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USGAA busy preparing for All-Ireland Junior Football Championship

The USGAA team is busy preparing for the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship.

The USGAA team is busy preparing for the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship.

By Cian O’Connell

The planning is well underway. In July, a USGAA team – all homegrown players - will compete in the 2024 All-Ireland Junior Football Championship.

Last year, New York, who adopted a similar selection policy, triumphed in the competition, but now footballers from all other cities in America are being afforded a significant opportunity.

John Young assumed the chairperson role for a steering committee put together by USGAA, who initially had more than 150 applicants for the panel.

Eighty players from across the country featured in the John Hegarty Cup last October in Chicago, with manager Aidan Corr and his selectors subsequently trimming the numbers.

The travelling party to Ireland will be determined soon following further training weekends. It is a logistical challenge, but Young is excited how the project is unfolding. “Players now have the ability to start out at youth level, play good tournaments like the CYC, enter into adult clubs, play within their regular championships, and they had the chance to represent themselves at games-based county trials,” Young says.

“If you're selected in the team then you can represent the county team. We have fulfilled all levels of the player pathway, I believe, with this. We have created an opportunity for a little kid, who wants to play for their county here with US GAA.”

Getting ready for the future is critical according to Young, who senses the possibilities that exist. “There is a great buzz,” Young says. “It is one of those events in the GAA when we talk about Ní Ceart Go Cur Le Chéile - it takes a village.

“This actually took a village to make it happen, because you have the player, the club, the Divisional Boards, and the County Board all working together in unison to make this happen.

“There is great excitement because we are looking at this as a pathway for us to maybe have county teams in other codes, firstly, and secondly, to step it up into maybe the Tailteann Cup. We are looking at a long-term vision and the strategic plan would be to have a team the way New York does at senior inter-county level.”

Belfast native Corr was simply ‘honoured’ to accept the USGAA invitation to prepare a team for the All-Ireland JFC. Having carried out extensive coaching work with Delaware County Gaels, Corr is delighted to be involved with the USGAA outfit.

“Around this time last year, Bernie Connaughton, who was the USGAA chair at the time, he called Louie Bradley and myself,” Corr explains.

“We've been working with our Delaware County Gaels team since they were about six years old. All of those lads are about 25 or 26 now, so they are in that sweet spot.

USGAA players during a meeting in Tampa Bay in January.

USGAA players during a meeting in Tampa Bay in January.

“I guess we got the call because we were maybe a couple of years ahead of other clubs from a homegrown standpoint.”

Monitoring players was part of the remit. So, Corr and his selectors have been extremely busy in the intervening months. “The only way to watch those guys was to maybe go to their home towns to watch some people, watch them in the North American finals in Denver in August.

“We watched every game possible that the boys were a part of. After the 156 applicants, we had to get it to 80 trialists, who were going to Chicago in November. It was at the players expense at this stage.

“We invited 80 people to go to Chicago, they got some financial help from their local boards and clubs. You had players coming from three different time zones, potentially a six hour flight away or a three hour flight away. So, it was a huge commitment for the 80 people to get there. After Chicago, we had to cut that to 35.”

Tampa Bay was the setting for a training event organised in January. Another 48 hour stint in Philadelphia in March is on the agenda.

“After March when we narrow the panel down again, the next thing will be a challenge game in May somewhere,” Corr adds.

“The bulk of the team is East Coast, Philadelphia, Boston, there is a Pittsburgh lad, a Detroit lad, seven or eight from Chicago, five or six from San Francisco.”

A challenge match against a Queens University selection is scheduled to take place in Boston in June before flying to Ireland early in July.

Similar to Young, Corr believed that talented young players were being developed throughout the country. “We knew coming through our CYCs and stuff, the CYC is a youth event played in a different city every year from U6 to U18, it is a huge event, the biggest youth event in the world outside of Ireland,” Corr says.

“You have a few thousand players there, so we had an idea that there is a lot of talent in the country.

“The fact that somebody had the foresight and I'm sure this has been discussed for many years, to potentially get a team together. If you're in New York, you're in a local area, it is quite a manageable area.

“The US team, you have three time zones, players are coming from all over the place. People probably would love to do this, but logistically they might have said it would be an enormous task.

USGAA will compete in the 2024 All-Ireland JFC.

USGAA will compete in the 2024 All-Ireland JFC.

“So, we had an idea there was plenty of talent. To get the call to potentially coach this team was a great honour, it is something we are all very excited about.”

During his stint in America, the GAA landscape has altered dramatically in America according to Corr. “I guess the biggest factor is the lack of emigration coming in to America,” he says.

“I was one of those people, who came out here in the early 90s, I came for a summer to play Gaelic Football in Philadelphia. The year I came here, you had maybe 100 people going to Philly, you'd have double that going to Boston, San Francisco, Chicago - all those places.

“Obviously, that died down over the years. That is probably where the youth all started, with that generation who were here long before us.

"Then it got really well organised, we had a really good programme set up around the country for the youth. People were energised about bringing our culture here, playing our sports here.

“It is a seasonal sport here; you have so many other sports people are involved in. If you ask many of the players, who have come through the ranks all over the country, it is the most enjoyable sport to play because it is man v man, go at it, express yourself. Then you're done and it goes back to school sports in September.”

Ultimately, Corr hopes that this is merely the start of a rewarding journey for USGAA. “Obviously, we can't do a lot of training together, so we give them certain fitness tests that they have to run, and they have to be engaged with quite a bit,” he adds.

“We have selectors in three of the other cities - Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco that the boys are reporting back to. They are doing it without any issue, they are loving being part of it.

“Again, they are absolutely honoured to be part of the first team. We'd love to lay a foundation for all teams that will hopefully follow us. We hope this is an annual event, hopefully at some stage in the future all four codes will be represented for USGAA.”

Young is optimistic too about the future. “We are proud because it is the first time we've had a formal opportunity to compete in a higher level competition in Ireland with a county team,” Young remarks.

“Our registration base is now 70 per cent American born. That is why the timing is right for us to take on this challenge.

“We are growing, the American born player number has multiplied. We are very proud that we are becoming a truly American based county. It is a good time for them to shine, and for the American born players to wear a county jersey.”