Joe Kernan: Investing in youth reaps rich rewards
GAA chiefs are prone to referring to more than one competition as ‘the jewel in the crown’ on the fixtures calendar.
Depending on what takes their fancy, high-profile officials are capable of eulogising the Munster hurling championship, the Ulster football championship or perhaps the Leinster football championship.
Yet there is one particular competition which to my mind has gained added status in recent years and which perhaps best embodies the spirit, skills and passion of gaelic football.
That is the All-Ireland U21 football championship, to my mind one of the most important events of the year.
Not only does the competition invariably throw up some superb matches but it also helps to unearth some of the most exciting talent to adorn the Association’s shop window.
Two counties in particular have already benefited from landing success in this sector and look destined to achieve more because of their commitment to the Under 21 concept.
One is Tyrone and the other is Dublin. When the Red Hands were proving a strong force at Under 21 level in the 90’s, I predicted that some of their players would go on to greater things.
Many of my forecasts in life have been wide of the mark but I got it right on that one. I was not in the least surprised when players such as Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan, Sean Cavanagh and Owen Mulligan transferred their talents from the Under 21 sector to the senior stage with dramatic results.
Indeed, their U21 exploits helped them to develop the winning habit which they continued to nurture at senior level which proved a factor in bringing about All-Ireland titles in 2003, 2005 and 2008.
Tyrone continues to benefit from talent which was groomed on its U21 conveyor belt.
Niall McKenna, Peter Harte and the currently injured Kyle Coney did their county proud in the under-age sector and have their sights set on senior Ulster championships medals this year — something I feel that is well within their gambit.
And while Tyrone’s reservoir of talent shows no sign of diminishing, speculation is mounting that Dublin could remain a strong force at senior level for the foreseeable future.
That’s because their U21 team has just taken delivery of the All-Ireland title with several players underlining their potential to become stars at the higher level.
Cavan too have reaped a respectable harvest at Under 21 level. Two Ulster titles in the past three years bear testimony to the tremendous work which has been done at this level by new senior boss Terry Hyland.
The Breffni county has already helped to bring players like David Givney, Gearoid McKiernan and others to prominence and they look certainties to figure in the senior side for some time to come.
They have already been joined in the senior squad currently preparing for the Ulster Championship by players such as Killian Clarke, Jason McLoughlin, Fergal Finnegan and Jack Brady.
Most Under 21 players are apprehensive about their prospects of becoming regulars at senior level never mind attaining national prominence in demanding arena.
That’s hardly surprising as the provincial U21 championships tend to be run off in haste with mid-week matches timed to start at 8pm when media coverage is limited to say the least.
Yet I would urge participants to focus on the careers of two players who know all about the challenges that the U21 sector offer and the huge demands which come with being an established senior player.
When Armagh won the All Ireland title at Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan in 2004 by beating Mayo, Ciaran McKeever proved an inspirational skipper.
Since then McKeever has been a fixture in the Armagh side latterly as captain. He has also led Ulster in the inter-provincial championship.
Andy Moran, who captained Mayo in that 2004 final, has since remained a first-choice player at senior level and has been playing some of the best football of his career this year.
Moran’s versatility, work-rate and absolute dedication make him a role model for younger players and successive Mayo managers have invariably turned to the ex-Under 21 skipper to galvanise the senior team.
If the exciting new breed view McKeever and Moran as role models, they won’t go far wrong.