FORMER Fermanagh footballer Shaun Doherty is taking the plunge.
For the last seven years he’s been employed as the county’s full-time Football Development Officer, and while it’s been rewarding, it’s now time for a change.
The amount of weekend and evening work had limited Doherty’s time with his family, so that’s one, fairly prosaic reason why he’s decided to quit the post.
The other is that he’s spotted an opportunity. He believes that the GAA at central level is increasingly prioritising clubs at the expense of schools, so he’s set up a new sports coaching business with that in mind.
The mission statement is to ‘provide children with the opportunity to learn and take part in a variety of sports and activities to help develop their confidence, communication, teamwork and resilience to carry throughout their life-time’.
We’ve touched base with the Kinawley man for a chat about the last seven years where he was firmly embedded in Fermanagh’s academy structure. He explains why you can’t always judge Fermanagh by silverware or lack thereof, and why they’ll keep on fighting the good fight even without much in the way of help from Croke Park.
But first, what factors went into his decision to leave behind a steady, important role within Fermanagh GAA?
Doherty said: “It has always been my ambition to have my own sports coaching company and between Cavan and Fermanagh I’d been doing the development role for the last 15 or 16 years.
“I’ve a young family and the hours have been very unsociable at times.
“If I didn’t set up my own business now, I probably never would have. I’ve the opportunity to get a better balance in my life.
“With my kids getting to a certain age, I didn’t want to miss out on things and I was regularly tied up with work in the evenings and every Saturday. It was becoming difficult to make time for my wee ones and my family. I decided to take the opportunity to start my own business and give it a go.”
Doherty explains that the bread and butter of his new business will be linking in with schools.
“In my time at Cavan and Fermanagh, schools have always been looking for additional support. I found there was always a shortage of well-qualified people to support the kids not just in terms of GAA but sport in general. So I’m focusing on multi-sport with my new business, not just GAA.
“I noticed that the GAA had become more club-focused in terms of coaching and I figured there was going to be even more evening work down the line. So there was an opportunity to go in and give an additional hand to schools.”
It’s not unfair to say that Fermanagh don’t have a storied record at underage level down the years. They’ve the only county in the province never to win an Ulster Minor Championship and they’re joint-bottom alongside Armagh and Monaghan with three Ulster U21 titles to their name. Doherty says some of the natives crib about the lack of success but that they’re not looking at the bigger picture.
“When I look back at the last seven years, I think it was successful. Some people in Fermanagh deem success as winning minor championships, winning u-20, senior titles.
“But you have to be realistic particularly at underage level in Fermanagh. I came into the academy with Eoghan Bradley from Tyrone and we set realistic targets in terms of our long-term goals.
“Ultimately it was about bringing players through to senior football. If you win along the way that’s brilliant but it’s mainly about exposing those young players to the various different aspects of player development.
“When I reflect on that now, I think we achieved our goals. We brought through two-thirds of the current senior panel that won promotion to Division Two this year.
“We found that a higher number of young players were drafted through to the senior panel than beforehand because they were more prepared for what senior intercounty football would bring.
“If you look back to around 2010, it was very rare that Fermanagh were winning Ulster Minor Championship matches, even Ulster Minor League games.
“But we had a few successful minor teams that claimed wins over the likes of Tyrone, Donegal and Derry in minor league football and we were unfortunate not to get to an Ulster Minor League final under Ollie Fay.
“We weren’t just rolling up to games in hope. We’d been perceived as a handy draw for the years, we were generally almost looked down upon, and I think that perception changed as we became more competitive.
“The likes of Tyrone, Donegal and Derry are always going to have that edge in terms of numbers and some people were annoyed by the manner of our losses to Derry and Monaghan in the Minor Championship this year, but those people didn’t understand the lay of the land. Those were two unbelievable groups of players coming through the academy system and they showed that by reaching the All-Ireland final.
“The reality is that some years Fermanagh have the quality to go toe-to-toe with the big sides in Ulster and in others we don’t have the quality. But I’d like to think it was a successful period. We helped St Michael’s win their first Hogan Cup, we won some minor games, we brought a lot of players through to the senior panel. It wasn’t just myself and Eoghan obviously, but all the coaching staff, minor and u-20 management, it’s a collective.”
St Michael’s, Enniskillen claimed the Hogan Cup in 2019 with a memorable Croke Park victory over Naas CBS. It was also a big achievement for Fermanagh, but Doherty is mindful that other schools in Fermanagh don’t have the same track record.
“You have a lot of very small secondary schools in Fermanagh who have excellent PE teachers but the small numbers make it very difficult.
“St Aidan’s, Derrylin are doing well and they’ll hopefully push up into the C grade this year. But a lot of schools are playing in D and E grade and I’d have loved to have seen them making better progress in my time.
“There’s a few larger schools who probably don’t give enough support to their PE staff, who maybe don’t realise the benefit that sport can bring to a school more generally. St Michael’s have a good philosophy where they have a healthy sporting tradition and a healthy academic tradition.
“I’d have loved to have seen another school in Fermanagh even making the step up to MacLarnon football.
“That being said the South West College are giving things a big push in the last few years under the guidance of Dermot Feely and Robby McKenna. You have Omagh, Enniskillen and Dungannon colleges who can come together. Last year they won the C division and are now in with the likes of Dundalk and Sligo IT.
“The South West College has a lot of good courses and hopefully we can convince Fermanagh and Tyrone-based players that they don’t need to go to Belfast. I think it’s definitely going to grow even further in terms of football and that’ll give a bit of a rivalry to St Michael’s, which can only be a good thing.”
Doherty went on the record a couple of years ago as saying that the impact of Covid-19 was hindering the athletic development of young people in the county. He says that kids are catching up but that it’s been a slow enough process.
“During Covid there was very little activity and I would say that applied across most counties. It wasn’t just from a sporting perspective, but socially as well. Kids in that 14-16 age bracket missed out on an awful lot, it was a very difficult time.
“I’d still see a wee bit of a drop off but we are making ground, there’s plenty of games and activities and kids are catching up.
“It’ll take a bit of time and I’ve found that since Covid parents have been a bit more cautious. But we’re getting there and I think things will get back to where it was before the pandemic.”
Frustratingly, the proposed revamp of the Lissan GAA centre outside Enniskillen is still in the development stages. Lissan was originally opened around 20 years ago. Three years ago it was redeveloped but the facilities there are straining at their seams because of constant use by development squads of all age groups and the county’s senior men’s and ladies’ teams.
The work is estimated to cost between £3.5 and £4million and Doherty has been irked by the lack of support from the GAA.
“The lack of facilities has been an issue over the last seven years. We were reliant on the good will of the clubs, and while they were very good, there were times of the year that didn’t suit clubs. We had to use council pitches which came at a serious cost.
“As much as we pleaded with Croke Park to support Fermanagh and to give us a fighting chance, it always fell on deaf ears. You were always having to jump over hurdles. Unless you have a big county population it seems to be pointless even trying.
“Fermanagh are as proud a football and hurling county as anywhere in Ireland but it just seemed to be a tick box exercise with Croke Park, giving us the bare minimum to keep us happy.
“But it wasn’t what Fermanagh needed, Fermanagh need facilities. We’ve raised money through Club Eirne and the clubs and we actually raise more money than some of the bigger counties as we have to do things by ourselves.
“It is frustrating that Lissan hasn’t moved forward. We’re crying out for pitches and gyms and the County Board and Club Eirne is doing all they can but it’s not easy.
“I wish Croke Park would come and do something but everything’s directed towards the larger counties and it becomes very demoralising after a while.”
Doherty, says, however, that Fermanagh as a county will keep on pushing on despite the lack of external backing.
“Those who have seem to get more, and those with nothing get nothing. You can’t speak highly enough of men like ‘Jet’ (Club Eirne chairman Ger Treacy) with all the different roles he has, I don’t know how he gets the time to do everything.
“Croke Park’s funding criteria is dependant on ticking boxes but they are boxes that suit the big urban areas. Hopefully with the changes coming down the line with Jarlath Burns as president things will at least change slightly for the better.
“The needs of Dublin etc are different than the needs of Fermanagh, Sligo, Leitrim. Everything seems to be based on certain models and that doesn’t suit counties like ourselves. It’s facilities we need and a wee bit of help would be great.
“It does demoralise you at times but Fermanagh just keep going. You can look at counties like Meath and the facilities they have but the reality is we’re in the same division as them next year.
“We have always persevered in Fermanagh and will continue to do so, and I will as well in my new job. There’s no point crying about things.”
Doherty is also highly involved with his club Kinawley. Fifteen years after lining out for Fermanagh in the Ulster final saga against Armagh, he is still playing and he’s also brought his coaching skills to the club. Their manager is Fermanagh GAA titan and Kinawley clubman Dominic Corrigan, a man he has the height of respect for.
“I’ve known Dominic a lifetime now from playing under him, coaching, and I was always in and around St Michael’s over the years.
“He’s done an awful lot for Fermanagh football and will continue to do so. When you have really good club managers like Dom it raises the standard of club football and that’s been evident in the last number of years, we have a lot of strong senior clubs which is great to see.
“I still play a bit and I do 50 per cent of the training with Dom doing the rest. We work well together. I mightn’t have many years left playing but when there’s good young lads coming through it keeps me going.”