The merits of underage amalgamations, as well as the falling levels of participation at juvenile level, were discussed at length at last night's meeting of the Laois County Board.
The issue was first raised by Portarlington delegate Niall Slevin, who questioned the wisdom of allowing certain amalgamations at juvenile level in both codes. Citing the example of young hurlers from Emo, he pointed out that at U-16 level they will be playing with Camross Gaels, but at minor level they play with Na Fianna, meaning they could end up playing both with and against the same players over the course of the year.
He noted the same situation arose at minor and U-21 football, where players from Arles-Killeen and Arles-Kilcruise join with Ballylinan for minor, but with Barrowhouse as Na Fianna Óg for U-21.
"It is now putting out any loyalty to the club" said Slevin. "If clubs are going to amalgamate, they should do it from U-12 up to U-21 and take whatever is going. There is a lot of chopping and changing, it seems like if you're good at one grade they want you, and if you're bad at another then they don't."
Secretary Niall Handy admitted the situation threw up problems for Laois GAA. "From a fixtures point of view it is a nightmare, but it is a club's prerogative who they join up with."
Treasurer Martin Byrne, who is from Arles-Killeen, stated his club were just trying to ensure their players had access to competitive football, as they did not have the numbers to field on their own.
A wider debate arose then about the merits of amalgamations. Camross delegate Mattie Collier directed a question at Juvenile Chairman Brian Allen. "I would like to ask Brian Allen, because we have talked about amalgamations a lot recently, is there a vision at juvenile level with all of these amalgamations?
"As a coach at national school level for the last few years, I'd ask if amalgamations at juvenile level are a good thing? Should we have more 11 or 13 a side competitions? I think a lot of late developers are being discarded.
"Elite players are well looked after with county teams and development squads, is there any way to look after the weaker players? You'd see at Cumann na mBunscol the amount of kids playing in fifth and sixth class, but how many are still playing at 16 or 17?"
Collier went on to ask if amalgamations are "short-term gain for long-term pain", and clarified his position was his personal opinion, and not necessarily that of his club.
Brian Allen responded. "A lot of clubs don't want to step down that far, and if they are in an 11-a-side competition and only have 11 players, they will struggle to field if they are missing one or two players, which happens at juvenile level." Allen went on to point out it was a country-wide problem.
Football committee chairman Peter O'Neill said clubs have to get into schools and ensure young players make it down to their clubs. "We had a free run for a long, long time. We have to work harder in schools, if children are playing at Cumann na mBunscol level, there needs to be a link from the school to the club."
Rathdowney-Errill's Mick Fitzpatrick felt underperforming county teams have not helped either. "We have no heroes for our young players to look up to, our county teams are not performing well. How many young people are going to matches now?"
Chairman Gerry Kavanagh noted that some clubs were struggling to even fill key positions on their adult committees, adding that if clubs were not properly organised at adult level, they would naturally struggle at juvenile level too.