Bringing through the next generation of stars

GAA: All Ireland u20 Football Championship Final

Man on the line: Mike Solan is looking to guide  Mayo to another All Ireland underage title. Photo: Sportsfile

Man on the line: Mike Solan is looking to guide Mayo to another All Ireland underage title. Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo may be running out in Croke Park on Sunday lunch time with an All Ireland title up for grabs and all that a game of that magnitude brings with it, but in reality it is very simple what is going to happen out there, according to Mayo manager Mike Solan; and it is a simple message that he has been getting his side to buy into all year long - "It’s 60 minutes of football. When you strip away everything that’s what it’s going to come down to on Sunday. That’s what it came down to against Leitrim, against Roscommon, against Derry," he explained.

For the second time in three years the Ballaghaderren native has brought a Mayo side to an All Ireland final - in his first year in charge of the u21s in 2016 and now with the first Mayo side to enter the regraded u20 competition. But being the man to potentially guide Mayo to two All Ireland victories isn't something he is focused on at all in the build up to the game. "I wouldn’t be thinking like that. It’s the players that have done the spade work to get us to this point. It was the same a couple of years ago; it was the same with the players last year in 2017.

"They’re the fellas that do all the real heavy lifting in terms of putting a team in any direction. We’ve been very lucky and this is our third season now. We’ve been blessed with the players we’ve had in those three years. They’ve been guys who have wanted to do well and wanted to work well. I think over the three years we’ve been really lucky. It didn’t work out for us against Galway last year but the work the boys put into that last year was huge as well. It was no less. Galway took us but it didn’t diminish the work the lads had done: all the miles they had traveled and the desire that was in them to do well. They were a fantastic bunch. As I said, we’ve been blessed with the players we’ve had over the last three years."

Working with young players and helping them achieve their potential is the thing that drives Solan and while this year's crop didn't come into the year with the pressure the 2016 crop had from winning a minor title in 2013, that kind of pressure did not affect what they were doing back then or now he told the Mayo Advertiser: "I always think pressure is very much an external thing. As a group of players or a management team we wouldn’t be feeling any pressure going into this game.

"Getting to do what we do is an absolute pleasure. There are guys all over the place, 19-and 20-year-olds, that would love to be in the shoes of where these guys are now. I always say that pressure is something that people see from the outside and maybe feel that that’s what’s felt within. But certainly in our case we wouldn’t be feeling that. We’re delighted to be involved. When you get to work with fellas who want to better themselves and who want to improve themselves that’s where the real enjoyment is."

While success at underage level is a great achievement for all it is helping guys push on to the next level and making an impact for Mayo at senior level that is the real end result of underage football, he believes, even if it make take them a while.

"There are plenty of guys there with the potential to do it. The one major thing there is in terms of age profile, it’s obviously a year younger than U21 so you have a lot of 18 and 19-year-olds coming out this year.

"It’s a huge, huge step to make that step up to senior inter-county football. It’s going to happen for them. For any of them that want to put their heads down and do it, the chance is available. It’s only a question of when it will happen but certainly there is potential for plenty of them to make that jump. With the restructuring of the grades lads are losing out on a year of high-level quality football which would bring them on. That may not necessarily happen for the majority of them for a few years."

The challenge of getting players to make the step up has become a bit more difficult now with the grades being brought down a year from u18 and u21, but it is a challenge that needs to be met Solan added, saying: "It is and I think that’s a challenge for everybody. With the years going down to U17 and U20, unless somebody is able to make the jump into senior at 19-years-old there may be a year or two of a lull before they get into a senior squad.

"It just depends on the situation. It’s certainly a challenge that every county has to deal with to make sure to keep players involved. Maybe the junior level championship should be restructured if they can to keep playing as an inter-county squad, acting as a bridge for them. There’s a competition there that would suit perfectly. That’s certainly a challenge for everybody. There’s obviously a huge time commitment to it. If you want to keep lads involved there needs to be as much continuity as possible."

Picking the first 15 for Sunday's game will be a tough task for Solan and his management team, but there are even tougher decisions to be made when it comes to picking who gets named on the bench for what will in all likelihood be the biggest day of many of these players football careers and he knows that. "It’s an unnecessary part of it really, in my opinion. All the guys that are there have put in an equal amount of effort. They’ve all put in the same miles on the road driving to and from training. They’ve all worked really hard.

"Maybe for reasons of form or injury a guy doesn’t make the 24 and that’s really tough. It’s 26 for the seniors and 24 for us. It is extremely tough now for the lads that haven’t made it over the last couple of games. If you put that amount of work into anything it’s awfully, awfully tough not to get into the match-day squad. There’s no doubt about that. Unfortunately it’s not a rule we can control and it’s one everyone has to abide by."

And when it comes to the starting line up, there will have been long hard discussions on that subject over the past week or so he said: "Very difficult, it is as hard to pick the defenders as it is the forwards to be honest. We have a really good squad that is full of, thankfully, really solid hard working lads that makes our job really easy in one way- but makes it very diffcult in another when it comes to team selection. We would be really conscious of the work that lads have put in selecting the team. It takes a long time, it is not just a one and done job when it comes to that."

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