The world has of GAA has been in the doldrums for the whole of 2021, with the start of the National League in February postponed due to another Lockdown, before again being put on the backburner when inter county stars lost their ‘elite status’ in March.
But finally there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with county panels back training and the new GAA calendar released giving supporters something positive to look forward to in the Summer.
While all the attention on the county has surrounded the Senior team and what success Mickey Harte might bring to The Wee County, in the background a Strategic Review was under way to see what the county board could do to improve the fortunes of the sport in Louth.
No matter what the Tyrone legend brings to the table, his legacy will be quickly lost if the right structures are not in place to secure the future of the sport, with former county player Derek Crilly heading up the team that looked to see why the county was underperforming.
With creating the stars of the future in mind, the review looked at making several changes to how the county develops talent at underage, with unlimited subs, guaranteed game time and games broken into quarters some of the changes Strategic Review team hope to make.
“With unlimited substitutions it works with what we are trying to achieve” he explained. “You give the opportunity to the coaches to bring players in and make changes and they have time to do this as opposed to just rolling people on in the last couple of minutes.”
“It would be just in the league to begin with, in the long-term looking at coming to a system where everybody must be guaranteed game time, maybe 30 minutes at U13, 15 minutes at U15 to help with the retention rate and make sure kids are given the opportunity to play.”
The current Games Development officers knows that retention of players is key to the county succeeding and believes that needs to start with clubs having strong relationships with the local schools.
Where this becomes a big issue is in the urban centres like Dundalk, where several clubs may feel a school should be under their supervision, while this is big a problem Crilly feels the clubs need to look at the bigger picture.
“There is no point in no club going into a school because they are not quite sure who is responsible for it, we need to get them into some form of agreement, maybe in that case it is not about allocating a club to a school but making sure they are provided with coaching services in general.”
“It is going to be a tough one to solve, put people need to look at the grander picture and maybe sometimes look beyond your club in terms of developing players as a whole and getting more players involved in the GAA.”
When it comes to secondary school’s football, the review team felt the county needed to have more teams competing in the Leinster A school’s competition with only two teams currently fielding at that level.
The amalgamated Dundalk Colleges side has won it twice in recent memory in 2002 and 2011, and while The Dundalk Gaels clubman feels teams like this have served their purpose in the past, the county needs four to five teams competing at that level to help create more talent for the future.
“Why couldn’t we have more teams competing at that level? It is the level at which we need to get to but it won’t happen overnight and will take lots of work from both the schools and Louth GAA, but it is definitely achievable as the kids in Louth are no worse than anyone in the country.”
“They just need to have those opportunities and have the support networks in place to allow them to show off what they can do.”
Football may be the predominant code in the county, but that hasn’t stopped the Review team from looking at what the county board can implement to improve the fortunes of hurling in Louth.
2020 saw the Wee county collect national silverware in Croke Park when winning the Lory Meagher Cup, while Andrew Mackin was named on a dream team that encompassed the best hurlers outside the top two tiers of the game.
Young hurlers now have role models to look up to, but need more exposure to the game, with Crilly hopeful of creating a separate hurling review board that can look at improving the relationship between clubs and primary schools while creating more competition for older players to improve their skills.
“Maybe the secondary schools are not fit to compete in Leinster competitions so it is up to Louth to see if we can find some good competitions for them, have three or four schools involved in the first year and you could expand on that year on year.”
“These things take time but I think it important that people have exposure to hurling at a young age by getting it into primary schools. I don’t think we ever got exposure to it growing up which makes it very hard to get people involved and that needs to be looked at.”
All in all, the changes at underage level are about retaining the best players, giving them the greatest opportunities to develop into the county stars of the future.
The appointment of Harte has reinvigorated the county’s love affair with football and given young players something to look up to.
Crilly knows times are tough but believes these changes are the only way of ensuring Louth will get the best 15 players on the pitch constantly and allowing them to get back competing for trophies.
“Let say you pick your best 30 players in Louth and then 10 of them drop off then you are moving on to the 40th best player as such, then you lose another ten and that is just a simple example. You need to be able have your best players playing.”
“There will become a time when teams like Louth can challenge Dublin, so you just have to look after your own house and make sure people are looked after, valued and really want to represent Louth.”