Saturday 23 March 2019

Outrage as under 16s to face barren summer

JOHN GREENE

ONE of the longest running underage inter-county tournaments in the country is under threat following a ruling by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC).

The Fr Manning Cup, an inter-county competition for under-16 footballers, was due to be played in the coming weeks for the 43rd consecutive year but the CCCC has twice refused Longford County Board permission to stage the event.

Six counties compete each year for this prestigious cup and now officials in those counties - Longford, Leitrim, Westmeath, Roscommon, Sligo and Offaly - are angry at what they see as denying young up and coming talent a taste of inter-county football.

The CCCC, which is chaired by Wicklow's Jimmy Dunne, has also been accused of double standards in refusing permission for the Fr Manning Cup to go ahead while allowing similar competitions organised in other parts of the country to procede unimpeded.

In blocking the Fr Manning Cup, the CCCC quoted rule 139 (b), which says inter-county competitions must be confined to four teams. However, there is a clause in the rule which allows for exceptions to be made and the CCCC have exercised this discretion in allowing several other less well established but equally important underage tournaments to proceed.

Meath host the Gerry O'Reilly Cup, which traditionally involves five counties, and it is already in full swing, while plans are well underway for Tipperary Bord na nÓg's under-16 hurling competition. A total of 12 teams, five from Leinster, five from Munster as well as Antrim and Galway, will take part in August.

But when permission was sought to stage the Fr Manning Cup, normally a routine request each year, Longford County Board were shocked to learn that the CCCC intended to impose the rule strictly in their case. Following a subsequent appeal, the committee reaffirmed its position.

"I would accept that regulations are there but I think the sentiments of this rule wouldn't necessarily have been intended that under-16 footballers are likely to suffer from burn-out," says Leitrim County Board secretary Declan Bohan. "The grades they are confined to are their own and minor so I wouldn't see burn-out as a concern."

The Fr Manning Cup was started in 1965 by former GAA president Dr Donal Keenan, George O'Toole from Leitrim and Fr Phil McGee, brother of Eugene. In recent times, Offaly have replaced Cavan in the competition but otherwise the line-up of counties has remained unchanged over the 43 years.

"It has been the breeding ground for county football in this region for 42 years," said Longford chairman Martin Skelly. "This applies both to young footballers and young managers, both of whom could be said to have been 'broken-in' in this competition.

"While one can understand the need to restrict competitions, assure their legality and keep the welfare of young players to the fore, recent rule changes have gone a long way towards ensuring that. But this is a summer competition and plenty of other competitions have received the thumbs up. It begs the question: why are they more important than the Fr Manning Cup?"

In their appeal, Longford argued that the competition was long in existence before Féile, the Forrestal Cup, the Ted Webb Cup and many other underage competitions and that over its 42 years it has provided top class competition for young footballers in the region.

Roscommon, for example, can trace their remarkable All-Ireland minor success last year to good campaigns in the Fr Manning Cup, while Longford (Leinster) and Westmeath (Leinster and All-Ireland) have also benefitted in recent years from exposure to inter-county football for this age group.

But the competition's success and history, not to mention its importance in giving young footballers games, has been dismissed by the CCCC as an irrelevance. When queried on Friday as to why this long-running tournament had apparently been singled out for the chop, a GAA spokesperson said: "In relation to the CCCC judgement on the Fr Manning Cup, it was felt that the conditions for making an exception for this competition were not persuasive enough."

"That a committee could just write off 42 years of history at a stroke of a pen is shameful," said Skelly. "I urge the CCCC to come and meet people on the ground in the counties to see just how much we all want this."

And former Roscommon footballer Tony McManus, who is involved in underage coaching in the county, said the CCCC's decision made no sense. "I'd be sorry to see it go," he admitted.

"I'm looking at Roscommon's under-16s and if they don't have this that means they'll only have two or three games (in the Ted Webb Cup) this year. These players need competitions like this or they then prepare all year just for those couple of (Ted Webb) games."

But while Connacht counties have that to fall back on, the likes of Longford and Offaly now face the prospect of having no football in the summer months for this age group.

In recent years it has become an important stepping stone for players involved in development squads, helping to bridge the sometimes yawning gap between under-14 and minor.

"The Fr Manning Cup is a great competition, well run, and I've never heard anyone complain about it," added McManus, who himself represented his county in the competition. "I think people are going overboard saying there are too many games. This doesn't apply at this age level and if we don't give them games they'll play soccer or rugby instead. Young fellas are mad just to play games so by doing this we're just handing the initiative to other sports. It'll be a serious setback for under-16 managers in this region if it goes."

For the record, the members of the committee, apart from chairman Jimmy Dunne, who made and re-affirmed this decision were: John Prenty, Michael Delaney, Simon Moroney, Joe O'Shaughnessy, Michael O'Brien, Fonsie Tully, Danny Murphy and Aoghán O'Farrell.

Letters of protest from all the counties affected by this decision will be lodged with the GAA this week.

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