If you cut off the bridge the journey only gets harder

An observation was encountered recently outlining how the upturn in fortunes experienced by the Irish soccer team under the guidance of Jack Charlton led to a proliferation of soccer clubs in areas where once such occurrences would’ve been wholly unthinkable. It’s a concept as old as time – in Ireland at least – somebody is seen being successful at something and others then want in.

In that sense, GAA is no different. You can be sure that the Meath team which won the All Ireland MFC in 1990 were inspired in their deeds by the men who brought the Sam Maguire back to the county in 1987 and ’88. So it followed, too, that our Class Of ’92 – as distinct from Manchester United’s – would’ve taken their lead from those who preceded them.

The upshot of it all was that an amalgam of both those sides engineered the county’s first and thus far only All Ireland U-21 FC success in 1993. And, if the latest raft of proposals aimed at tackling player burnout become enshrined, the achievement of the Paul Kenny trained will eternally retain unique status.

Culling the All Ireland U-21 FC – which appears to be the cornerstone of the latest wave of ideas – to me represents an asinine solution. As does the supposed elimination of the All Ireland JFC and IHC. For innumerable reasons. Primarily, in the case of the last underage grade, as it provides an overpass from a players more formative years to their development as performers at the highest level.

If you cut off that bridge, that journey only gets harder. For all bar the most prodigiously talented Minor players, the ascent from the U-18 arena to adult fare must be an extremely daunting prospect. One which will become even more so if the mooted stipulations take hold for – as well as the death knell for the U-21 – also contained therein is intent to restructure how the All Ireland MFC operates. Which would only further magnify the jump from underage to top level football.

There are even more reasons to dislike the flagged alterations. One of which is admittedly an old chestnut here – the importance of representation. It is that which also exposes as folly the defenestration of the other competitions consigned to death row. They may also represent the only chance for some players to play at the highest level possible for them.

And then, what the seemingly condemned entities also do is offer windows of exposure for those who, for whatever reasons, fall through the cracks at other levels. It’s worth recalling that Stephen Bray got his initial inter county grounding at U-21 and Junior. However, even more noteworthy is the realisation that competitors of the calibre of Jimmy McGuinness and John McDermott and Evan Kelly who first transmitted meaningful signals on the radar in the doomed arena.

Now, it would be openly admitted that yours truly has often been an avid defender of that which the mainstream saw as doomed – namely the Railway Cup, the International Rules Series and, equally, the pertinent cases in this instance. Doubtless, there are wisecracks who will align my fondness for such things with happens to be in charge of the Meath teams at the grades in question.

As much as one could give in solely to such a narrow view, greatest affinity for these competitions stems from the opportunities they afford players to represent their counties that may not otherwise accrue. In the case of the All Ireland JFC (and IHC) perhaps the greatest value lies in affording players whom for whatever reason didn’t prosper in other places the chance to achieve in their county colours. First hand evidence was garnered this year of how much it means to players to pull on a county jersey at any level and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to do so.

Which is why the scape-goating of what of what may be unpopular with or unimportant to some doesn’t stack up. Take the IRS for example. Ireland’s captain for the forthcoming encounter with Australia, Bernard Brogan, has spoken openly about his pride in leading his country on November 21st. Maybe more significantly, none other than the great Matt Connor opined that the international game should encompass three Tests, not one.

Nobody is disputing that burnout is an issue – I’ve seen it within my own club this year. However, the competitions with the guillotine hovering over them are not the problem. The elephants in this room are the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup competitions which essentially serve no purpose other than to boost the profile of whatever educational institution happens to win them. It is upon them the Sword of Damocles should drop.


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