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U-21 debate still burning

Sean Rice
Keith Higgins
A BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY Even when taking a rare break last year Keith Higgins took his hurley with him to a Mayo game.  Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

U-21 debate still a burning issue

Sean RiceSean Rice

NOT for the first time has burnout indulged the minds of GAA administrators, and not for the first time has the culling of the U-21 championship been proffered as the cure to the problem.
Too many demands on young, quality footballers is curtailing their playing careers, it has been said, exerting too much pressure on their college examinations, killing their football urges before they even reach full maturity. Drop the under 21 grade, and everything will be hunky dory.
A task force to investigate the problem, which is prevalent in the 16-21- year age group, has now been established. Chaired by Dr Pat O’Neill, the former Dublin footballer, an authority in sports injury, the panel includes Mayo’s hurling and football star Keith Higgins, who has played college, club and county underage, as well as hurling and senior football in the same year . . . a prime prospect, surely, for burnout.
But Keith is on the panel to prove otherwise, to personify, perhaps, why the numerous competitions in which he has taken part have not blighted his interest or his urges.
We didn’t experience the pleasure of U-21 football in our own day. Up to the sixties you played minor, junior or senior . . . or nothing at all. Some of those on the periphery of the county senior team played junior, together with a lot of tough, leathery evergreens, like Josie Munnelly, whose winning of an All-Ireland junior title at the age of 42, twenty-one years after winning his All-Ireland senior medal, is well documented.
Josie apart, it was difficult to progress from minor to senior. Only those with exceptional ability made the grade. More than half of the successful 1951 side were university students, their talent detected mainly in the Sigerson Cup competition. Only a handful of people got the privilege of third level education at the time. Most made do with the Primary Cert, and then emigrated. Those dark, sterile years cost this county scores of burgeoning talent.
Just as the new grade of intermediate football in the ensuing decades facilitated transition to senior football at club level, the introduction of the U-21 competition was a stepping stone to county senior level . . . especially for those with no college education. The two new competitions eased players up that extra rung, helped broaden their range of skills and deepen their self-belief.
To abolish that grade now without concrete evidence of  any adverse affect it might have on the careers of young players would be a retrograde step. Not everyone this column has talked to would agree with its abolition. Certainly not Pat Holmes, the only man to have led Mayo to two male All-Ireland football titles in more than twenty years.
“Bunkum,” said Pat. “It is ridiculous to attribute burnout to U-21 football which involves no more than four or five games a year.”
Paraic Duffy, the GAA player welfare officer, was leading the charge to have the u21 grade abolished, he said. It was a one-man crusade. The burnout of young players was down to training methods, nothing else. If there was proper communication among managements of the various grades within counties, burnout should not affect young players.
Pat Holmes said the U-21 competition was great for players . . . and especially for those who did not go to college and did not have the advantage of the Sigerson Cup to display their skills.
He said the managers in Mayo saw to it that there was no overlap in training methods. Players trained with the senior squad or the u21 squad, not with the two. College players also trained with just one squad. “I don’t know whether this system was abused in the past, but we work closely with other managements to ensure our players are not over trained. Burnout is caused when players train with two or three different squads.”
Holmes believes that because they did not go to college, the likes of Sean Ryder or Trevor Howley would not have made the senior squad were it not for their performances in the u21 competitions.
Keith Higgins will be a strong advocate on the task force for the retention of the competition. “Under 21 is a great level for lads to express themselves really. They come out three years after minor, they’ll have matured a lot, so I think it’s a great competition,” he said. Kildare’s Dermot Earley, who is also of the belief that it is all down to the way players are handled by their managers, has supported him.with difficulty. More will be demanded from them to beat the better teams.

NOTHING EASY ABOUT OUR VISIT TO CORK

EVERY encounter has been fraught with danger, every win a step closer to the main objective . . . retention of Division 1 status. Only once has Mayo stumbled, and that narrow defeat has been the stiffest of Donegal’s four victories.
Next Saturday Mayo embark on their most hazardous journey so far . . . to Cork to take on the Rebel county under lights. Their last luckless journey to that county ended in narrow failure.
It’s a difficult mission for John O’Mahony’s men. Cork have been in yo-yo mood throughout the spring, but suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Dublin in Parnell Park, and will be looking to the Mayo match to spring back into contention.
It is their last chance. They have lost all but one of their games . . . and in that one they shocked Tyrone. Lose on Saturday and relegation is irrevocable. In that frame of mind Cork will take the field, and Mayo must be prepared to face the sting of a side scrambling desperately for survival.
Mayo have done reasonably well, having had to field makeshift sides on occasions. In all of their games there has been room for improvement and John O’Mahony and his selectors continue to experiment without causing any serious disruption to those in settled positions.
The defence has been the most staple sector of the team since the league began. While no member is guaranteed a place, the six backs now in position have, on the basis of their performances so far, legitimate claim on their respective positions.
James Kilcullen and Billy Joe Padden - both newly installed - may not have set the world alight in the central positions, but they have proved themselves more than adequate, steady rather than spectacular, and, come summer, ought to be well established key backs, alongside Liam O’Malley, Keith Higgins and Peadar Gardiner. The two latest additions – goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley, and wing-back Enda Devenney – have also adapted well.
Midfield is perhaps the position causing most problems for management. Mayo have struggled without David Brady and Ronan McGarrity. James Nallen and Pat Harte are most likely to occupy the positions on Saturday and they are likely to struggle too.
Nallen’s razor sharp mind compensates for his lack of physique, but Pat Harte has not yet reached the heights of his potential. In the last few games he has shown only fleeting glimpses of his true form. He has the talent, but a question mark seems to hang over his degree of fitness.
Nor have forwards settled in to any definitive pattern. Experiments continue, and will continue throughout the league as management endeavours to fit players into their most suitable positions. Cork will provide them with a few answers.

THE young man is irrepressible. In the dying seconds of injury time Keith Higgins swung over the equalising point that gave Mayo a share of the spoils in Div 2B of the Hurling League at MacHale Park on Sunday. The Ballyhaunis man scored three of Mayo’s six points, and was instrumental in leading the late rally that forced the draw.
The hurling was poor, but in the prevailing arctic conditions the wonder was that they played as well as they did. Snow, hail, rain and galeforce winds greeted the teams onto the field. At times, the ball was barely visible.
Leading by four points to three at the interval, having played with the help of the wind, Mayo’s chances looked slim. And when London tossed over three points in the first six minutes of the second half, their win seemed assured.
But courageous resistance by Derek Walsh, Ger Whyte, Paul Hunt and Paddy Barrett denied the visitors a further score, while Higgins led the charge up front. A minute from normal time Paul Broderick pulled one back for Mayo, and seconds from the end Higgins, receiving a fine cross from Ger Whyte, scored the dramatic equaliser . . . a draw with which they ought to be well satisfied.

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