Winning at underage level isn’t an absolute pre-requisite in terms of senior success in the GAA, but it’s definitely of some value. Or should we qualify that by saying that winning at U21/U20 level is more important than minor titles? Let’s look back to assess.
On Saturday, the 2020 inter-county hurling season finally came to a close with victories for Galway and Cork in the much-delayed All-Ireland minor and U20 finals respectively. For the Tribesmen (or Tribesboys, as the grade is now U17?), who beat Kilkenny, it was the county’s fourth straight minor title, having taken the last U18 one and the first three since the age-change.
On the other end of the spectrum, not a single Cork U20 player was alive the last time the county had triumphed in what was then the U21 grade, back in 1998.
Allied with the wait since 2001 for a minor title and the fact that the county hasn’t won the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 2005, the U21/U20 drought was one stick used to beat Cork with. In 2018, it looked as if the county was destined to win the last U21 title but, having beaten Tipperary handsomely in the Munster final, they fell to a late Tipp surge in the All-Ireland decider. The following year, in what had become U20, the Rebels were second-best to Tipp in both the provincial and national finals.
There was a lot of hope for the 2020 intake, who had shown signs of form coming up the development-squad route and were somewhat unlucky to be the ones to miss out on their minor year as the age changed from U18 to U17 in 2018. A special one-off U17 competition was run as a compensation of sorts in 2017 and Cork triumphed in that, beating Dublin in the final.
Then, when COVID-19 first hit last year, bringing with it lockdown and uncertainty, it seemed that there might be a chance that no U20 championship would be played and the players feared that they would miss another major milestone in their development.
Thankfully, the campaign did begin, however belatedly, though, after Cork’s Munster final win over Tipperary on December 23, the intended January dates for the Leinster and All-Ireland finals had to be delayed as restrictions kicked in once more in the immediate aftermath of Christmas.
Finally, things picked up again when Dublin overcame Galway in the Leinster decider in late June but, unfortunately for them, the outcome against Cork reflected that of the U17 final four years ago.
A blistering start for the Rebels in Nowlan Park, scoring an unanswered 1-4 in the opening eight minutes, gave them a lead that was never relinquished despite Dublin pressure, and the hope on Leeside will be that those players can make the step up to senior level and help to end what is now the joint-longest wait for a senior All-Ireland, level with 1903-1919.
A cursory glance at the U20/21 roll of honour shows some correlation with senior, albeit with the large caveat that Kilkenny haven’t won once since 2008. That aside, Tipperary, Clare and Limerick have all benefited from success at U21 but in contrast winning minor All-Irelands isn’t necessarily a reliable guide of future success.
Galway’s win over Kilkenny at the weekend was the county’s 11th All-Ireland at minor since 1999 with only three claimed prior to that, all since 1983.
They have also been beaten in six finals since the turn of the millennium but a major element to take into account is that, while Galway do now compete in the Leinster U20, they are still classed as Connacht at minor, coming into the championship at the All-Ireland stage.
Obviously, the flipside of that is that they often don’t have a back door against teams carrying some momentum behind them, but it’s a system that does seem to have worked out well for the county.
In contrast to the minor triumphs, Galway’s only U21 wins since 2000 have been in 2005, 2007 and 2011, while the 2017 senior All-Ireland bridged a gap of just short of 30 years.
This shouldn’t be seen as Galway-bashing – they have looked to become part of Leinster at minor level in the recent past and been rebuffed – but more to illustrate that, somewhat unsurprisingly, the older grade tends to be a more accurate barometer.
That said, four minor All-Irelands in a row can only bode well for Galway at U20 in the coming years and, they will hope, by extension, senior level.
As an aside, I was in attendance at Nowlan Park on Saturday evening and the Kilkenny County Board, and in particular the hard-working and genial PRO and event controller Séamus Reade, deserve immense credit for the hassle-free way in which the event was run and the media were looked after.
Perhaps the boys from Kilkenny should have been consulted by those in charge at Wembley on Sunday evening as scenes of carnage were shared on social media, with fans without tickets making their way into the stadium for the European Championship final.
While England manager Gareth Southgate is a likeable guy and has assembled a good squad of players who embody the positive aspects of Englishness, there remains a sizeable minority who will ensure that the neutrals will always struggle to support them. The booing of opposition national anthems is the mild end of the scale and Sunday displayed the worst examples of the kind of followers who seem stuck in the ‘glory days’ of the 1980s, when football was seen as a no-go area by many due to the levels of hooliganism.
Beyond the appalled reaction such images provoke, however, there is a more tangible knock-on in that any hopes the country has of hosting the 2030 World Cup have surely taken a major blow.