I’ve always had a soft spot for the U21 championship. Maybe it’s because the first All-Ireland I ever recall us winning was at that grade (that was in 1974 – my memory banks hadn’t started loading when Willie McGee blasted in his famous foursome in the 1967 final replay against Kerry), perhaps too it’s because it also produced one of my favourite Mayo teams of all time: the fabulous 1983 All-Ireland winning side. Whatever it is, I take a keen interest every year in the U21 championship and I can never understand the hind-tit treatment it gets from the GAA.
U21 is better than minor – the boys have become men, the hits are bigger and some of the players have already made the transition to senior. But the football still has the kind of purity of spirit that’s also present at minor level, with little or nothing of the suffocating cynicism that so often blights senior, and this positive (some would call it naïve) approach to how the game is played can often make for a cracking championship.
It’s an old-fashioned championship too: straight knockout, no second chances, right from the off. While I’m not a proponent of going back to the old days at senior level, I’m no great fan of the current crazy system either and those who favour a return to the straight knockout system are able, with some justification, to point to the U21 championship to show that a tournament where every single match counts has considerable merit.
The one-slip-and-you’re-gone format has, at U21 level, had two effects – one undoubtedly positive, the other negative. Starting with the latter, the straightforward nature of the championship means that it can be run off quickly but, in recent years, the powers-that-be have decided that this should all happen with indecent haste. Within weeks of its launch, the whole thing is over and because much of the action takes place at the same time as the final rounds of the league are being played, it’s easy for the U21 championship matches to get lost in the thicket of activity that takes place in the months of March and April. It’s also the case that the GAA doesn’t exactly go out of its way to promote the U21 competition either.
But the positive thing about the U21 championship is its unpredictability. Last year, both Dublin and Donegal came from nowhere to reach the All-Ireland and last night Cavan and Galway qualified for a final meeting that very few would have been anticipating back at the start of last month. Sure, Kerry and Cork, as well as Tyrone, haven’t been too far from the winners’ enclosure at U21 level in recent years but ourselves, Galway (twice), Armagh and Westmeath have all prevailed in the recent past too, with the likes of Kildare, Laois and Limerick making it to the final over the last decade and a bit as well.
Yesterday evening, myself and my little mucker decided to head to Parnell Park for the semi-final meeting of Ulster champions Cavan and Leinster kingpins Wexford. The Donnycarney venue was close to full (mainly with supporters of the Breffni) which made for a great atmosphere for the contest.
Disgracefully, Cavan were obliged to fulfill this fixture just three days after their draining Ulster final victory over Tyrone (so much for all that cant about burnout) but, just like Down did a few years back when they had to face us in an U21 semi-final after a three-day turnaround, the Breffni lads were able to find that bit of extra resolve to get them over the line last night.
A well worked goal early in the second half from their full-forward dangerman Niall McDermott gave them a bit of daylight but for ten minutes or so after that, it was all Wexford. The Cavan lads looked utterly dead on their feet at that stage and but for four very poor wides by the Yella Bellies they could well have been holed below the water line. Instead, they seemed to draw inspiration from Wexford’s failure to press home their advantage and further points at the other end saw them ease home to a five-point win.
While the delighted Cavan supporters were happy to chat about possible venues for the final – will it be Carrick, or Sligo or maybe even Hyde Park? – they were a bit stunned when I told them that Galway, who caused a sensation by felling Cork in last night’s other semi-final, would have been no better than third favourites to prevail in Connacht this year.
In truth, the pair of them have arrived at this year’s decider completely under the radar and I’d say there’s a good chance that the final could be a real belter of a contest. Yet again. Maybe someday the GAA will realise what a little treasure the U21 championship is and start to treat it as such.