“The secret of getting ahead is getting started” – this was Mark Twain’s philosophy on life and how to begin those tasks that seem so momentous we can sometimes struggle to even begin. Certain parallels can be drawn from that quote to the new project being undertaken by the Kilkenny County Board. The revival of Football at underage level!
From the outside looking in this might seem an insurmountable goal. In a county that has made hurling its life blood, tradition and very being why would you even begin such a task? This is summed up succinctly by Coaching Officer Patrick O’Flynn who starts by saying “We are not the Kilkenny Hurling Association! We are the Kilkenny Gaelic Athletic Association. As such we want to provide opportunities for all our underage players to play any codes of our games that they most enjoy, be that Hurling, Football, Handball or Rounders.”
The starting point for this plan was when the County Board in conjunction with Leinster GAA carried out a review of Coaching & Games activity. This review highlighted the urgent need to look at footballing structures and activity, particularly at an underage level, within the county. “Following this review a consultative process was undertaken to engage with football people throughout the county. This included Clubs, Senior Intercounty Players, Management, Ex County Board Officers and anyone with a genuine interest in football within Kilkenny.”
As Twain alluded to the key is about getting started, this process led the Committee to present a short-term plan to the County Board “We determined that what was needed was a real immediate focused approach. Not a plan or strategy that had a pie in the sky goal 5 or 10 years down the line. A 10-bullet point strategy was proposed and agreed upon. What this did was give the entire County including Clubs a real focus on the year ahead for Football, it also highlighted some of the good activity that was already happening especially in terms of number of games played within Clubs and schools.”
From here a window of opportunity was identified where it might be possible to start underage academies again. After meeting with the Coiste na nOg fixtures Committee, October was agreed upon as a good time for this and sourcing of committed football individuals to help run the academy began. After this a call was put out to clubs to put forward the names of players that would be interested in coming into the sessions. The response to this call was a surprise to all involved “Over 120 players were sent in by the clubs which goes to show there is an appetite there when a correct location is found for this. The key when the sessions began was that these players were treated the same as their hurling counterparts with all the same facilities and services being provided for them”.
Once the players had been put through a number of sessions, where video analysis and strength and conditioning programmes were started, the next was to find a competitive game for them. On the Bank Holiday Monday in October, they travelled and played a Carlow selection in two games. These games were extremely competitive and were a great learning experience for both players and management “It was great to hear feedback from Carlow County Head of Games Robert Samson on a number of varying points and how to look at progressing the squad into the future.”
This has led O’Flynn and the Kilkenny County board to begin contemplating a more medium-term plan now that the initial groundwork has been complete. “The players who joined this squad are now being brought through onto the established winter programme that is already in place for hurling squads getting support and tips on how to progress themselves over the winter months. The next step is for us to sit down with Leinster GAA in particular and find a vehicle where we can be competitive at this grade with an eye towards developing this group in the long term. For instance, we might not be able to compete at Minor Championship level just yet, but the plan will be that when we do get back there, we stay there!”
O’Flynn is acutely aware of the work that needs to go into developing the skills of the players he himself is no stranger to success with the big ball having last year managed Palatine to victory in the Carlow Senior Football Championship and their first ever win in the subsequent Leinster Championship. “Modern football has become about nailing the absolute basics and having the ability to play the game a number of ways. This only comes through coaching and is not something that can be instilled in a brief period of time. This is something we need to develop within our county and in particular our Clubs, it is starting to happen. Take for instance the U13 football league this year’s final was contested between Freshford and Tullaroan, two traditional hurling clubs but the passion of both players and supporters that day you would be forgiven for thinking it was an All-Ireland.”
This thought process leads him back to his original point of Kilkenny GAA being there to serve all those who play our games – “Growing up in Kilkenny everyone wants to wear the black and amber jersey, with this initiative we hope to make that dream a reality for even more youngsters in the County. That those players will be respected and supported through our GDC and GPO staff through Leinster Council and most importantly through the County Board itself.”
With this changed attitude towards football and the right support and structures in place the “Getting Ahead” that Twain referred to might be some way off, however one thing is for sure they have most definitely started.