Old-school format makes U21 a knockout for Pillar
PAUL CAFFREY is a traditionalist at heart, and that's part of the reason why he loves the Cadbury's U21 football championship.
He savours the absence of a safety net for the losers and the "different intensity" this brings. No wonder, then, that 'Pillar' can't wait for tomorrow night's intriguing first-round collision between Dublin and Wexford in Enniscorthy (7.30).
"It really is about that first day out," he stresses. "If you don't get it right, it's over."
In his previous existence as Dublin senior boss, Caffrey learned from painful experience that romping to Leinster titles (as against Wexford in 2008) "served me no purpose as manager" when it came to facing a serious contender like Tyrone "coming very hungry through the back door".
But the U21 grade remains defiantly old school. And Caffrey -- who is continuing in his role as a Cadbury's 'Hero of the Future' judge -- declares: "I love the idea that the U21 championship is different from all the other championships -- that it's straight knockout.
"I was down in Navan this time last year watching Dublin, as All-Ireland champions, going into the den down there. A great game of football, two teams that played very well in different periods of the game, it went to extra-time ... and all of a sudden you are coming back from Navan and Dublin aren't All-Ireland champions any more.
"And then Meath couldn't follow it up; they got beaten by Longford. So every year the U21 -- of all the championships -- has thrown up new faces, new teams, and new provincial winners.
"Even last year, who would have believed that Cavan and Wexford were going to end up as provincial champions? So it gives counties that maybe aren't going to feature at the senior level a great chance to make an impact."
Caffrey was previously involved as a selector with the Dublin U21 set-up that lost the 2002 All-Ireland final to Galway before going one step better against Tyrone in 2003. This competition, far more so than its minor equivalent, is the "true breeding ground" for the stars of tomorrow.
"The Dublin squad that has been there for the last four or five years was backboned by those really good U21 teams," he points out. "I think 11 of that squad went on and played championship football for Dublin and won provincial medals at senior level. So it is a much truer barometer of where it's at, as opposed to the minor."
How come, then, that more of their All-Ireland U21 winners from 2010 haven't made the Sky Blue senior grade?
"I'd be surprised that more of them haven't actually nailed on," he concedes.
"But even this year I have watched quite a bit of college games ... Johnny Cooper is playing great football, as is Dean Rock; these fellas are going to feature with Dublin going forward. There are a lot of other guys who are under the radar at the moment, haven't got their chances, and I have no doubt that in the next two or three years these fellas will be filling Dublin jerseys in the senior championship."
As for tomorrow night's clash between the last two Leinster champions, Pillar concludes: "I know Jim Gavin has put in a mountain of work again, no more than he did last year. Dublin have a lot of talented players; four or five from (last year's) minors are already featuring at U21 level, and if Dublin can get over the huge task in that first round they can have a big say in this U21 championship."