It’s not how we make mistakes, but how we correct them that defines us
In February 2016, the GAA Congress narrowly exceeded the 66% needed and voted in favour of changing the age grades for intercounty minor and under 21 teams. The motivation behind this move was well intentioned and sought to address the issue of excessive games for underage players who were playing in multiple grades and often in both codes and to also arrest the increase in player burnout. To have young players walk away from their sport because of the demands of an amateur game was an anathema. Playing gaelic games is a hobby for most and is supposed to be an enjoyable pastime. But something had to be done about undue pressure being placed on young shoulders to play too many games, and often all year round. For too many it had ceased being fun.
The move to make minor games under 17 rather than under 18 was partly motivated by the issue of excessive games and partly motivated by the leaving certificate. At the time of the debate, the GAA’s medical, scientific and welfare chairman Ger Ryan spoke strongly in favour of change to under 17. Former GAA President Liam O’Neill said at the time that the GAA had a ‘duty of care’ to its players. Again, all well intentioned and rational in forethought.
But the impact that the under 18 grade was having on the leaving certificate was probably overstated. And there is never going to be a perfect ‘one size fits all’ model. Transition year is almost universal at this stage and so a larger number of young people are nearly 19 sitting their leaving certificate. In fact, by moving the minor grade to under 17 you may be impacting more on the junior certificate. Certainly from a playing spectacle the under 17 minor grade is not as enjoyable as the under 18 equivalent was. Take the 2020 minor hurling final between Galway and Kilkenny as an example. It could not be played in 2020 due to Covid restrictions and so was played in 2021, when the players were all a year older. By default, we had an under 18 minor hurling final once again. And it was a belter of a game, with Galway running out narrow victors. Was it just a coincidence that the extra year made for a better spectacle; I doubt it. An extra year of skills coaching and conditioning surely had an impact on what we saw.
The club game has followed the intercounty and the impact this is having is significant. In Tipperary we will have an under 17 and an under 19 championship next year and that will be it. So when a player finishes at 19 there are only adult grades left for them. And this could have very significant implications for clubs in terms of player retention. Again, the reasoning behind this was sound and the clubs did vote in the new system. Essentially, once the minor grade switched down to under 17, there would only be room in the fixture calendar for one more grade before adult level. And under 19 was the chosen grade. Delegates had a choice between under 19, 20 and 21.
The old system of under 18 and then under 21 was by no means perfect. But it was, in my opinion, better than the new system. Former intercounty referee Pat McEaney is back coaching in his local club, Corduff Co. Monaghan. He sees the gap between under 17 and senior as being too wide and the under 19 grade is not fit for purpose. His is one of a growing number of voices calling for the old structures to be restored. The 19-20 age group is already very disrupted for young people; new third level, new jobs, moving away from home, year out, and the adjustment to adulthood has seen lower participation at this grade. The net result is overall participation falling off a cliff, according to McEaney.
At 19, the best players are already in with the senior club team and if we neglect the other players who are not at that level then interest gets lost. Not every senior intercounty player had a successful minor career, Lar Corbett and Shane McGrath are two that spring to mind. What a loss to Tipperary it would have been if either had lost interest or faith. It may take a decade before we fully understand the implications of the age grade change but none of the signs are promising. And we should also take into consideration the time of the year that these games are taking place. This year’s county under 21 hurling championship (the final iteration of same) is far from finished at it is mid-December. Last weekend storm Barra resulted in a number of unplayable pitches and postponements. It is inevitable that the 2020 championship will spill into 2021, although that would not be unique. And the better under 21 players will then be gunning for a place with the senior team if they haven’t nailed down a berth already and training for that will begin early in the year. For those in third level, the Fitzgibbon will be starting in earnest in January. For younger players who played under 17 this year, the Harty Cup is in full swing right now. There simply is no close season in the GAA. It is a 52 week full playing calendar. And it’s a hobby!
So, if we accept that the new structures have not righted the ills of the old system, what is to be done? The motivation for change was player burnout and a perceived impact on the leaving certificate. We can discount the latter. There will always be some exam students on an underage team and that can only be managed locally and not nationally. I would argue that playing a match is not a bad way of signing out of study for a few hours but parents and educationalists may disagree. Having your dominant hand broken by a hurley a week before English Paper 1 is another matter, I accept that. But as stated earlier, there is no ‘one size fits all’.
Hindsight is easy, but if we were to revert to under 18 and under 21 would we inflict more damage on underage structures or right some wrongs? I would argue for a return. Make minor hurling and football adult grades again and not under the auspices of Bord na nÓg. By returning the next grade to under 21 a clearer path is evident for player progression. Obviously, not every minor will make an under 21 team the following year, but it allows managers the space and time to develop players over two years and hopefully keep them playing the game. If burnout is an issue then simply prohibit under 18 players from playing under 21. Smaller, rural clubs might argue that such a move would make fielding under 21 teams more difficult. Amalgamations are not ideal but they do solve the issue of low numbers between clubs and ensure that players keep playing. If an under 21 player is good enough for senior then they probably should be allowed to play at both grades but that would be the exception. Mullinahone’s Eoin Kelly is obviously an exception, but by the age of 16 he was a regular in the club senior team whilst playing county minor for Tipperary. Whilst it clearly didn’t do his hurling career any harm it is hardly a blueprint for how players should be developed.
And exceptional players will always be more at risk of over burdening than the average club player. But legislating for the exceptional runs the risk of alienating the majority. Right now, a good 17 year old player is probably playing hurling and football for his school, under 17 and under 19 hurling and football for his club. That is six different teams that they are playing for. Throwing in a county minor team makes seven. If we were to go back to under 18, there would be no need for an under 19 and the burden would be reduced. So any suggestion that the grade realignment has lessened the overburdening of players, the main reason for the change, is just folly.
There is however one major impediment to change. And that is for the GAA hierarchy to admit that they made a mistake. There is nothing wrong with mistakes. ‘A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing (Shaw)’. Yes, the GAA had an issue with player burnout and sought to address it. Has it worked, no. So go back to the drawing board. Back to plan A and tweak it. Fail again? Maybe, but this time fail better.
Join Ronan on the Extra Time sports program, every Monday night on Tipp FM at 7pm.