Why u-21s are okay
U-21 is a strange grade. At one level it is perhaps the most important age group of all because any lad still playing beyond age 18, is heading towards an adult career in senior football and needs to be given a jersey and a team to play for at this critical age when footballers are in the waiting room between underage and senior and other, more attractive temptations are in the way. So u-21 can serve as a perfect bridge into adult football.
The downside is that it is yet another competition to add to Sigerson, club, senior and sometimes county senior, so for a small group of players, it is the last thing they want to see coming over the horizon.
And things can change so much between minor and u-21. Our 2009 minor outfit which won the All Ireland, had been diligently preparing to return and give the u-21 a fair aul rap this year, but succumbed to Cavan in the first round.
It was a lesson to all of us that so many things can get in the way of a manager and his u-21 team, obstacles which just don’t appear to be there at county minor level, which is a competition that enjoys enhanced profile and protected status due to its position in the slipstream of the senior championship.
So Cavan marched on and took an Ulster title which offered some heart to Armagh and made us realise that we weren’t beaten by just any old team. They will be equally disappointed by their finish against Roscommon in the semi-final when it seemed they had the game won, but in the other side of the draw, Dublin were flattening everything that came their way with a match average of 2-15 and only conceding an average of ten points against opposition which included Laois, Wexford, Westmeath and Cork.
Which brings us to last Sunday and the All Ireland u-21 final. Dublin have had the luxury, due to sheer strength of numbers, to release their entire panel from senior county duty and this has allowed their management to develop the team to almost senior standard.
As the TG4 staff prepared in the commentary box, we were joined by no less than five of the Dublin back room team armed with iPads, notepads and walkie talkies, each of them primed to record forensically every single move in the game and report to the management team on the line. This was a full hour before throw in.
What was even more remarkable and impressive was that they were all speaking Irish. We chatted to them for about half an hour, but despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to elicit any information from them about what they were looking for and how they were organised.
Sometimes when a team has too much time together, they start to get ideas about tactics and game plans, and this usually means the ugly spectacle of an extra defender, but this team remained faithful to the basic six two six formula and as a result, they contributed to what was probably the most entertaining game of the year so far.
The fixture was definitely helped by the venue. Tullamore is a perfect provincial stadium with a capacity of 20,000 and probably the best press facilities in the country.
Roscommon played a couple of half forwards behind midfield and this helped them thwart the excellent Dubs attacking unit for long periods of the game. Because Dublin kept their six forwards close to goal, they left a lot of space in their back line and this created difficulties for them when the ball went down the other end.
It took the introduction of three subs, particularly Harry Dawson, to seal the win, but Roscommon can take credit for contributing to what was a thriller.
There is a sobering statistic around u-21 All Ireland winning teams. You have to go back to 1989 when the title was followed up with senior success in county September; in fact, from 2006 until 2009, the team which won the u-21 championship was beaten in the final. Not so much a curse, as an unfortunate statistic
Given the fact that no one from this Dublin side has kicked a ball for the seniors yet this year we have ample demonstration of the strength in numbers the Dubs have at their disposal. If the blue army are not in Croker this September, it will be for entirely different reasons than burn-out from a long successful season in the u-21.
However, don’t be surprised to see the likes of free scoring forward Paul Hudson and Emmet Ó Conghaile who gave a masterclass of high fielding, wearing the jersey later this year.
That night I attended a Talk Sport event in the Hillgrove for little Shauna McPhillips, a six year old girl who suffers from Retts Syndrome.
With Marty Morrissey as MC and Joe Brolly, Mick Quinn from rugby, the FAI’s John Delaney and Niall Maguire from motor sport, it was always going to be an entertaining mix, but Brolly had them in stitches all night.
A great crowd was present and the night was planned with superb precision and professionalism. Dick Clerkin and Ciarán McKeever were also present as was Páraic Duffy. It was a pleasure to have been associated with such an evening.