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Monday 22 May 2017

A cautionary word for latest Dublin U21 heroes ... you've joined a very lengthy queue

Dublin U-21 manager Dessie Farrell. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin U-21 manager Dessie Farrell. Pic: Sportsfile

Perhaps more than any Dublin U21 collective of recent all-conquering vintage, this year's model was a 'team' in the truest meaning of the word.

They were never overly reliant on one particular talisman - a point underlined by TG4's selection of a substitute midfielder, Darren Gavin, as Man of the Match on Saturday evening. In truth, you could throw a blanket over another five contenders.

Their on-field composition chopped and changed, partly because options were often hampered by injury over the past two months ... but the same qualities of team-work, support play and sticking to the tactical script shone through.

Dessie Farrell, take a bow: he has achieved the ultimate managerial accolade, making a team greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Yet whenever an underage team goes the distance, the debate almost immediately switches to 'the individual' - how many have the skill set and attitude to become senior stars? If not tomorrow, the day after.

Burden

That expectation places a big burden on young shoulders but, if you're a Sky Blue wannabe with a freshly-minted All-Ireland medal, there's another pressure to consider. And it's this ... the flip side of Dublin's recent domination of the now-defunct U21 grade is that you are joining a very long queue to senior stardom.

For other counties who enjoyed sporadic U21 success, the list of candidates was far more obvious. In many cases, they were already established seniors.

Westmeath's most successful senior team in history would rely heavily on Dessie Dolan, Michael Ennis, David O'Shaughnessy, Fergal Wilson and Derek Heavin, who were all U21 champions in 1999.

Tyrone's back-to-back U21 champions (2000-01) included a host of names who would become Red Hand legends. Philip Jordan, Brian McGuigan, Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan, Enda McGinley, Pascal McConnell and the late Cormac McAnallen doesn't even exhaust the roll call of future All-Ireland winners.

A quick perusal of the Mayo U21 team that lifted the Clarke Cup in 2006 shows just how important they have been to the last half-decade of tantalising Sam Maguire contention: Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Colm Boyle, Séamus O'Shea, Barry Moran to name six.

Now, you can draw the very same correlation between the Dublin U21s of 2010, or their 2012 counterparts, or the 2014 crew that followed ... all three of these teams produced players who have been central to not just one, but multiple, All-Ireland senior titles.

However, the frequency of this U21 success is a double-edged sword if you're a young gun seeking to hold Jim Gavin's attention.

Of the team that triumphed against Galway, Con O'Callaghan and Colm Basquel graduated last year into the senior Dublin set-up. Goalkeeper Evan Comerford has risen to the role of Stephen Cluxton's understudy this spring.

Watching Eoin Murchan and Brian Howard and Aaron Byrne over the entirety of this campaign, you could state a case why they, too, are deserving of elevation.

But are there any vacancies to begin with?

One of the chief reasons for Gavin's luxury of options is the steady stream of talent coming off his own U21 conveyor belt and more recently Farrell's. Think of 2010: O'Carroll, Cooper, McCarthy, Rock. 2012: McCaffrey, Kilkenny. 2014: Byrne, Small, Fenton, Mannion.

But what of all their former U21 comrades who were likewise earmarked for senior stardom?

Several of them made the grade quite quickly but their careers have subsequently stalled, be it through the vagaries of injury or form.

Think of Kevin O'Brien: U21 captain five years ago, senior regular for most of '13, but no longer involved.

Or even Emmet Ó Conghaile: a kickout colossus in that 2012 final, touted as the next Ciarán Whelan ... but while he has enjoyed some game-time off the bench this spring, he appears to have slipped down the midfield pecking order.

Other U21 stars have come, briefly shone and gone: Darragh Nelson, Nicky Devereux, Seán George.

Jaw dropping

Perhaps the most salutary case study is Gary Sweeney: a two-time U21 champion, goalscoring hero of the 2010 decider, a player blessed with jaw-dropping acceleration ... but he suffered a broken leg in 2012 and has never climbed back into serious conten tion, despite several O'Byrne Cup appearances for Dublin's victorious development squad last January.

Paul Hudson was another O'Byrne Cup winner this year: five years ago, he was U21 All-Ireland Man of the Match after scoring 1-4 against Roscommon. But he, too, is well down a very lengthy senior queue.

Now a few more are about to join it ...

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