Coming of age

This year’s All-Ireland final will be contested by Galway and Limerick. Limerick have won two out of the last three under 21s championships. Galway have won 2 out of the last 3 minor championships, and appeared in the under 21s final in 2016, losing to Waterford, who were a senior finalist last year.

It stands to reason that if a county performs well at the underage level, this should translate to senior success after a few years, but is this always the case? Limerick have had 6 teams win the under 21s championship, and another win the minor championship, since their last senior All-Ireland in 1973; none of those players have yet gone on to win a senior All-Ireland (though that could change this weekend). Before last year, Galway had a championship drought of almost two decades, in which time they won a massive six under 21s championships, and nine minors. While the last few of those had players contributing to their 2017 championship, many players came and went without any senior All-Ireland medals in the meantime.

From all of this it looks like, while underage success can improve your odds of senior success down the road, winning a minor championship doesn’t mean it’s your destiny to win at senior level.

In this article, we’ll attempt to determine how much of a factor underage success actually is.

Origins of champions

There is a strong alignment between the counties that win at senior level and at the under 21s and minor levels. Since the minor championship started in 1928, and the under 21s championship started in 1964, there are no counties that have won a minor or under 21 championship that have not also won an All-Ireland at some point. There are only three counties that have won senior All-Ireland championships that have not won at minor or under 21 level; Kerry, Laois and London. All of these counties have only won one senior championship each, and all of them won their championship before 1928 (Kerry in 1891, London in 1901 and Laois in 1915). Of these three, Laois are the only to contest a senior final since the minor championship was introduced (in 1949), and they are also the only of these three to reach a minor final (in both 1934 and 1964).

The charts below detail some of the important numbers regarding the underage success that preceded senior championship teams:

We can see that the vast majority of teams who won at senior level had previously won both minor and under 21s championships. Of those that won at this level, the majority had also won those championships within the previous 3 years, and almost 90% had won them in the previous 6 years.

The number of teams who won a senior All-Ireland without a recent win at underage level is uncommon: 68% of teams have won at both minor and under 21s level in the previous decade. Only 14 All-Ireland winning teams had not seen their county win at under 21s level in the previous decade, and 6 of these were teams who won their All-Irelands before the under 21s competition was even a decade old. These 14 wins account for only 26% of senior wins since 1964. Only 8 teams, 9% of senior winners since 1964, had failed to reach an U21s final in the decade prior.

The percentages are similar for minor success; only 22 teams, about 24% since 1928, have won a senior All-Ireland championship without a minor championship in the previous decade. Only 14 senior winners since 1928 hadn’t had a minor finalist in the previous decade, roughly 16%.

The impact of underage success

We’ve established that underage success is typically a prerequisite for senior success. However, is it a guarantee? How often is it the destiny of these under 21 and minor teams to go on to win senior championships? Even beyond championship medals, how much does it improve the team, and for how long?

Looking into the decade of senior All-Ireland matches following a county’s minor or under 21 championship win gave the following results:

The results are very similar for both the minor and under 21 champions: The average winner at these levels will likely see their county make just under 4 senior final appearances and win just over 2 All-Ireland senior hurling championships over the course of the next ten years.

However, not all great teams win championships. There also needs to be a way to determine how far above average the senior squad of a minor or under 21 winning county performs in the subsequent years.

Measuring this can be difficult: The All-Ireland format has varied wildly over the years. Even prior to the more radical changes this year with the round robin, or in 1997 with the backdoor, there have been strange systems, with teams like London or Galway sometimes being seeded in the All-Ireland final itself, or other counties having to win considerably more games than others to escape their province.

Rather than looking at whether a county reached a final or semi final to judge how successful they were, the following questions were asked instead:

  1. How many wins (on average, if post-backdoor) did they require to win an All-Ireland at the beginning of the competition? If you assume all matches have a 50/50 chance to win or lose, what is the county’s initial probability to win the championship based on the format?

  2. How many wins away were they from winning the All-Ireland at the end of the competition?

  3. What was the average number of wins gained by other counties in the competition that year?

For example, take a team beginning their championship under a pre-backdoor format. If they start at the provincial semi-final stage, then they are 4 wins from a championship; they have to win their provincial semi-final, provincial final, All-Ireland semi-final, and All-Ireland final to win. If they lose in the provincial final, then their season ends 3 win away from a championship, and they can be said to have gained 1 win in that championship.

In this way, teams with different routes can be judged by the same criteria; how close did they This gets more complicated in years with a backdoor system, as teams can have several routes, so in these situations the wins required under each route was calculated, as well as the odds of entering each championship route, assuming that teams had a 50/50 chance of winning or losing each match.

For each minor and under 21 championship winner, their progress through the next 10 years of All-Irelands were recorded and compared to the average performance of other competing counties over the same timespan.

The chart below shows how many wins were gained by the underage champions minus the average number of wins gained in each year

For the 10 years following on from a minor or under 21 win, the senior team does appear to perform better than average. The overall improvement appears to be the same whether its an under 21s win or a minor win, with both having a small initial rise, followed by a sharper improvement, another small dip, followed by a few more years at a steadier, improved performance. The pattern happens sooner for the under 21 winner, as would be expected, since they may already be playing for their senior team too at this point.

For context, the average team in most years gained 1 win. Gaining 1 more over average usually indicates that the team reached a semi final; a strong performance for most counties.

An important note is that, in the 10 years observed, the average underage winning county always performed above average. This is an important skewing factor: if teams are winning at underage level, it’s likely that they’re a well organised and well run county at all levels. Occasionally you might have a particularly strong crop of talent rise through the ranks, providing a county will outlier performances: Offaly won 3 minor championships in the late 80s, shortly before being finalists in 3 under 21 championships from 1989 to 1992, finally leading to their 2 All-Ireland wins and 4 final appearances between 1994 and 2000. However, most of the time, traditionally strong counties will perform well at all levels, and their strong performance is not down to a single group of players all within a small age range. Nevertheless, a championship team at the minor or under 21 level does appear to give a boost, even to those traditional counties that rarely have a long lull at senior level, such as Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork, and this boost appears to last for a long time. Again, whether the length of this boost is related to the skill of individual players, or improved training or a better culture within the county as a whole, is debatable. Regardless, if you’re consistently winning at the younger levels, it should translate to senior level eventually.

Breaking tradition

We have established that wins at underage level influence success at senior level. However, it can be difficult to establish the correlation versus the causation. It’s very likely that a team that wins the All-Ireland will also have won at minor or under 21s level. However, this is also the case because it’s the same handful of teams who are competitive across all levels every year. It always feels likely that, even without outstanding performances at younger levels, the big three of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary will usually have plenty of talent at senior level. Is underage success an indicator that a less successful team might finally be able to break the oligarchy?

The previous examination of the decade following under 21 and minor wins was repeated, this time with wins by Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary removed:

The numbers go down fairly drastically; instead of reaching 4 finals in the next 10 years, only 2 finals are likely to be reached. Instead of winning 2 senior All-Irelands in the following decade, there’s a 50/50 chance that even one will be claimed. The wins gained in subsequent senior championships remain more volatile, and only give teams another half a win above average each year. It’s far bleaker for the rest of the country, but this is also probably a stronger indication of the real impact of a great minor or under 21s team: these other counties are more likely to have long gaps between wins, and see more variance in the quality of their panel over the years. A great minor or under 21s team will be more likely to make up the majority of the senior panel down the road in places like Waterford or Clare than in Kilkenny, where players fight for spots every year. And while certainly it’s a boost for these teams to have great underage success, it’s far from a guarantee of senior success.

Still, for this year, and indeed last year, the odds are more even. None of the big three have reached a senior final since 2016, and the underage success of Galway, Limerick and Waterford has gone on to produce All-Ireland finalists. Could this be another great competitive era, like the 80s and 90s, where the rest of the country wins just as often as the big three?

We can certainly hope, but it’s not looking good: Tipperary will play Cork in the under 21s final this year, while Kilkenny have reached the minor final. Limerick and Galway will want to do their best to make it count this weekend, because you never know how long it’ll be before you have another shot at winning it all.