Watching, admiring, hoping

Did you ever watch somebody, sporting or otherwise, and just get an inkling straight away they were destined for stardom? Off the top of my head I could name a plethora, quite a few of them close to home. 

Graham Geraghty and Emma Duggan are two that jump off the page. On a larger scale, Tiger Woods, Ryan Giggs (park all non sporting thoughts on those two for a minute), Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, the list could stretch from here to Killarney. 

They don’t always transpire as planned, of course. For instance, Paul Walsh was one of the ‘other’ stars on the Sean O’Shea/David Clifford Kerry Minor teams but for whatever reason – as one of my Kerry sources put it – he didn’t “Kick on”. Point being, it happens. From any good underage team – and by that I mean a team that has actually won something – you’ll be lucky if you get a handful of lads who make it to the highest level.

I always think Meath’s Minor footballers of 2012 were a particularly unlucky group. As they were faced with the best underage ensemble Dublin had produced in decades. From which graduated Evan Comerford, Jack McCaffrey, Emmet O’Conghaille, Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello. Enough said. 

Still, from the Meath team that day, Shane Gallagher, Padraic Harnan, Shane McEntee, Adam Flanagan, Cillian O’Sullivan, James McEntee and Barry Dardis all went on to garner various degrees of experience at the highest level. Indeed a commendable number of them are currently part of Colm O’Rourke’s ongoing operation. 

However, naturally, eventually thoughts must turn to the production line with a view to keeping the whole process. Thus, where, from later Minor sides than the one mentioned above, other players such as Ronan Jones, the Ryan twins from Summerhill, Darragh Campion, Mathew Costello and James O’Hare – to name but a few – have graduated to the top rank, that need is never quenched. 

Already from this year’s U-20 footballers, Conor Gray and John O’Regan have been called up, with Sean Brennan, Sean Coffey and Ben Wyer elevated from the Development Squad. It is my understanding that the latter-named amalgam are all U-23 and, incidentally, that at least Ciaran Caulfield and Eoghan Frayne have also been brought in from John McCarthy’s group who lost out to Dublin. 

Conor Gray’s stock within Meath football continues to burgeon

By the very nature of these things, though, already one eye will be being cast in the direction of this year’s Minor panel. Stephen Morgan’s charges have incrementally improved with every outing to date. As remarkably demonstrated by their outstanding comeback victory in Wexford on Tuesday last.

Now, maybe this is just age on my part or cognisance of how difficult it can be to get lads through to the highest level, but, it would be my earnest hope that temptation to parachute bright prospects into the bigtime too hastily can be abated. 

It’s both understandable and to be expected that any team wants to compete as well as they can at the highest level available to them. However, as much as I would be a believer in ‘Old enough if good enough’, when you have prized assets, you want to invest them as wisely as possible to maximise the potential dividend on the investment. 

In other words, play the long game. The challenge on that score from a Meath perspective is to get players from Minor to U-20 to the top table. A task made all the more onerous by the recalibration of the underage competitions in recent seasons. You’d imagine that was a lot of the reasoning behind the Development Squads. 

Anything to maximise the chances of the best possible results accruing via underage talent. One thing that is certain, mind you, no matter where you might end up on foot of underage success, without it, making progress becomes a gargantuan task. 

Surely it’s not coincidence that Dublin and Kildare have, or at least had, pulled a distance clear of everybody else in Leinster at the same time as their underage teams had several high yielding harvests. 

If you consider the above too narrow of an examination lens, then take a look at the changing picture in hurling. At underage level in particular. It’s not all that long ago that Kilkenny’s annexation of all the provincial titles available was such a foregone conclusion one genuinely wondered was there any point in continuing to stage the competitions at all. 

Chances are that was a big part of the admission of both Antrim and Galway to the Leinster hurling championships. And, with the latter in particular, they most certainly have certainly added bite to the chase for the Bob O’Keeffe Cup. It has to be said, too, however, that the picture has changed with the ‘native’ Leinster teams as well. 

It could hardly be the case that The Cats have taken their eye off the ball, so the only logical conclusion is that the other counties have instigated improvements in their own right. 

The most striking of which have undoubtedly been Offaly. Firstly by way of the advancement engineered by the late Liam Kearns – and Declan Kelly with their U-20 footballers before that. But I feel the progression of the Faithful County hurlers deserves even greater commendation. 

Offaly folk have always punched above their weight whether that be in football, hurling or on the golf course. Producing some true greats in all aforementioned codes – Matt Connor, Brian Whelehan and Shane Lowry. 

In GAA terms at least, for whatever reason, like a lot more counties – Meath included – the production line all but ground to a halt. Until the last few years when, as stated above, Declan Kelly guided them to an All Ireland U-20 FC. 

On the hurling side, progress has been more gradual but no less noteworthy. Last season, they went agonisingly close to lifting the All Ireland MHC, only losing out to Tipperary with literally the last puc of the ball. 

Even though Leo O’Connor’s side lost out, it would be ventured that I wasn’t the only one with only one name on my lips that evening – it being that of their corner forward, Adam Screeney. 

His was a performance akin to that of Peter Canavan in 1995 All Ireland SFC Final. Seldom if ever has one man gone as close to single handedly depositing a trophy on their team bus. During the past week, Screeney pulled off the feat. 

Well, it must be said that the Kilcormac-Killoughey youngster was ably assisted by at least a half dozen other stars in the making but Screeney’s 1-12 was as good an individual display as I’ve seen in a very long. 

Faithful followers were no doubt watching, admiring and yearning for the giant leap to be fast tracked. You’d hope not. All in its own good time. Likewise close to home also.

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