In John Costello’s annual report, he asked for readers to “spare a thought” for the county’s Under-20 footballers following the most staccato of seasons.
He described them as – in a strictly GAA context – as “the people he felt most sorry for” as they endured their own Groundhog days with lockdowns aligning almost simultaneously with their big games.
Originally scheduled for a finale in March, that was pushed back to October and then again to next Saturday where they will face Galway in the final at Croke Park (TG4, 2.15pm).
Tom Gray’s charges have been back and forth since congregating for the first time almost exactly a year ago at St Anne’s in Bohernabreena under bucketing rain.
The first week of January saw their first matches and a Leinster title was won on March 6 with Ciaran Archer and Lorcan O’Dell shining.
St Patrick’s Day should have seen their All-Ireland semi-final played but lockdown one came along. Tyrone were eventually beaten in an October refix but three days before the final was scheduled, lockdown mark two came along.
But news filtered through a couple of weeks ago that the final phases of the Under-20 and minor championships were given a government exemption to be completed.
It has been a challenge for the manager to keep things rolling having originally planned for a four-month stint than has extended to 12 months but he is content with this chance to finish with a flourish.
“It’s been a long year but you have to keep things in context,” he said on Monday. “We had a Zoom call with the players after the final was deferred, the same day 100,000 people were made unemployed in October with Level 5.
You have to keep things in context. We had a Zoom call with the players after the final was deferred, the same day 100,000 people were made unemployed in October with Level 5.
“We have little enough to complain about! It is still a hobby; it has been a challenge but it is a challenging phase in their lives with college and social lives and how to conduct everything. It is a unique thing for all of us.
“Obviously they try to be the best they can be but we can only control what we can control.”
In some ways, lockdown has helped with Seán Lowry and Brian O’Leary having the time to shake off injury and be back fully fit.
With the season so drawn out, Gray adds opposition form guides and tactical trends are very tough to tease out.
He is aware of Galway’s strength from their semi-final win over Kerry and the potential for three more players to come into the starting team shows a serious depth to their panel.
And while the county’s senior counterparts can draw on a wealth of final victories, Gray says his team does not have that experience in their armoury.
For those involved in last year’s final, it ended with chastening loss to Cork having held a healthy lead while form at minor level has been mixed.
“There is lived experience in the player pool that I have of being beaten in the last two years by Wicklow, Longford, Meath, Kildare, Mayo, Cork — that combined pool of players, you know, they’ve lost to all of those counties at underage level.
“So there’s not one player in my squad that wouldn’t view every opposition with great respect and feels that there’s any sense of dominance — because that is their experience.
“In so far as the Under-20 competition is concerned, and preparing a team, [senior dominance] just really isn’t a factor.”
Indeed, while many of the Dublin senior panel have Under-21 medals in their collection, Gray says there is still “a fair gap” between success at this level as a guarantee of future dividends.
“I think competition success is overrated at underage level and, certainly, an Under-17 competition I don’t think would be any barometer whatsoever for what’s going to happen at senior level in future years, for any county.
“Under-20, maybe so, but even under-20 is a fair gap between that and senior in terms of physical development and particularly the way senior football has gone the last 10 or 15 years.
“I would believe that it’ll be less of an indicator in future. If it stays at that level, it will be less of an indicator in the future than it has been in the past.”
** Tom Gray was speaking ahead of the EirGrid All-Ireland Under-20 football final this Saturday. EirGrid, the state-owned company that manages and develops Ireland’s electricity grid, has partnered with the GAA since 2015 as sponsor of the All-Ireland Under-20FC.