Derry manager Mickey Donnelly warns current GAA calendar will drive Under 20 players from game

Derry under 20 manager Mickey Donnelly.
Derry under 20 manager Mickey Donnelly.

Derry Under 20 manager Mickey Donnelly says the GAA's treatment of the Under 20 age grade will only serve to drive players away from the game.

Donnelly was speaking after watching his under-strength side draw with Donegal after beginning their Leo Murphy Cup campaign minus a host of players still involved in either vocational schools competition or currently with Rory Gallagher's senior panel.

The earlier scheduling of the Ulster Under 20 Championship, which Derry are due to start on February 8th against Fermanagh and which will be completed by March 8th, has hit county preparations, sitting as it now does in what is traditionally a busy period for the schools and colleges. A new ruling designed to ease the burden on players has meant players still involved in schools competition miss out on Leo Murphy Cup, leaving counties like Derry short a number of players.

It is a situation which Donnelly believes seriously under values the Leo Murphy competition and which he claims will see players turn their back on playing.

"Any day you pull on a county jersey you want to win, especially when it is a competitive game but to say you are frustrated by the value that has been placed on the competition would be an understatement," explained a frustrated Donnelly.

"I see John Sugrue, who is over Kerry, slating the timing of the competition. Nobody is any more pro-schools than me. My involvement with schools GAA would stand up alongside anybody's but to try and take away lads who played last year and tell them they can't play this year because of the timing is ludicrous. I think it has belittled the whole thing.

"It is amazing when you talk to lads in school and they say, 'I'd love to be playing. I want to play for Derry, I want to play in the Ulster Championship' but they can't.

"Saying the Leo Murphy is a developmental competition, just call it what it is, it is a tournament. That's the credibility it has been given. They have turned it into a glorified tournament. It is ticking a box for somebody but unfortunately the only people who seem to suffer are the lads.

"I think the timing of the competition, the framing of the competition could have been done better but, as I said, the only people who suffer are the lads."

Central Council are due to discuss the issue again next week with Donnelly saying change, as well as clarification of the current situation, is badly needed.

"I know Central Council meet again on the 14th of January and we have made strong representation to ask for the rule to be given a bit more exploration. If you speak to any of the school teachers, we have never put any pressure on any of the lads.

"Even speaking to the Donegal lads, their interpretation of the rule is very different to ours. They are under the impression that if the schools allow the player to go, then they can go whereas we would be very clear that if their school is still in the competition, they are ineligible.

"We are giving the schools their place and rightly so, but there has to be a bit of common sense here as well."

Donnelly's own preference would be to see a change to either Under 19 or back to the traditional under 21 format, with any new format being given more prominence in the annual calendar.

"There are two options," he added, "You go to Under 21 and play it when it was always played or you go to Under 19 and play it as a pre-cursor to Senior as the old All Ireland Minor series was. You give it a back door system and give it the credibility the senior series has.

"We are caught between a rock and a hard place at the minute. How do you explain to Ethan Doherthy for example, who was playing for Derry last year at Under 20 level, was playing here in a county final for Glen only a few weeks ago but can't play for Derry Under 20s in the Ulster Championship? It's ludicrous. That's not a criticism of Ethan, he is just an example of a lad that is caught in an awful position because of the timing of the competition.

"There is so much talk about the calendar, the Super 8s and we are talking about dropping the pre-season competitions, but there has to be serious consideration to this window of 18-21 age groups. All the research across Europe looking at the drop out rates in sport between that 17 and 21, what are we doing to help them? We just pile three or four competitions in on top of each other and they are asked to pick one or Central Council designates that they have to pick one over the other.

"It will only cause frustration and if they are looking to lose players they are going the right way about it."