The recent revelation, dissected by Shane Stapleton here, that Antrim had to race around the
parish county kicking people out of bed to field an Under-21 team, should lead to a lot of hand-wringing about the championship – and that’s even before you consider the beating that the Glensmen took, a cringeworthy 32nd defeat at this stage, two of them against Waterford. Much and all as I like to whale on Antrim and their sense of entitlement, in this case the problem can be laid squarely at the door of the competition itself.
There must have been something in the water at one of the Congresses in the early 1960’s as both the inter-county Club and the Under-21 championships began in 1964. And both, in what must be a coincidence, have remained mostly impervious to tinkering with the format, the introduction of an All-Ireland series in the early 1970’s in the Club championship and a change in the way semi-final line-ups were decided in the early 1990’s in the Under-21 championship (something we’ll come back to in a moment) being the only obvious changes to the way each one works.
Of the two, it is the Club championship that has the air of something that, if it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it. It slots neatly into the fallow winter period when there’s not much else on in the GAA, doesn’t put an annual imposition on each team (with the exception of Crossmaglen Rangers) and now that the Railway Cup is effectively no more the Club title has found an iconic place for itself in the GAA calendar. With all that in mind, it’s amazing no-one thought of it earlier. Oh hang on, they did – right at the birth of the Association, when clubs represented counties. Maybe Thurles Sarsfields should ask for their 1887 triumph to be added to the All-Ireland Club role of honour.
The Under-21 championship, on the other hand, has no such claim to obviousness. There was already a perfectly decent underage competition, the Minor championship dovetailing neatly with rhyme and rhythm of its Senior counterpart. It doesn’t have any obvious place in the calendar, the neat solution in football of running it before the Seniors swing into action not being advisable in hurling with its requirement for drier pitches. Then there’s that format. The age-old problem of teams like Waterford putting in the hard yards on the training pitch only to be mown down in their first match persists in the Under-21. And at one stage in the 1990’s we had the utterly ludicrous situation where the champions of Munster and Leinster met every third year, effectively giving Galway a bye into the final – how many matches have Antrim lost in the history of the competition again? The ludicrousness of that situation was in no way compounded by Waterford being stuffed by Kilkenny in the 1994 semi-final. Such a suggestion would be, uh, ludicrous.
Yet the Under-21 championship has one thing going for it – so many of the matches are utterly brilliant. Thanks to TG4, those of us who are not in the habit of traipsing up the country to see teams other than Waterford (or, to be truthful, even to see them – I’ve been to a total of three Under-21 matches) can now see the games as a matter of routine, and they rarely let you down. Losing to Clare in the 2009 Munster final was disappointing, of course. But it was heartwarming to see the joy on the faces of Clare supporters as they landed the Munster title after twelve defeats in their previous twelve final appearances. Although not as heartwarming as the simple displays of congratulations offered by so many of the Waterford supporters that evening. The hatchets of 1998 were well and truly buried that evening thanks to a competition that is important – but not that important.
Then there was this year’s Munster final between Limerick and Cork. It was breathtaking, two teams going at it hammer-and-tongs like two prize-fighters where victory would only be declared to the last man standing rather than who was ahead on points at the end. Two things came together to make it such a classic, and they both run through the competition as a whole. You have two teams of players who have the vigour of youth but are all shaving at this stage. With the best will in the world, Minor teams do sometimes look minor enough to be banned from Gary Glitter contests. Then there’s the despair-inducing one-defeat-and-you’re-out system. Despite being a long-standing advocate of the back door, I’m not labouring under the delusion that nothing has been lost with its introduction. The relief that you won’t be out if you lose your first game is tempered by the knowledge that if you win the other lot are still in it. Beating Cork or Tipperary just isn’t the same these days, unless it’s in Croke Park. And that dreadful dichotomy lives on in the Under-21 championship. Long may it continue to beguile and bewitch us with its promise.
One final thought. Louis Van Gaal, when asked whether winning the 1995 European Cup was the highlight of his career. He said that the first time was always the best, so winning the Uefa Cup in 1992 was sweeter. And for me, the Under-21 championship will always be the first.