With each passing year the passion for GAA grows within the city, and Orlagh Mullan spoke to primary schools’ coach and Steelstown player Neil Forester about the success of local clubs, the abundance of young talent and the excitement for the future…

Looking at senior teams within the city, last year Doire Trasna won the junior double, while this season we had two teams in championship semi-finals – Steelstown and Sean Dolans. Is it a sign that the rest of the county should sit up and take notice?

“It was good to have two teams at intermediate level from the city this year with ourselves at Steelstown and Doire Trasna. It only helps us all reach a higher standard, and although the change in league structures will affect that next season, there’s bright future ahead.

“At the end of the day, the city will be judged based on how the senior teams are performing. You look at Sean Dolans – they weren’t necessarily in and around the top of the league, but they were confident about the championship all year and they proved why when it came around. They had a good win over Doire Colmcille and what some people might have seen as a shock win over Glack – but it was all about belief. They believed in themselves, and they delivered. Even when they missed out on the final against Moneymore, it was close.

“There’s a lot to be positive about, and the fact that we have city teams in and around the championships every year shows why.”

Looking at every individual club within the city, it definitely does seem that there’s a lot for each to be positive about, for a variety of reasons, looking to the future?

“There’s a positive buzz about the place. Seeing people from every club working incredibly hard inspires everyone else. Doire Colmcille have had their pitch for a few years now, and that base is something important.

“Dolans have their club house now and they had their first Cul Camp there in the summer, and there was a great turnout. They’ve built the club back up from scratch when it looked like they could fold. The likes of Brian O’Donnell and so many others up there pulled them out of danger.

“You look at Pearses who have turned the sod on what will be their new pitch soon enough. It wasn’t long ago that it was only Steelstown who had their own ground and everyone else was having to use council pitches and work around that.”

The aim in the future is to have as many city teams as possible playing at the higher level within the county, but that will take time?

“It’s a slow process but it starts with the foundations – they have to be as strong as possible. The work within the city from U6 and U8 up has been phenomenal.

“I started primary school coaching six years ago, and at the Tower Cup back then we had five schools with six teams in total because one school brought two. Last year we had 26 primary schools in the Tower Cup finals, and we had every club firstly having individual events with six schools each.

“So many kids start with the primary school and then they go on and join their local club and it enables that club to build a strong base of U6’s, U8’s and U10’s. It’s a slow process, but at all the local clubs we are seeing the benefits now.”

At primary school level kids will always have great enthusiasm. Is it about utilising that excitement and helping them develop their love for the GAA?

“Kids of that young age will try anything. Whether you offer them netball, bowling, rugby or whatever else - they’re interested. For us it’s about showing them the GAA, and giving them a taste for it – and a lot of them really enjoy it.

“When you look now at club level at the lower age groups, so many are able to field teams and it’s because of the work of people like Brian O’Donnell (Sean Dolans), Eoghan Carlin (Doire Trasna) and Matthew Maguire (Doire Colmcille).

“Kids start playing, and they become Gaels, and they want to stick with it. It becomes their first choice and the sport they love, and they love their club. It’s about constantly working with them, though, because it would be easy for them to go home and watch soccer on the TV every week and become disinterested.

“At the younger ages of six, seven or eight, it’s so easy to get them engaged, whereas it’s a lot harder to convert a 14 or 15 year old who hasn’t played before.”

There’s been more amalgamation within the city in order to develop – the combination of Doire Colmcille and Sean Dolans as City Oaks at underage level, and the Chathair Dhoire schools team of Lumen Christi, St Columb’s College, Oakgrove and St Joe’s to play McLarnon this year. Is that a good move?

“It’s a good way for the city to get stronger and to raise the standards for us all. We have to work together to do that.

“You look at south Derry and the likes of Bellaghy, Lavey, Glen and Magherafelt – they’re all in close proximity to one another and facing one another week in, week out, and it raises the standards between players. Obviously, we’re not at that level yet in the city, but it’s the same sort of system.

“If you look at the Chathair Dhoire schools group – there’s going to be so many players in that panel getting McLarnon, ‘B’ grade football that wouldn’t get it at their individual school. They’re then taking that top class training back to their club, and it raises the standard amongst their team mates there as well, so the amalgamation has great potential.”

You’ve been able to put on regular primary schools’ tournaments over recent years to get kids playing and peak their interest. How important has it been to develop those events to encourage their passion?

“The easiest way to fall on love with football or hurling is to play. The game sells itself because it’s fast, quick and there’s a lot of skills in it.

“The primary schools have really bought into it in the last six years that I’ve been involved, and I think the clubs now realise the importance of the schools too.

“St John’s are the perfect example. They were involved last year for the first time and reached the Tower Cup final and won the indoor event – then so many of them pupils headed straight to join Dolans.”

You’ve also worked hard to have girls-only primary school events. With such a brilliant pool of talent, and with so many city players representing Derry at senior level, how important was that for you?

“Steelstown have a top-quality girls set-up, so coming up with the Steelstown Cup was easy for me. It made sense to separate the boys and girls because the demand was there.

“The last two years we’ve had a girls’ indoor tournament, but this year we’re doing an outdoor Tower Cup for the girls too for the first time. It’s a step forward and we want equal opportunities for all the kids.

“There’s huge potential for girls in the city – we have so many fantastic players who could easily make county teams. There were a few girls from St John’s and Pennyburn who really impressed, and Colmcille have a young player that has incredible talent and has already shown that in trials. The promise is there without doubt, so it’s about nurturing that.”

More recently we have seen local players making more of an impact on the inter-county scene, at underage level especially. Is that something that can be built on with the young talent coming through now?

“It’s been fantastic, particularly in Steelstown, recently. The last few years we’ve had Ben McCarron and the two Eoghans – Bradley and Concannon – at minor and U20 level and they’ve plenty of Ulster medals and All-Ireland appearances between them.

“They’re three talented players, and Ben in particular has done fantastically well making the Top 20 U20 Team of the Year for this season, and he still has two years at that age group.

“As a club, it’s fantastic to have those top-quality players involved, and it only helps the county. There’s no point in focusing on one part, we have to raise the standards across Derry to improve at inter-county level.”

As a Steelstown club man, you also have the only hurling club in the city – Na Magha – in close proximity. Do you think that the football and hurling can work hand in hand from underage to senior level?

“The two sports work well with one another. I know in Steelstown we have a lot of dual players. One of our U16’s – Padhraig Nelis – who plays with Na Magha, won an underage All-Ireland title with Derry in the summer, which is superb.

“Alan Grant is a massive player for both Dolans and Na Magha too. It inspires others and it gives everyone a boost seeing Gaelic Games being promoted within the city.

“The two crossover well, and it’s great to see the success and young ones coming through in both football and hurling.”

So, where do we go from here?

“We’ve got a good base now, but we can’t take our eye off the ball. We have to keep going and keep working hard because the rewards do come.

“You look at St Joe’s and Lumen Christi who have both won Ulster titles in the last few years. That’s not just boys who have picked up a ball for the first time, it’s ones that have come through from the primary school programme and have developed.

“It’s a slow process but we have to keep pushing because this year’s U8’s and U10’s are the senior players of the future.

“There’s so many clubs across the city that everyone will have a local one nearby. Being a part of that GAA club environment is something special, and it would be brilliant to see the underage numbers continuing to grow across the city.”

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