Have we our eyes covered in Louth GAA, compared to Dundalk Schoolboys' League? (Pic: Aidan Dullaghan)
There was a positive reaction to last week’s interview with Dundalk Schoolboys’ League chairman Michael Dillon, in which the clubs’ decision to remain using a ‘calendar’ season format was widely explored.
Personally, I’ve always found Mr Dillon to be a most approachable individual and having stewed over particular aspects of what he had to say, one’s view of the job he’s doing - or attempting to undertake - has risen in stock.
For there to be a solution, there has to be an acknowledgement that issues exist. In moving from the winter-spring format, the days of mass, weather- prompted call-offs are all but gone. And then there is the participation end of the spectrum. Figures released by the Irish Sports Monitor in 2017 found a drop-off of 8.1 percent in the number of males between 16 and 19 playing soccer from the previous survey two years earlier, 30.7 to 22.6 percent.
Of course, while the population grows, the average family size has reduced considerably from prior generations, which has a direct influence on the number of teams competing.
In terms of the schoolboys’ league, this season there is just one U14 division and the same at U16 and U17. There hasn’t been a league at either U18 or U19 level in a number of years, due to lack of interest, while the Summer League were unable to organise an U19 competition, which, by all accounts, ran successfully in its first staging last year.
Football administration is a thankless task, in reality, especially now when the world appears to be such a tumultuous place.
Yet guardians of the schoolboys’ league deserve credit. Against the grain, with factions in Dublin and Cork having moved back to the prior programme of winter/spring, Dundalk stuck by a format they feel is doing the local game good.
“I know playing on poor pitches, in cold weather and in the rain, players and parents aren’t inclined to come out,” Mr Dillon said.
“What I notice in the summer we’ve had so far is that there are a lot more people out watching the games and there’s other, smaller children playing on the sidelines when the games are going ahead.
“Hopefully, if we can get the right days to play the games and right combinations of not interfering with other sports, I think there’s a possibility of improving numbers.”
The innovation is to be greatly admired.
ON THE OTHER HAND
Incidentally, I received correspondence from a GAA coach last week, a man who is charged with looking after his club’s minor team. The outlook was much different.
“Can you possibly get an answer off county board on what football our club minors are playing next as I’ll have 18 lads expected to step up to adult football with minor going to u17. Massive risk of losing a lot of these lads from our sport,” the first message read.
“I’ve been hitting a brick wall you may get a bit of luck. All minor managers I’ve spoken to regarding this are highly frustrated.”
Again, those who take on officerships within GAA in Louth must be commended, given that the majority of the relative individuals are there, like Mr Dillon, for the right reasons. And, as has been preached on these pages before, your writer would never be envious of those charged with organising fixtures.
But the sentiment behind this particular coach’s out of the blue contact is concerning. Here’s someone who wants to develop his team and club, and yet an unsubstantiated decision by Croke Park to reduce the minor grouping could have widespread, negative consequences - especially where Louth, who would seem under-prepared, are concerned.
In many ways, HQ’s opting to reduce the minor and U21 grades by a year, to 17 and 20, is like the FAI’s directive for schoolboys’ leagues to move from a winter-spring basis to ‘calendar’ football. In some cases, bodies reneged and went back, with the FAI accepting their actions and now the decision lies at the discretion of the individual leagues’ overseeing body.
Isn’t it just a pity that the GAA wouldn’t review its ruling. On a basic level, the fact that inter-county minor games are now gone from acting as the curtain-raiser to senior championship matches is shameful, particularly finals. The recent Leinster decider between Kildare and Dublin was a thriller and yet neither the occasion nor the players got the limelight they deserved because it was a standalone meeting played in Navan.
But back to the correspondent’s message, Louth football is already in a precarious state and the development of players is hugely questionable as things are, but the danger is now real that there could be a major drop-off.
It’s hard enough for a player to get football when out of the U18 range, considering the limited number of adult matches that are played and the stakes that thus shroud these games, on top of the fact that the U20/U21 competition is run on a token basis at the end of the year, but how much more difficult is it going to be for those a year younger, with less development, etc?
Exam pressure, it’s said, was one of the main reasons behind moving the minor grade. Fair enough. But the problem still exists among the majority. Soon, an 18-year-old has only got club football at adult level; in order to get game-time, or simply a look-in, he’s going to have to train three or four times per week. So he misses out for a few months while studying, which doesn’t lend itself to much of a study/life balance, because he can’t commit to that and comes back at the height of the season, with little chance of getting the quantity of games he needs to develop.
Then, in September, he’s off to college - Dublin or wherever - and, the following winter, can’t commit to midweek sessions because he’s away and possibly not at the weekend either because of work, etc. He’s now 19 and is still to establish himself, all the while he’s a year longer out of football because he got none, when men older did, at the crucial stage of 18. Suddenly, like the coach fears, he’s gone completely.
This year, every team in Division One of the Louth minor league got six league games - their only competitive fixtures to date.
The grade remains at U18, with there being an U17 and U18 championship to come.
In Monaghan, the number of games is something similar, but they’re already playing minor at U17, while there are U19 leagues. Is this to be the format or plan in Louth? Hopefully, but, as the worried coach has pointed out, nobody knows.
Fear of the unknown is rife.