‘If we are not coaching players properly at national school level, then we are missing out’
It is ten years since Roscommon won the All-Ireland Minor Football Championship, defeating Kerry in a replay in Ennis to lift the title. The win was celebrated by tens of thousands of people in Roscommon – and by Roscommon people over the world too. It was a triumph that was a reward for years of top class coaching at underage level, a process which produced the players capable of competing and winning at the very top level.
Roscommon may not have repeated their All-Ireland success since 2006, but they have won many provincial titles at minor and U-21 level as the supply line of excellent young players continues to be productive. The situation is the same in hurling, albeit at a lower level, but some of the developments, especially in the past two or three years, signal a bright future for that game in the county too.
Counties with a small population base – like Roscommon – have to be innovative when it comes to coaching young players. Happily, instead of sitting back on their laurels, the Roscommon GAA authorities have appointed former player Sean Kilbride as Coaching Manager to assist and co-ordinate the coaching of hurling and football in the county. Sean is working alongside Willie Hegarty, who has been the Games Manager for many years.
I met with Sean Kilbride and Willie Hegarty recently to discuss their plans to increase the awareness of the importance of coaching and to improve the links between the clubs in the county and the local national and secondary schools, links which are absolutely crucial. Sean Kilbride, in his role as Coaching Manager or co-ordinator, succeeds Seamus Sweeney and Pat Compton, both of whom, he said, had been doing “a brilliant job”. Going forward, Sean says that there is much work to be done, especially at club level.
“The results at underage level in recent years prove that we have been doing a lot right in Roscommon, but there is a gap at club level that we need to address – and that’s at all levels. There is a problem for clubs (in) recruiting coaches at all levels. That’s one problem – and then educating the coaches is another problem,” he said.
There are now three full-time coaches in the county. “We have just recruited our third full-time coach, Padraig Mitchell. That has been a big boost for us. He will come in to assist the other football coach, Peter Carney, and the hurling coach, Proinsias Killian. That’s in addition to Willie, our Games Manager. It means that we can now split the county into two for football coaching, which relieves the pressure somewhat. But other counties have many more coaches and that is something that we are working on at the moment. Ideally we would like to divide the county into three or four sections.”
Another very important job that the coaching staff in Roscommon have to do is to improve the level of contact between club coaches and local schools.
Games Manager Willie Hegarty says that they receive great co-operation from the schools in the county.
“Along with the three full-time staff and myself, we employ nine part-time coaches for 16 weeks of the year…who go into the national schools. We get great co-operation and there is great goodwill.
“The next step now is to develop better club/school links at national and secondary level schools. That’s one of our major aims.
“At the moment, that club/school link is good in some areas and poor in others. It means that the volunteers in clubs are being asked to do even more work and that is not easy…to be asking people to do that.
“It is tough for clubs to get people to go into schools in the middle of the day and as well as that it’s not just anyone who can arrive at the door of a school and take out a group of kids. There are child protection issues and Garda vetting, etc. so it is not straightforward.
“We have started a club mentoring programme. It is working well. We go into clubs and take a look at their coaching philosophy under six headings, and we try to build that club/school link which we see as vital. You have to remember that in Roscommon we have one of the highest number of one and two teacher schools in the country.”
Sean Kilbride says that the club mentoring programme is very important for the future.
“What we want is for clubs to identify and recruit more coaches and to hold on to those coaches they have. Then we will help to educate the coaches and we will organise seminars to do that. But it remains a fact that a lot of clubs have ignored the primary schools in their area.”
Willie Hegarty says that it is amazing to note that there are many children who are attending national schools in the county who have no affiliation to a GAA club.
“We have come across plenty of kids who have no affiliation to a club when they are in primary school. It is the clubs who are losing out in that situation, so we need far stronger links between the local club and the local schools.
“We did a pilot scheme with Roscommon CBS and Roscommon Community College. We put in extra coaches and met all the coaches and the teachers. We sent in Liam McHale (member of Roscommon senior management team) to do some coaching and it was incredible to report that a lot of the players that we were coaching had no club at all. Even at primary level a lot of the students there did not know what their local GAA club was, which was very surprising. So there is a huge gap there and a lot to work on.”
Sean Kilbride says that kids develop their skills before the age of 12.
“If we are not coaching players properly at national school level, then we are missing out. It is the same problem in other counties, but with our small population we have to maximise what we have with regard to secondary schools.”
Willie Hegarty cites a startling statistic: “There are players in County Roscommon going to nine different secondary schools outside the county in three different provinces. In fact there are more players going to secondary schools outside County Roscommon than are going to school inside the county – and that poses a different problem altogether.”
Sean Kilbride says that this is a problem that means that clubs and the county are losing out on players.
“For instance we have players going to places like Marist College in Athlone, but if they don’t get on the U-14 team they decide to give up football altogether. The clubs are losing out…it is happening in other schools too. There are some great clubs who have seen what is happening and they are going into some of the schools to help out. The elite players will always be okay, but those further down the ladder are losing out. The weaker clubs are not doing their bit and a lot of these young players are lost to other sports.”
Sean says other sports are a factor and that rugby is really growing stronger in many areas.
“We are seeing a big growth in rugby across the board and they are being well funded by the IRFU as well. This project that we set up with the secondary schools in Roscommon town was a big success. We met with all the teachers and we found out what the schools need from the clubs and what they need from us as coaches…the idea would be that the clubs serving both schools would contribute €250 per school – so that would be €500 per club per year – and the schools would use that money to develop players.
“The club will benefit as they are getting developed players and the schools have that extra bit of financial support that they need to compete. We want to cultivate a link between the clubs and the local schools so that the clubs would be able to supply coaches to help out with school teams. Often-times there is one teacher looking after an entire team, which is not ideal. They need more back-up.”
Willie and Sean were also anxious to remind me that this is not a football-only initiative, and that that there is huge work going on at underage hurling level too.
Sean explained: “Pronsias Killian is making great progress on the hurling front and the U-17 squad, under Stephen Glennon – who is a top class coach – competed in the Celtic League against some of the elite counties. They performed very well in recent months. The standard is rising all the time and any initiatives that we are undertaking apply to hurling as well. We are working closely with Kieran Farrell of Coiste Iomana on various things in hurling as well.”
So the work goes on every day, every week, in clubs and schools all around the county. So we should all remember than when the Rossies take the field for a big championship or league game in front of thousands of people, it is certain that the players you see were coached from a very early age by people who give up their free time for the love of the game.
Hailing ‘unsung heroes’
The role of the county development squads is something that both Willie Hegarty and Sean Kilbride were very eager to acknowledge during their recent interview with the Roscommon People.
Sean Kilbride said: “There are some fantastic people working away without any publicity at all with our county development squads and the reason we have been so successful at underage level in recent years is because of the work that these people do.
“Nobody knows about these people or the amount of work that they do – which is colossal and totally voluntary – and which is unique to any county in Ireland.”
Willie Hegarty added: “I couldn’t praise these people highly enough. They are there (in) rain, hail or snow to help out, and they get nothing except a bit of gear from time to time. I also want to pay tribute to the clubs who facilitate these panels to train and do coaching. Never once have we been turned away by any club over the years and I want to especially thank Kilbride and St. Faithleach’s for their efforts over the years.
“We don’t provide transport, so we rely on parents to bring the players along – and they have been brilliant too.
“The status of Roscommon at underage level now is that there was an elite U-17 competition this year and Roscommon were involved and the other counties were Cork, Dublin, Kildare and Meath, and we did very well in that tournament. We have reached the semi-final with the final weekend to be played in Cork in mid-July. It is a sign of the esteem that Roscommon are held in when it comes to underage coaching.”
Sean and Willie stress that there are fantastic people involved at every level.
U-14s: Newly-appointed recently were Padraig Mitchell and Alan Garvey.
U-15s: Doing excellent work are Paul Staunton, Stephen Lohan and Michael Gallagher.
U-16s: In the very capable hands of Stephen Sheeran, Peter Carney, David Duignan, Liam Tully and Richard Feeney (Karina Sheeran, medical personnel).
At U-17: The key people are Karl Foley, Cathal McDonagh, Jim Gaffney, Donal Carroll (Tony Henry is stats man for games).
Cathal McDonagh is Strength & Conditioning Coach at U-15, U-16 and U-17 level.
Minor: Kieran Kilkenny is manager. Brian Costello is selector, Niall Kilcrann is trainer, Aaron Clogher is performance analyst, Shane Monaghan is over strength and conditioning, Ger Donoghue is kit man, Enda Daly is goalkeeping coach, Darren Owens is physical therapist and Jenny Downey is chartered physio. Also a key member of management team is Enda McGreevy.
Prionsias Killion, Peter Kelleghan and Michael Donnelly are in charge at U-14 and U-15 level and at U-16 and U-17 level it’s Stephen Glennon, Jimmy Donoghue, Joe Connaughton, Kieran Farrell and Seamus Donnelly.
Sean Kilbride: “Without these people we would not be able to do the job we are doing. These people are the unsung heroes of Roscommon football and hurling.”
Willie: “This all started 10 or 12 years ago, with the input of former county players, but it is more difficult as time goes on to get people to commit and give their time. The commitment we have seen over the years is fantastic and the county will never be able to pay these people back for what they have done and are doing.”
Willie Hegarty paid tribute to the ongoing support of the Connacht Council which he said is very favourable and much appreciated.
Sean and Willie also wished to acknowledge another group of people who have been doing outstanding work at the coalface, “our part-time primary school football and hurling coaches, who operate in the school 16 weeks a year. They have built up a wonderful relationship with all our national schools.”
They add: “The majority of our coaches have been with Roscommon Coaching Games Development for last ten years. This is a joint initiative by the County Board and the clubs.”
More coaches needed
Sean Kilbride says that the ambition is that into the future there should be four full-time football coaches and one for hurling.
“It will be difficult to get funding for those coaches, but we are working hard on that. The extra funding we got to employ Padraig Mitchell came from an initiative from Pat Compton, my predecessor. It is 80% funded by Croke Park and Connacht and that’s very welcome.
“There were two seminars organised recently. There were 35 coaches (football and hurling) at the first one and we had 81 at the second seminar, which was fantastic. We had various speakers in and we did a practical session at Hyde Park with Liam McHale, which was very well received. We will keep organising those seminars to help out coaches into the future.”
Uneven distribution of resources is a huge issue
Sean Kilbride says that the uneven distribution of resources is a huge problem that will have to be addressed at national level.
“This is a huge issue. For instance, here in Roscommon, we get about €50,000, and that’s to develop all our underage games in the county. It’s a derisory amount…and then you see what the likes of Dublin are getting. It’s a joke. We have to keep raising this issue.
“We need more coaches (in order) to compete. That’s the only way we can progress. In Dublin there is one full-time coach there per club and up to recently here in Roscommon we had one full-time coach for the whole county. It is an issue that we have to resolve.”