Outgoing Down Under-21 manager Neil Collins has called on the Ulster Council to take some course of action over players who are forced to commit to too many sides at a crucial age.
Collins, Down goalkeeper from the 1991 and '94 All-Ireland wins, has stepped down along with team trainer Steven Poacher, feeling that while they had enjoyed their time in charge, they were hampered by player unavailability and emigration.
“We lost some under-21 players this year to the States in particular,” commented Collins. “The likes of Keith Quinn who started in the National League for Down, Shane McNamee from Mayobridge, David McKibben from Bryansford, all good players who ended up in the States.”
Rather than the more traditional route of going to play football once inter-county activity was wrapped up, those players went for work.
It mirrored the senior set-up, when Peter Fitzpatrick (pictured) also left for Australia before the National League began.
Mayobridge's Keith Quinn was a leading light for the Under-21s and started the first two games for Down's senior side in the National League against Donegal and Cork.
While he made three substitute appearances at the end of the league, he drifted off to America for work shortly after.
The Under-21 grade is an important bridge for youngsters progressing from minors to seniors and Collins feels that James McCartan has performed well in blooding youngsters into the senior set-up.
“I think James has done a very good job there, I don't know if he is going to stay on — that's his call,” he said of his old team-mate.
“He's delivered an All-Ireland final, National League semi-final and a couple of All-Ireland quarter-finals over the last three years.”
Acting as goalkeeping coach within McCartan's management structure, Collins also got a perfect insight into the work required to blending a squad together.
“Club football in Down wouldn't be seen as being that strong and James has given everyone a chance.
“He was starting to give the likes of McKibben, McNamee and Quinn a chance. Niall McParland has already come through, he was giving the younger guys a chance to come through.”
He continued: “There are some decent players coming through but these things come in cycles, it's going to be a rebuilding process for Downa nd the likes of Benny [Coulter], Brendan [McVeigh] are not getting any younger.”
There was a time when the Under-21 grade would| catch a few late developers, players who might not have shined at minor level, but worked diligently at their game in the meantime to stake a claim of playing for their county.
Now, with development squads creating a conveyor belt of talent, Collins feels a different set of problems exist.
“Most of them are caught in the system from under-14s, coming up right through. The biggest problem is actually between minors and Under-21s.
Some guys drift away after they play school's football and they go to college, there are other distractions and you do lose guys at that age.
“There's a gap there that needs to be filled somehow between the ages of 18 and 21, so we don't lose guys, whether it's away to other sports, or they just drift away from football completely.”
One of the reasons young players can drift away is an excess of expectation from their coaches.
It was noted recently that Cork midfielder Aidan Walsh was playing for 19 different teams last season between hurling and football, for his club, county college and International Rules commitments.
While that may be an extreme example, Collins believes that the demands are becoming virtually insurmountable.
“They talk about ‘player-burnout' and ‘closed-season' and yet, at Under-21 level, you have guys playing college football, in some cases club Under-21 football with the Creggan Tournament [Ulster Under-21 Championship], so the demands made on young lads are absolutely unbelievable.
“The Ulster Council need to line up what's being done there with the colleges because we were finding that we were having to rest players because they were just knackered, which is ridiculous.”
Nevertheless, Collins has enjoyed the taste of coaching, and says he will be back. “I really enjoyed it because it's not just about developing players, it's about developing leaders as well, which is what Down football needs, and is something that is being worked on in the background,” he said.
“The good teams, the top five or so teams, seem to be pulling away from the rest of the counties in Ireland at this point in time; if you have a look at their line-ups you see that there's a leader in each line as well as good footballers. You're developing mentally tough people who turn out to be good leaders.”