defenders Conal Grimes and Conor Quinn along with forwards Darragh Canavan and Seán Óg McAleer.

McAleer pulled on a Tyrone shirt for the first time in May after a call-up from Paul Devlin and he proved a potent attacking threat for the Red Hand. The Gortin player was top scorer for Tyrone en route to the Ulster final, where his 1-2 helped them past Derry. He scored another five points in their All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork.

Three Galway players were honoured after a year in which Pádraic Joyce's crew claimed the EirGrid Connacht U-20 title. An inspirational performance from Liam Costello in the Connacht final saw him awarded EirGrid U-20 Player of the Province, the Milltown forward hitting four points in their six-point win over defending champions Mayo. He went on to score three more for the Tribesmen as they bowed out in the All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin. Two of his team-mates - goalkeeper Oran Burke and midfielder Matthias Bairead - were also honoured.

But the chosen few were not just limited to the provincial champions, with Mayo's Oisín Mullin and Laois's Diarmuid Whelan also among the award-winners. Whelan was prolific for his native county, the captain leading by example and scoring 10 of Laois's 17 points as they dethroned Leinster and All-Ireland U-20 champions Kildare in late June. The Ballyroan-Abbey player slotted 28 points in four games to help Billy O'Loughlin's side into the Leinster final.

Mullin, meanwhile, proved he has the talent to become a defensive star for Mayo in the years ahead. The Kilmaine player played a pivotal role in helping Mayo to the EirGrid U-20 Connacht final, the corner-back's 56th-minute goal against Sligo putting the seal on a semi-final win.

What happens next in all these fledgling careers, of course, is a mystery. It will be decided in part by their own choices, the youngsters' level of resilience and application as they enter the minefield of the senior ranks. But it may also hinge on luck, with injuries, illnesses and the lottery of life itself all capable of derailing the most promising career.

As such, it's only right not to make any bold predictions but to herald them for what they are: the 20 U-20 footballers who shone brightest this summer. As winning manager Keith Ricken notes, their emergence could prove the impetus for a revival, or further bolstering, of their respective counties' senior panels. "It keeps the older fellas on their toes," he said, "knowing these younger fellas are coming through."


EirGrid, the state-owned company that manages and develops Ireland's electricity grid, has been title sponsor of the U-20 GAA Football All-Ireland Championship since 2015

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