Why it's high time to ditch U-21 grade once and for all
The All-Ireland U-21 football championship is reaching the closing stages with the two semi-finals listed for Saturday next. In fact, the competition celebrated its 50 anniversary last year but nobody in the GAA seems to have noticed. The competition was set up following a motion from Kerry and for good measure Kerry became the first winners of the competition by beating Laois in the final.
The proclaimed reason for introducing the U-21 competition was that it would provide a bridge for talented young players between their minor, U-18, days and their arrival into senior grade. Like all grand schemes proposed at a GAA Congress, the idea seemed to be a win-win situation at the start.
That was until it began to dawn on GAA people that this grade is one of the biggest obstacles for creating a balanced club fixture programme around the country. But more on that later.
As regards the inter-county scene, it is necessary to explain the background that brought that decision about. In the 1960s very few young men were in a position to attend third-level colleges. For a start there were only about half a dozen of these institutions such as the traditional universities UCD, UCG, Queen's and UCC. So third-level football bore no comparison to what it is today in terms of participation and there was validity in the claim that something was needed to nurture late teenage footballers towards the senior county grade.
Today that has all changed - we now have up to 30 third-level institutions and virtually any Leaving Cert student who wishes to can register for a third-level college. So in reality the need that was listed for the formation of the U-21 grade in 1964 has long been provided for by the third-level colleges. A glance at these competitions shows that the vast majority of U-21 players with inter-county potential are now playing and training with the third-level colleges and many of these have higher standards of preparation and competition than most U-21 county teams.
In short, the reasons for promoting the U-21 grade 50 years ago are now largely redundant because young men of that age group are nowadays getting top-class team preparation and plenty of college games of a very high standard. And, as we all discover every year from January to March, there is actually a ridiculous overuse of these players between college and county U-21 games.
In fact, the correct description of this activity is abuse of those players by some managers related to county or college teams.
When we turn to U-21 at club level, it is seen that this grade is a prime cause of club fixture congestion and/or abuse of players leading to burnout. Boys aged 16 have up to now been roped in to make up U-21 teams and if a person is a dual player then mayhem is the only word to describe what is going on regarding fixtures. The GAA has a remarkable facility for turning their backs on these problems and we never see any competition in the GAA being scrapped.
Instead more and more competitions are being added all the time, which makes the task of national fixtures committees in Croke Park practically impossible despite valiant attempts to rectify things.
The hard decision and the correct one for the GAA to face up to is to scrap both U-18 and U-21 as separate entities and opt instead for an U-21 competition at club and county level. There are so many positives for such a proposal that it is astonishing that enough thinking GAA members will not bite the bullet on this.
Players aged 19 today are well able to play inter-county football if they are good enough, thereby undermining the original purpose for county U-21. Young men today are much more mature and more knowledgeable about the science of sport than their predecessors of 50 years ago so this proposed change is necessary.
In most club teams at least half the players are minors at present, which defeats the purpose of U-21 in the first place. An U-19 grade, preceded by U-17 grade, would work wonders for fixture-making. Students, in many cases including Leaving Cert and A-Level students, would be freed from the pressure of county minor competitions to the relief of thousands of parents annually.
Somebody with real clout in the GAA has to take a stand 0n this and the quicker the better. Doing nothing is not an answer.