There was considerable excitement on the internet (where else?!) last week, when an image appeared of Mickey Harte, Tony Donnelly, Gavin Devlin and Mark Harte unveiled as the management team for… wait for it!… Tyrone Under 14s!
I thought of crooner Frank Sinatra, “But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes, he’s got high apple pie in the sky hopes…” Garvaghey Centre of Excellence – Stars in their Eyes.
What next? Under 14 starred games?!
Times have changed. Remember when the missions came to town and swished up the classroom from some exotic far-off land in a bid to call children to the priesthood? It was a great honour for a family when the son announced he had got the calling as he headed off to the Junior Seminary, and the wee lad no more than a child. In the last decade however it was Brian Dooher and Cuthbert Donnelly who brought the Holy Grail, the Sam Maguire Cup, to the schools as the children aspire to wear the Tyrone jersey rather than vestments.
I recall a player hitting off at 15 away from his club training and friends to a Tyrone development squad. Two years later he watched on television, as two lads from his club who weren’t selected for that squad, played on an All Ireland final winning team for Tyrone under 18 team. He had long since been culled, with a patronising pat on the head, to lick his wounds and return home without a plan. “Goodbye don’t cry, wipe the tear baby dear from your eye…” So much for developing and nurturing our young people. How a boy of 14 or 15 is supposed to internalise this process, bar feeling like they have failed and are ‘not good enough’ is beyond me. Or indeed a girl, as the Ladies are at it too with their under 14 Tyrone team.
Fourteen-year-old children should be jumping rivers, progging orchards and swinging off trees not having their heads filled with the regimes of being county footballers. This is an amateur sport for God sake, not the early specialisation required of an Olympic athlete. They ought to be getting guidance from their club coaches alongside their school buddies and the boys they run the streets and fields with.
Development squads in reality are more competitive matches. If they were truly developmental there would be no need for competitive matches across Ulster. This age group already have enough match time across schools and club football, not to mention exam pressures and the real developmental need for a social life.
One wonders how Frank McGuigan, Eugene McKenna and a host of Tyrone stars of the last decade lit up Clones and Croke Park without being conscripted at 13-years of age. Indeed the Ricey boy didn’t even play underage football for the county. What’s more, children develop at much different rates of knots. Show me a great under 14 player and I won’t guarantee you a great minor. Major physiological and emotional changes occur in children at that tender time between 12 and 17. Wee sprogs of lads of 13 often tower over their buddies five years later.
Lynette McShane-Hughes (holder of two All Stars) undertook a PhD in ‘Athlete Burn-out in the GAA’ back in 2008. She received phone calls from concerned parents and club coaches who witnessed a child plucked from their club onto a development squad only to be turfed out and then suffer a crises of identity as a result.
Lynette found that to be ‘cut’ has multiple negative consequences at such a formative age. Having been part of a squad there are formed friendships that are cut, there is the need to explain to everyone who knows you that you are no longer on the squad, there is the feeling of letting family down as they too bought into the expectations long-term. This is all a worry for parents especially the spill-over effect in terms of school and settling back into ‘just club football’.
The writing was on the wall then but despite taking three years investigating the problem and producing her findings, the GAA have failed to take heed and have added more children’s ‘county’ player games rather than less as Pink Floyd sang, “Hey! GAA leave those kids alone! All-in-all it’s just another brick in the wall!”
However as these ‘Academies’ are not going away, parents would be best to encourage their kids to glean as much information as they can to bring back to their clubs where the true formation and development takes place. And we can only pray Tyrone continue the latest trend of kicking long balls into the forwards lest these critters return with their styles stymied and heads full of mind-numbing tactics and blanket defences.
Better still why not have Peter Donnelly, Roger Keenan, Mickey Donnelly, the aforementioned quartet and the other top coaches do guest training sessions for the teenage teams at the clubs and all our youth will benefit, rather than creating the notion of elite child players?
Minor county football has a wonderful tradition in Tyrone.
In their wisdom the GAA reduced the age from under 18 to U17. Seventeen is time enough for young ‘men’ to move away from their clubs. Let the children develop at home.