In his first year as a minor Seamus Cunniffe was the rock in the Mayo full back line in a team that went on to claim the Tom Markham Cup. The following year he was back on duty again with the minors as part of a side that reached the All Ireland semi-final, before bowing out at the semi-final stage. Last year he missed out on togging out with the u21s through injury, but he is back this year and has been one of the key men in Michael Solan's sides charge to tomorrow's final showdown.
Timing can be a big part in anything in life, and the timing of the third year DCU psychology student's work placement from college has seen him decamp back home for the past few months, which has been a big boost in his preparation for this campaign. "I'm on placement at the minute which is great, it's been brilliant and I've been able to focus on football and being at home has helped massively, rather than being up in college and with exams to deal with. It's a lot easier to focus on the little things like diet and nutrition too when you're at home than in college."
Getting the right balance between real life and football life can be tough for young players, but Cunniffe is balancing that out, and having to get over an injury last year saw him hit Stateside for the summer to live, learn and enjoy himself — something that many young elite players aren't able to do. "Last year I missed out with injury, coming to the end of the 14 season with the minors I had a hefty injury and worked a lot with Liam and Sean Moffatt to get right so I missed out on that last year. I headed to America then for the summer and played a bit of ball over there in San Francisco. It was great; might not have been the best for my football, but I really enjoyed it. Then it was time to come back, and when Mike (Solan ) got the nod for this job, I couldn't really say no to the club man. It's been a really enjoyable year of football and it's been great working with them."
Going for glory
Once he was back on board with the u21s it was all geared to having a serious crack at winning this title, he explains, "We sat down at the start of the year and set out where we wanted to be and if you sit down and you don't want to be here, then you're not really worth bothering. We broke it down and looked at it and it was two week periods that we looked at as. It keeps the mind focused and you look at it as another game of football and that's exactly what we'll do again for this game."
While he's one of the more experienced players in the set up, the fact that there are leaders all over the field, some that you would predict and others that might not spring straight to mind, is the real strength in this squad Cunniffe believes. "You can look at the leaders we have, the likes of Diarmuid, Stephen Coen, David Kenny, Michael Hall, they are all leaders, but everyone plays a role, just like Michael Plunkett who took it on and backed himself in the Connacht final to kick the winning point. But he's such a good footballer, I'd back him every day to score that."
The next step
Cunniffe and his team mates had a taste of what is demanded to reach the next level, with the u21s having some joint training sessions with the senior side this year. When asked if that is his ultimate end goal, he told us: "It's the end goal of course and what it's shown me is that Mayo football is strong and it's developing. The focus that has gone into the u21s this year will only strengthen the development of these players coming in. There's a lot of competition for places in that senior panel, it might not be the focus now in the immediate future, but later on, yeah." As for the step up in quality to reach that level from being around the senior panel, it is all about the small margins that separates those who make it and those who don't, he thinks. "It's not that it's a huge step up, but it's that the guys demand huge quality at all times. You have that split second less to think about things and obviously physicality of course. If we can model ourselves on the seniors it's going to be great for our development."
Once the u21 championship is over, will we be seeing Cunniffe handling the best of the rest of the county in the Ballaghaderreen full back line? We won't during the hot summer months, he says. "I'm heading away again this summer, but I'm in my last year of college next year so I'm trying to experience as much as I can and I'll try and play a bit of football if it fits in."