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Croke Park out of touch on underage grades

Sport

MINOR MATTERS Action from last Saturday’s Mayo Under-17 ‘A’ championship semi-final as Castlebar Mitchels’ John MacMonagle goes forward against Westport. Pic: Conor McKeown


The way I see it
Ger Flanagan

THE GAA loves an auld rule change.
The last decade alone has seen some amount of them, all dressed up as ways of improving the game. Some worked, some didn’t.
What the GAA doesn’t love, however, is admitting when they got a rule change completely wrong.
That’s evident in the latest debacle over the re-introduction of even-age underage grades from uneven ages.
The main motivation in the GAA changing minor from under-18 to under-17 a number of years back was to avoid ‘player burnout’ — a buzz word that has seemingly disappeared from consciousness going by recent dispatches.
It was also introduced to try and clearly separate adult and underage football – good in principle, particularly if you’re a club with big numbers.
However, most clubs around the country, particularly those in rural areas, don’t have that luxury. And many of them heavily criticised the change from Under-18 to Under-17 at the time (and continue to do so), feeling it puts greater pressure to field teams.
An under-19 championship was brought in to try and counteract that problem, but that failed miserably here in Mayo anyway, with lack of interest due to the poor timing of the competition making it a slow burner.
What unfolded was a huge disconnect between the transition of 17 years-old to the club’s adult teams; the gap was too big and too long and ultimately players are being lost as they just aren’t physically capable at that age.
Therein lies a huge problem for 18 year-olds who find themselves lost in the wilderness.
After plenty of conversation and frustration being aired towards the GAA, the powers-that-be in Croke Park have made some recommendations for returning to the even-age grades — but with a caveat.
They are now suggesting implementing a rule that will make any 18 year-old who plays minor club championship ineligible to play for their club’s senior team; dressed up in the guise of ‘player welfare’.
It has been said that the GAA are concerned that 18 year-olds will have it too stressful having to answer to three different managers at one time — minor, senior and a school manager.
Honestly, have you ever heard such absolute nonsense?
This has all the hallmarks of that simply ridiculous rule they introduced a number of years back whereby a a player who lined out with their county’s senior team could then not play under-20 championship.
Again, one polished and presented under the ‘player welfare’ concern but one that failed miserably due to a serious lack of foresight.
Like the under-18 rule which, if introduced, it is only going to punish a few – the most talented of the group and that ultimately promotes elitism.
Only a handful of players are capable at 18 years-old at playing senior football, so why punish them if it’s something they, their parents and the club want them to do? This will only cause rifts between club managers and potentially between the underage players.
That will lead to more stress for a very select few players, because they rule will impact only them. What about player welfare there?
Mayo GAA secretary Dermot Butler hit the nail on the head at a recent County Board meeting too, suggesting that all this will do is put further pressure on rural clubs and potentially cause them to fold.
For clubs with small picks, getting two or three 18 year-olds injected into the squad at the beginning of the year can be a huge addition, a life-line and burst of energy.
For some it’s more about a case of survival.
For ourselves in Balla, we have potentially four or five teenagers ready to step up and begin their integration into the panel. That doesn’t mean they are going to get flogged either, the game has moved on from that.
Any manager or coach worth their salt are fully aware that these young lads need to be protected and acclimatised slowly to the demands, physicality, and pace of adult football.  
The same young lads are generally chomping at the bit to do that too.
We’ve grown up playing football to know and recognise that when you turn 18, you get your taste of adult football.
Being called up to the club’s senior team at that age is such an exciting part of your footballing career and one you build yourself up to.
How are we now going to turn around and tell these 18 year-olds to stay playing underage football, or worse again, choose what you want to play?!
Mayo GAA assistant treasurer Michael Diskin described the terms laid down by Croke Park as ‘hypocrisy’ and that’s exactly what it is.
The lack of awareness they are displaying toward the struggles of rural clubs, and a general understanding of the intricacies of the club game, is seriously worrying.
It suggests a real lack of ability to admit they made a mistake.
If this rule is introduced it will have the exact opposite impact of what the top-brass discussed in their boardroom.
Rural clubs will fall into further decline, the bridge for 18 years-old to senior football will grow even larger, and player welfare will become a huge concern when a decision has to be made on what football they want to play.
It simply cannot happen.
We await the next update from Croke Park.

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