Between 2011 and 2016 Cork won five of the six Munster U21 football titles on offer – but how many of these players have gone on to play senior championship for the Rebels? KIERAN McCARTHY decided to find out
BACK in the 2011 Munster U21 final at Páirc Uí Rinn, Cork spanked Kerry by 22 points (2-24 to 0-8).
That was Cork’s sixth provincial U21 title since 2004, and from that point to 2016, the Rebels would claim four of the next five, giving a grand total of ten Munster U21 crowns in 13 years.
The irony is that from that Kerry team humiliated on Rebel soil, 11 went on to win All-Ireland senior medals in 2014, and players from that Cork team haven’t come close to fulfilling their football potential, for various reasons.
While Cork has been the dominant force in Munster U21 football over the last decade, this hasn’t translated into senior success (or, in fact, All-Ireland U21 success with the last title at this level coming in 2009, with two All-Ireland defeats in 2013 and 2016). U21 success hasn’t bred senior success. Quality players good enough to win U21 medals, and who have no inferiority complex against Kerry teams having beaten them regularly, are not making the jump to senior. Why is that? What’s going wrong?
Assuming that U21 success naturally transitions into senior success is the first mistake. It’s not that easy. If it were, Cork would now be among the leading pack. We all know they’re not. What U21 triumphs achieve is giving players the confidence that they can beat the best around them, and this can help them make the step up.
Parking the class of 2017 – and last week’s thumping at the hands of Kerry – to one side, we’ve looked closely at the Cork U21 teams from 2011 to 2016, a period where the county won five of the six Munster U21s on offer, to see where the conveyor belt is breaking down between this level and senior.
Between 2011 and 2016, almost 90 young Cork footballers played in the Munster U21 FC, and of that, 22 players in that time have figured – to very varying degrees – in the senior football championship. (We’re looking at SFC appearances, not national league).
From the outside, Cork U21s supplying 22 senior players over six seasons seems a healthy return. That’s a steady stream of talent flowing into the senior set-up – but the devil is in the detail.
From the 2011 team, Damien Cahalane, Tom Clancy (Clonakilty), Aidan Walsh, Ciarán Sheehan, Mark Collins, John O’Rourke, Barry O’Driscoll, Donal Óg Hodnett and Tom Clancy (Fermoy) have all played in the All-Ireland SFC. Others to follow since include Ruairi Deane, Luke Connolly, Brian Hurley, Alan Cadogan, Brian O’Driscoll, Conor Dorman, Sean Kiely, Ian Maguire, Stephen Cronin, Sean White, Peter Kelleher, Michael Hurley and Sean Powter.
That’s a talented group of players but as Cork approach the 2017 championship, that U21 success isn’t back-boning the current senior team like it should be, for several reasons.
A problem for Cork is that not a lot of footballers from the 2011 and 2012 teams have gone on to make themselves mainstays of the senior team, players who are in their mid-20s that should be driving and leading on this group. Why is that? Some chose hurling, another is in the AFL, injuries have held others back and some haven’t been good enough.
From that 2011 team that thumped Kerry in the Munster U21 final, Ciarán Sheehan (26) is now playing with Carlton Blues in the AFL, Damien Cahalane (24) chose hurling over football, and Aidan Walsh (27) is trying to find his feet in football again after a spell with the hurlers. They are three potential game changers if they concentrated on football.
When he’s fit and injury free Clonakilty’s Tom Clancy (25) is a regular in defence, Fermoy’s Tomás Clancy (26) nailed down a place in last year’s championship team, injuries have held back John O’Rourke (25) in recent seasons, Donal Óg Hodnett (25) hasn’t made an impression at senior level, Barry O’Driscoll (27) has been in and out of the team, with Mark Collins (27) one of the few from that 2011 U21 team to have established themselves with the senior team.
This talent has only produced one football All-Star, Aidan Walsh in 2012.
From the 2012 U21 team, Ruairi Deane (25) has impressed for Cork in the league this year but he has never started a championship game for the Rebels – that should change this summer. Brian Hurley (25) burst on the scene in 2013 and while a serious hamstring injury has him sidelined, his inter-county career had stuttered after a bright start. Cork hurler Alan Cadogan (23) made his one and only SFC appearance for Cork as a 68th minute sub against Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland qualifier defeat to Donegal, while Luke Connolly made one appearance in last year’s championship, against Limerick.
Brian O’Driscoll (22), who was struggling this season before he dislocated his shoulder in training, hasn’t become the leader (yet) that many feel he has the potential to become, and his form has dipped. But he has time on his side, as do the likes of Ian Maguire (who has featured prominently under senior manager Peadar Healy), Conor Dorman, Sean Kiely, Stephen Cronin, Sean White, Peter Kelleher, Michael Hurley and Sean Powter, the latter duo still U21 this year.
It seems that players from the successful Cork U21 teams from the beginning of this decade never stamped their class and authority when they stepped up to the senior side, and that was highlighted even more when so many experienced men left in 2014 (Graham Cantry, Noel O’Leary, Paudie Kissane, Pearse O’Neill and Alan Quirke).
Suddenly, the loss of such leaders from a dressing-room left a huge vacuum that the young players had to step into and fill, and they couldn’t because they hadn’t the experience under their belts. And then the pressure started to build when results starting to nosedive. It becomes a vicious circle then.
Former Cork U21 manager John Cleary feels that the senior environment needs to be set up to get the best out of U21s when they’re introduced to that level.
‘It’s a big step up from U21 to senior, some take it easier than others and every U21 isn’t going to make it,’ explains Cleary.
‘The senior team will eventually be made up of guys who have played U21.
‘The secret there, I feel, is that they can go into a set-up with a solid foundation where there are experienced fellas to help see them through for a year or two so they can find their feet.
‘You can’t throw these fellas in at the deep end in a set-up that isn’t designed to get the best out of them and they lose confidence after a year or two.
‘You need to give these young fellas a proper chance, surrounded by experienced players.’
There are also external factors outside the U21 and senior set-ups that need to be considered.
• Cork’s a dual county with football in the shadows of hurling; the latter comes first in the boardroom and the terraces.
• The Cork County Board’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh redevelopment will cost €80 million and we should query would some of that money have been spent better elsewhere.
• The club county league and championship structures in Cork are not as competitive as they could be so players aren’t being pushed to perform under serious pressure on a regular basis.
• Players also feel that another reason is the standard of refereeing within the county, with the physical side of the game suffering as a result.
The reasons are many and varied, and they won’t be solved anytime soon, so the success of the U21 conveyor belt falls to Peadar Healy, his management team and senior results. And for the scrutiny that Healy is under, to his credit last season he gave chances to younger squad players last season. In the loss to Donegal in Croke Park, Stephen Cronin, Powter, Maguire, Michael Hurley and Kelleher all started. They’re getting a chance. But they’re the future, to an extent; it’s the older classes of U21s that should be filling the void between the squad’s elder statesmen and young guns.
In last Sunday’s draw with Down in the national league, from the Cork 2011-2016 U21 group, Clancy (Clonakilty), Kevin Crowley, Stephen Cronin, Deane, Maguire and Kelleher all started, while Hodnett and Barry O’Driscoll were sprung from the bench. It will be interesting to see how many see minutes in the Munster SFC quarter-final against Waterford next month, and if the recent U21s can make a successful step up to senior championship football and outshine the class that went before it.