How early in the year that the U21 championship is officially launched always comes as a jolt and this year, with snow still plentiful enough on higher ground, is no exception. The U21 football championship launch took place at Croke Park yesterday and it was the case of the usual yada, yada, yada that accompanies such events. Roscommon’s Donie Shine was button-holed into giving a few quotes about the Roscommon senior team, Pillar (remember him?) spoke about the ongoing farce in relation to Eamonn Fennell, while Dermot Earley waxed lyrically about what a great experiment the mark is (but then wasn’t he on the committee that proposed it?). Nobody seemed to have that much to say about the U21 championship. Or all that lovely chocolate that those nice Cadbury people make, for that matter.
As regards the timing of yesterday’s launch, it’ll probably surprise you (it certainly surprised me) that yesterday’s event was, in fact, about a week overdue, as three matches – all in Leinster – have already been played, with Wexford, Longford and 2008 U21 All-Ireland finalists Kildare already on the sidelines. Our lads – for whom, under Ray Dempsey’s tutelage, we have rather lofty hopes dish ear – take the field against Leitrim under the lights at Cloone on March 10th (I don’t have a confirmed throw-in time for that one yet, I’m afraid, and neither does the rather annoyingly constructed U21 championship website). If we clear that hurdle, we then face a tough semi-final against Roscommon on Paddy’s Day. Galway and Sligo, meanwhile face a straight shootout in the other half of the draw.
We’re aiming for an unprecedented fifth provincial title in a row in this grade (we’ve won four on the spin before, as have Galway – well, it says so here) and it’s also the first of last year’s clean sweep of minor, senior and U21 Connacht titles that we’re laying on the line in 2010. Like last year, if we’re to retain our Connacht U21 title, it’s very likely that we’ll have to beat strong teams from both Roscommon and Galway in order to do so. Not forgetting the lads from the Ridge County too.
While we’ve had it all our own way within the province at this grade in recent years, I think it’s fair to say that – aside from that great All-Ireland victory in 2006 – we’ve underachieved at All-Ireland level. We lost a very poor semi-final (a match ruined by stupid refereeing, as I recall) to Laois in 2007 and then we shot ourselves badly in the foot the following year by dropping our main man, Aidan Campbell, ahead of a semi-final that we narrowly lost to eventual champions Kerry. Last year, we were beaten fair and square by a superior Down team at the penultimate stage.
With Ray Dempsey now prowling the sideline and with the minor classes of 2008 and 2009 starting to come through, we should be in a position for a serious tilt at this championship and it’d be just great if we could repeat our 2006 success this year. Unlike its minor and senior equivalents, however, the U21 championship remains an old-fashioned knockout one and so every match we play in it could be our final one. As already noted, getting out of Connacht could well prove to a tough proposition but, if we do manage to claim our fifth U21 Connacht title in a row, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that we punch our weight in it from then on.