Thursday, March 15, 2007

U21 Football Championship: Sometimes the solution isnt staring you in the face!

U21 Football Championship: Sometimes the solution isnt staring you in the face!

As the final bucket seats were screwed into Hill 16 this week in preparation for the impending arrival of soccer to our hallowed turf, Croke Park played host to the launch of the Cadbury U21 Football Championship. Usually these launches are really about ticking the boxes for the corporate sponsors communications requirements, a couple of goodwill quotes, one or two nice photos and bobs your uncle.

Monday was different. For the first time since its establishment in the early forties the Under 21 Grade finds itself under attack from elements of its founding organisation. Much has been said about the new GAA Player Welfare Officer, Paraic Duffy's comments around the potential scrapping of the Under 21 grade. In his role as part of an executive committee to examine the issues of player burnout, this option will I have no doubt be discussed. This week however - the fight back began

Lets get one thing straight from the off. Paraic Duffy as Player Welfare Officer has a very important role in the protecting and nurturing of our many many Footballers and Hurlers. I admire his previous contribution to Gaelic Games and I have no doubt that he will ultimately prove a resounding success in his new role. That said over the last number of weeks a kind of tabloidesque approach seems to have been adopted in relation to the future of the U21 Grade with the media been given sensationalist headlines at every turn.

What exactly are we taking about, for those of you who have not been reading the papers. In a nutshell the GAA has established a special committee to review the issue of player burnout and this committee will go back to HQ with its proposals in time for Congress. However as mentioned in the paragraph above, this committees role has become eschewed into something of Judge, Jury and Executioner for the Under 21 grade. This is quite simply not the answer.

Anyone who has ever played football to a reasonable level will remember the 17-21 years with fond memories. It is a hectic time, with lots of football and plenty of managers. Player burnout is without doubt a contributory factor to injuries and also probably to some players losing the faith and turning to the social life. But players are by their nature competitors and any competitor will tell you that what they enjoy are the matches. The proposed solution of ending the U21 grade is a bit like cutting off an arm to cure a cold. No player in his right mind will thank you for reducing the number of intercounty matches he gets to play, let alone in a grade of football which is widely acknowledged as been the most honest and the most pure.

The issue is over training, its the endless nights on a training pitch, gym or even stuck in a car on the way to these places that cause player fatigue both physically and mentally. This is not a new concept, the GPA has been floating the idea of an elite training programme for players who are caught by the demands of 5 and 6 teams, Ray Silke and Martin Carney have both spoken on the Last Word about the need for greater communication between managers to moderate the training demands on players. Somewhere in the mix of all this the solution rests.

Few journalists have as of yet taken the courageous step in voicing their own opinion. Martin Brehany to his credit has gone on the record, stating his column will do its utmost to support the Under21 grade. The launch of the Cadbury U21 Football Championship was more then a pr event, it was the laying down of a marker. Keith Higgins and Dermot Earley both spoken with passion about the U21 Football Championship, detailing what it means to them - none more so then Keith who as a Mayo man had the honour of bridging that grand canyonesque gap and bringing All Ireland glory in 2006. Cadbury too have to be commended. Their continued support for the Championship has done much to raise awareness of the grade not only among GAA brethren but also among the public at large. Sponsors are often criticised for looking for mentions in coverage, but Cadbury should be lauded - their sponsorship includes University Scholarships Schemes and Player Awards demonstrating a real investment in the game and its players.

Yesterday the message was clear, the Cadbury U21 Football Championship is alive and well........the solution must be sought elsewhere.

The task facing Paraic Duffy and the executive committee is not a simple one, they must look beyond the quick fix, dramatic solution to the issue of player burnout. Instead the must be brave and tackle the awkward situation of getting managers and trainers to begin putting the greater good of the player ahead of their own immediate interests. It is not an easy task by any matter and I wish them well with it. I have no doubt that the solution is there and it will take the sort of strong leadership that only Croke Park can provide that will address this issue of player burnout.

An Smuigin