Gerard O'Kane

GERARD O’KANE: The drop-off game

THERE has been raging debate in the last few weeks around the issue of the age grades in the GAA.  The biggest controversy centres around the minor age grade, formerly u-18 but now u-17.

The GAA changed this three years ago and even now, the reasoning for changing it has never been made clear in so far as having a concrete reason based on evidence. Sure we were given an idea, but the evidence used to back it up just didn’t merit such a drastic change.

Over the last three years, there has never been any sort of uniform agreement as to the best approach to take, but one thing for certain is that the current format certainly does not sit well with most GAA folk at club level.

From the outside it looks like it was changed to suit the county game, which might be fine and well, but that only serves to look after the five per cent of players at that age group. The other 95 per cent of non-county players are left in a bit of a limbo.

To me, the best option would have been to leave it as it. While nothing is perfect, it was a system that had worked well enough for years and it nearly looked like change for change’s sake given there had been three or four reports and studies done in the 10 years previous.

There had to be justification for these reports.

The next best option would have been to do away with the ‘lucky’ birthday system in the GAA and do what soccer does and add an extra half year to each age group, effectively looking at school years for uniformity.

Previously if you were a third year (Year 10) at school, anyone born before December 31 could not play u-14 football whereas anyone born from January 1 onwards could play u-14 that respective year.  I am an October birthday, so I fell into the former category. While it did not really hinder me much, and I say that with the utmost self-awareness, there were lads in my situation who would have benefited from an extra year’s development at that age level. Instead, they were forced to start playing u-16 football and maybe not getting much football.

The extra year at underage proved to be very useful in developing players who were maybe late developers or who physically did not develop until their mid-teens. Indeed,  rumours abound in Derry of clubs who are traditionally football mad who went through a phase of planning childbirths to occur in the first six months of the year meaning the players would get an extra year’s football!

Those same clubs have team sheets laden with January to June birthdays and have been regularly competing at all levels of underage football in the last seven to eight years after time in the wilderness.

Uniformity across the board would have been best here as this is how schools’ football worked as Year 10 was Corn na nÓg, meaning it was technically all of Year 10. This works right up to MacRory level, which was u-18.5.

The last option I would have taken was the one in place at the moment.  I have witnessed first-hand lads leaving underage football at u-17 when they’re only 16 years of age in a lot of the cases because they don’t have a lucky birthday.

The vast majority are two to three years away from playing senior or reserve football, so what are their options?

Most counties tried to run an u-18.5 or u-19 competition, but finding space for it in the calendar was difficult.

Most of the lads involved in those competitions would have been prospective seniors but if one of these games or training clashed with seniors, especially in smaller rural clubs, then seniors always took priority.

The GAA made the change to benefit the elite minority who were maybe playing senior grade football at a young age. While it was well intentioned, it was poorly thought out in terms of the effect it would have on the majority of players not at that level.

The drop-off has been massive. There is always going to be drop-off, I accept that. Once teenagers get to an age where they get their own independence, get a driving licence and are out and about more, the discipline of training three-plus times a week doesn’t appeal to them and we have to accept that, but all the GAA have done is to accelerate that process.

However, in the recent few weeks, instead of holding their hand up like certain members of British politics should do and just admit ‘we got it wrong’, they have come out to give a range of options to clubs to rectify the situation.

The remedies they are providing offer the majority of clubs what they want and are more club centred, but  saying if they do revert to u-18, anyone at that age grade can’t play senior just takes away all the good they are doing.

This means the lad who then does have the ‘lucky’ birthday, won’t be able to play senior football until he is 19 whereas the other lad in the same school year as him, who does not have a lucky birthday, will be able to play senior football even if they are only born two months apart.

I know the line has to be drawn somewhere but for smaller rural clubs like my own who depend on lads of 17 or 18 to try to field two teams at senior level, it’s an impossible trade off.  It does not have to be a massive own goal or a climb down to admit that you got something wrong and often by trying to make a way out of is increasingly looking like it is getting worse.

I would hope that a lot of GAA officials have enough self-awareness to see this.

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