Darragh Ó Sé: Changing grades hasn’t worked out - the GAA needs to go back to U-18 and U-21

Too much is being asked of young players too soon and by removing the traditional stepping stones to senior, more and more of them are going to fall through the cracks

Anyone who was at the Munster minor final in Páirc Uí Rinn a couple of weeks back would have come away from it talking about a Gearóid White.

He was playing wing forward for Kerry and he kicked eight points. Left leg, right leg, frees – as far as I could make out, he didn’t kick a wide all night or drop any ball short. He was exceptional.

There was a time when you’d come away from a game like that thinking, ‘Right, well there’s one to keep in mind for the Kerry senior panel anyway’. Not everyone is a David Clifford who can be ready straight away – and not everyone has to be. You would usually be able to pick out a good minor though and be fairly sure that getting young White in among the seniors in a year or two would be a good idea.

But since the minor grade has gone to under-17, things are so, so different. When you ask around about him, it turns out that Gearóid White is still only 15. He won’t be 16 until August. He hasn’t even played Corn Uí Mhuirí football with his school yet. If he keeps progressing at an average rate of improvement, then by the time he makes it on to the Kerry senior panel, David Clifford will be 30 or very close to it.

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The switch to under-17 and under-20 over the past few years is one of the biggest changes that has ever happened in the GAA. I go to lots of games at both age grades and I can honestly say I have yet to talk to anyone who thinks it has been a good thing. Maybe I’m in a bubble all of my own and it’s actually popular with everybody except the people I talk to. But I don’t think that’s the case.

You’re looking at minor matches these days and the lads playing in them are only garsúns. Even the oldest of them are still only 17. Yet they’re playing matches that are being shown on television, they’re carrying the weight of playing for their county at a younger age than was ever the case. At 15 years of age, the last thing I needed in my life was a load of expectation around me. Most kids are the same.

I don’t think it’s healthy. If minor was still under-18, nobody would know about young White outside a very small pocket of people in Tralee and in John Mitchels in particular. Whatever about him being able to play that well in an under-17 match, he wouldn’t have been next nor near an under-18 Munster final. That year makes an awful difference and he’d be spending it improving naturally and working away himself. Now, all eyes are on him. He’s not being given his best chance to succeed.

It has an effect further up the chain as well. Take the case of Ruairí Canavan. Two years ago, he was the best under-20 footballer in the country. He was off the charts all the way through Tyrone’s run to the 2022 under-20 All-Ireland. Man of the match in the Ulster final, the All-Ireland semi-final and final. Player of the year. And still eligible in 2023.

You see a fella like that coming through and you think he has to be a sure thing for the seniors. It’s like the old GAA saying – think that lad is good? Wait till you see the brother. A player like that who was tearing up the under-21 grade was bound to be ready to go at senior level pretty much straight away.

But the problem for the Ruairí Canavans of the world is that they are arriving into the senior grade a year younger than those who went before them. Which would be fine, except they’re still being judged by the previous standards. Canavan is only 21 now and the first couple of seasons of his senior career haven’t set the world alight. He’s been taken off in the two games he’s played for Tyrone so far this summer and didn’t play in the first Donegal game.

In fact, if you go through it, only four of that Tyrone under-20 team from 2022 got a game against Donegal last weekend. Two years after winning an All-Ireland, you’d normally expect more of them to have come through and be established by now. But again, that’s probably thinking in terms of the old under-21 competition.

There’s always a danger when you talk about this kind of thing of being accused of going on about how things were better in the old days. But that’s not what I mean here. I just think that by going away from 18 and 21 as the stepping stones to senior football, you’re seeing more and more players falling through the cracks.

When a player is over-age for the under-20s, there’s nowhere for him to go. There’s no grade for a county set-up to continue his development. He’s not ready for senior and he’s not getting the same level of coaching and S&C and sports science at his club. He’s neither one thing nor the other and so he has to tread water for a few seasons before he can make the step up. That’s no way for any sport to treat its best young players.

Bottom line, the GAA should go back to under-18 and under-21 as soon as possible.