Coaches from Mourne County are heading a Wee bit further

LOUTH club football is pretty much awash with coaches hailing from the Mourne County at the minute, with plenty of big names from Down football involved with several different teams throughout the Wee County.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s more than just a few Down coaches scattered around the province of Ulster, lending their footballing knowledge and wisdom to numerous different clubs with varying degrees of success.

Two-time All-Ireland winning manager Pete McGrath, a Down and GAA icon, currently holds the reins at Aghagallon and is chasing a first ever Antrim SFC title after a couple of previously failed attempts.

Mark Doran, who won a Monaghan SFC crown with Ballybay alongside Jerome Johnston in 2022, is the main man at Derry’s Sleacht Néill now and hoping to knock All-Ireland club champions Glen off their perch.

Doran, of course, joined forces with Oisín McConville this season and helped guide Wicklow to the last eight of the Tailteann Cup, where they coincidentally lost out to Down. James McCartan is part of Ger Brennan’s Louth management team as well.

In Armagh, Warrenpoint natives Ronan McMahon and Niall McAleenan led Clan na Gael (2023) and Granemore (2022) to the last two senior finals. Danny Hughes (Culloville), Garreth Thornton (Pearse Óg) and Tony Bagnall (Poyntzpass) also manage in the Orchard County. Declan Mussen has joined forces with Kevin Franklin at St Patrick’s in Louth and they will compete against fellow Down coaches and former inter-county stars Mark Poland (Cooley), Donal O’Hare (Naomh Mairtin) and Kevin McKernan (Dundalk Gaels).

Steven Poacher, who has spread the gospel at inter-county level with Carlow, Roscommon and even the Fermanagh hurlers, is also coaching in the Wee County this year having taken charge of St Mochta’s.

Poacher believes that a lack of achievable success in his native county means that coaches are forced to travel further afield and are willing to do so.

“A penny has probably dropped. The people that really enjoy coaching, like myself and others, want the opportunity to challenge for league or a championship,” explained Poacher. “Really, if you’re not Carryduff, Burren or Kilcoo, you don’t really have a chance.

“The gap in Down is quite wide at the minute, I think Carryduff are probably Kilcoo’s nearest challengers. Burren have good young players coming through, but they’ve now gone six years since winning a championship

“The longer that goes on, the harder that becomes for a club. If this Burren team don’t make the big breakthrough in the next few years, who knows, that group might never make the breakthrough and that’s the reality of the situation.”

On his experience managing in Down, Poacher added, “I was with Mayobridge for two seasons, a fantastic club and a great bunch of lads. They have great history, great tradition but we just didn’t have the quality up front to really challenge the big two or three teams.

“We did knock Carryduff out of the championship in my first year which was a huge result, we beat Carryduff by a point in Castlewellan in the quarter-finals and then we fell short in the semi-final to Kilcoo.

“We had to make it very attritional because we’d lost Corey Quinn to Australia, our best scoring forward. You just sort of come away from it thinking that you just can’t win a championship. I think the coaches that are coaching outside of the county realise that.

“When you have clubs as dominant as Kilcoo are, or Crossmaglen were, it can be very demoralising from a psychological point of view as well for a lot of clubs.

“But success is relative to. I was with Ballyholland for six seasons, and they weren’t championship contenders, they were a yo-yo club that were going up between Division One and Division Two on a regular basis.

“We managed to retain our Division One status for six years and we finished third in Division One. For me that’s as great as going into Burren and winning a championship, success is relative.

He continued: “You have to understand that different teams have a different barometer when it comes to success and I think that’s why Division Two teams like Liatroim or Rostrevor or Saval, they all have outside coaches.

“Those coaches obviously feel that they can win an Intermediate Championship or gain promotion to Division One which is success, but a lot of teams in Division One in Down really don’t have a chance of doing anything.”

Not only is branching out further afield providing coaches with a chance to win some potential silverware, but Poacher also believes that travelling to different countries provides coaches with the perfect opportunity to learn.

“It’s actually a great learning opportunity for coaches to go outside your county,” he continued. “For example, this is my first club job outside of Down. I’ve coached at county level in other counties but it’s my first club job.

“It actually refreshes you as a coach because you’re starting to learn about new teams, you’re starting to learn about new styles, you’re meeting a new group of players and the standard of football in Louth is very, very good.

“It’s very strong, the physicality in the county is on a different scale to Down, the games are a lot more open and there’s a bit more football played. It’s not really as attritional and as stifling as Down is.

“I think the reason that Down club football has become like that is because everybody sort of feels that they have to play like that to beat Kilcoo. Teams are now playing with low blocks and narrow blocks and making it very difficult for the opposition.

“It’s great to actually experience different counties, different cultures and different clubs and you’re building new relationships with people and everyone’s starting from afresh. Everyone’s trying to impress and it’s really enjoyable at the minute actually.”

The former Mayobridge and Ballyholland boss knows a thing or two about coach education having run the largest coaching workshop in the country at St Joseph’s High School in Newry, where he teaches as the head of PE.

Aspiring coaches travel from all over to delve into the expertise provided at such courses, but Poacher believes that Down are “lagging behind” in terms of coach education compared to a lot of other counties.

“I think from a coach education perspective, Down is lagging behind. Obviously, I have my own coaching day in November, and I don’t think we do enough of it. I certainly think that there’s a lot of good coaching going on in some clubs.

“The likes of Mayobridge underage is very strong, they’ve got good people in there like Francie Poland, Kevin McClory, who is coaching with me in St Mochta’s, he’s a PE teacher in our school as well.

“There is some good coaching going on in clubs, obviously (Conor) Laverty and Kilcoo are doing a lot of work underage as well, Burren are putting a big push in at underage so there is good work going in in some clubs.

“But from a county perspective and from a coach education perspective, there’s probably not a lot of opportunities and there should be a lot more. I do feel that from a coach education point of view, Down are slightly a wee bit behind.

“I was at a few workshops in Monaghan recently and one in Tyrone and those counties are just slightly a wee bit ahead of the curve when it comes to the coach education side of things.”

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