Passing the Baton

The Derry core of Stirling's GAA story

Passing the Baton

The Stirling team of 2015/16 with Oisin Moran (8) in the front row (second from left) and Aaron Conway (3) also in the front row (third from left)

In part two of our look at the Derry influence on Stirling University, Michael McMullan looked into the experiences of Magherafelt man Oisin Moran and Craigbane's Aaron Conway as they kept the club on track.

Unlike conventional GAA clubs, the university scene is totally different. Every four years, the life-cycle of the average course, the committee members will move on.

The early years in Stirling, with Magherafelt man Declan Loane founding the club in 1995, were fruitful with the establishment of the club's sevens tournament. But it needed to have a spine to carry it all the way to the current day.

Lisburn man Peter O'Neill and Ben McCloskey of Ballinascreen are at the forefront of the club, but passing the baton was the important piece of the puzzle.

In Loane's final final year, a new committee was elected to take the club forward and keep the transition smooth, with members having experience in running all aspects of the club.

Down man Stephen Gallagher, the team captain, became Chairperson and Gabrielle Dunne (née McKinney), hailing from Strabane, took up the position of Club Secretary. The had time left on their degree courses and their leadership and commitment aided a developing club into a growing entity.

The club continued to grow in numbers and grow stronger both on and off the field year on year. Several players, including Stephen, went on to play for Scotland at the British Universities Tournament. And members of the club gained colours for their contribution to sporting life while at University.

“Stephen was captain on the field and went on to show these same leadership skills, whilst in the chair,” Declan commented.

“Gaby contributed immensely throughout the formative years as well in various roles within the committee.

“Having worked closely with both, I knew the club and the future were in safe dedicated hands,” Loane added.

“All university clubs need and rely on a continuation of committed individuals beyond one degree term, to keep the momentum of any club. With each new academic year, all clubs hope that a committed fresher will come on-board – both on and off the field. In my time, that fresher was Stephen.”

It was only the beginning and it wasn't too long before there were Derry fingerprints on the club's baton again.


Oisin Moran and Aaron Conway (middle row) pictured at Freshers' Day 2015 in Stirling


Magherafelt man Oisin Moran, son of former Derry physio Sean, arrived in Stirling to study Sports and Exercise Science.

He was part of a very successful underage team at home, which culminated in winning the 2008 All-Ireland U14 Féile.

On new soil he didn't know anyone and had to build a new friendship network that remains strong to this day.

Oisin takes up the story.

When I joined the team, there was a mix of Irish and non-Irish players with a panel of 18. As most of the players were in their final year, it created problems when I took over the club the following year.

During my first year I learned a lot about the club traditions and values which Declan had cited. The Stirling team did not have a large panel of 30 plus Irish players to choose from like some universities so we had to branch out and attract players from a non GAA background and from different parts of the world.

A sense of 'family' was soon established, much like clubs at home. We had the opportunity to go down and play in the British Championships in Birmingham, which helped give me an insight to the championship and made me determined to bring the club down every year and to compete against other Universities from Scotland and England.

Towards the end of my first year we held our AGM and I put my name forward to be nominated for captain of the team the following year and I was successfully appointed.

Odhran Hassan from Banagher was elected president of the club at the same time and we came together at the end of our first year to develop a plan to build and grow the club both on and off the field.

I think this is a challenge for most University Clubs as teams have to be rebuilt regularly and it’s an even bigger challenge for teams like ourselves as we don’t get an influx of Irish students every year.

At the start of second year, myself and Odhran began the process of rebuilding and quickly started the recruitment process.

This included social media posts, putting posters up around the university, handing out flyers. We also had a stall booked for the sports bazaar which is held during Freshers week.

Overall our recruitment drive was very successful and we got around 20 people to join the club. Myself and Odhran ran the club, we trained the team as well as honouring and managing our sponsorship agreements.

We arranged referees for games and if playing away would secure transport to and from the venue. We needed good time management, as we were doing this alongside studying for a degree. However I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I'd happily do it again as I was doing the role because I love the sport and wanted to grow and develop the club.

At the AGM I stood for the position of President and I was successfully appointed for the 2014-2015 season.

As President, I continued to build on the good work myself and Odhran started and continued to expand the clubs numbers and also had the opportunity and resources to attend British Championships again that year.

We also combined the women’s Gaelic team onto our sponsorship agreement which helped bring the two clubs closer together.

Throughout the year we held joint social events which were great craic and also every week we held a joint training session on a Sunday if no league games were being played that weekend just to get everyone together and have a bit of fun playing the sport we all love.

Towards the second half of the year I made the decision that I should pass the responsibilities of running the club over to someone else as I was going into my final year and needed to focus on my studies and I knew I couldn’t commit the proper time that was needed to successfully run the team.

At this point I could see Aaron (Conway) was very committed to the team and could see he shared the same love and enthusiasm for the sport.

Maybe it was because we are both from Derry, but I knew the club would be in safe hands so I encouraged him to run for President at the end of year and I would be there in my final year to give him any advice he would need.

Overall I’m very proud I had the opportunity to be a part of the club and learn its history and then be able to contribute to maintaining the traditions and club values whilst helping build the club over the years I was attending University in Stirling.

If you asked me what was a more important achievement to me gaining a degree or running a Gaelic team it would be the Gaelic team and it wouldn’t even be close.

***

Aaron Conway's first experience of the Stirling University Gaelic football team was on a Wednesday afternoon, in September 2013, at the sports bazaar.

Having moved over from Derry, without knowing anyone beforehand, he figured it would be a good way to settle in and make friends. He takes up the story.

I had just put my name down for trials for the soccer team when I overheard a thick Irish accent say 'ah lads Mayo have no chance against Dublin on Sunday', I looked over to see a guy in a Roscommon jersey sat at a table with a tricolour hung in the background.

As I walked over, I saw a sign which read 'Men’s Gaelic Football' and a laptop on the table which was showing the 2012 All Ireland Football Final. As I approached the table, a guy in a Derry jersey introduced himself as Odhran and asked if I was interested in joining the team.

We chatted for a few minutes and I gave him my contact details and that was it. For me this was better than expected, as I was able to make friends with people from home and to have the chance to start playing Gaelic football again as I had stopped playing for Craigbane at U16 level.

At the end of my first year, I was voted onto the committee as the social secretary and it was only here where I started to see the work that went on behind the scenes to keep the club running.

One of the major challenges which most university sports teams face is the constant turnover of players and members.

We had to try and find as many Irish players as we could and then supplement that by training up non-Irish guys who were interested in playing and try to get them up to speed before the first games of the season which were usually in the first weeks of October.

This didn’t give us much time and wasn’t helped by the lack of floodlights on the grass pitches which meant that from October until February most of our training sessions were held on a 4G pitch with only soccer goals to use for shooting drills.

Throughout my time at Stirling, we were lucky to have a good core of Irish players and managed to successfully train up a few from scratch into fairly decent players. Most of the players during my time were from the UK and Ireland but we also had players from Sweden, Spain and even Australia.

The league was always difficult to compete in as we were coming up against teams from Glasgow, Edinburgh Aberdeen and Dundee most of whom were able to field teams with at least 11 or 12 Irish players. We might have only had six or seven, with the rest made up of players who may have only had a handful of training sessions before being flung in at the deep end so to speak.

This meant some one-sided matches at times but the key thing here was to try and make sure the new lads didn’t get too disheartened.

The British Championships would have been our main focus each year as we would be playing teams from all over Britain with similar ability to ourselves.

In 2015, which was my first time going to the British Championship, we reached the quarter finals where we were beaten by a strong Heriot-Watt team that reached the final that year.

The following year in 2016, when I was now President of the club, we were confident of doing well as we had a good squad and had trained hard however fortunes weren’t to be in our favour as due to waterlogged pitches.

All 12 teams in our division had to play their matches on one already drenched pitch in Leeds. By the time of the fourth game of the day the surface resembled a bog more than a football pitch, games were changed to 15 minutes straight to try and get the competition finished.

Our last game of the competition finished 0-1 to 0-1, giving you a taste of the conditions which also meant we would finish second in the group and miss out on the semi-finals.

In 2017 in my final year on the team and still president we were determined to go one step further, but a last-minute change of dates meant we wouldn’t be able to send a team that year as everyone had already changed their commitments for the original date which was disappointing personally.

Outside of football the British Championship weekends in Manchester were always a great weekend's craic and was good for team bonding.

The St Patrick's Day Festival Cup was a challenge match we played every year against Sands McSwineys Coatbridge who are a club team from just outside Glasgow.

Despite the name the cup match has been played anywhere from December to April but was usually played a week or two after St Patrick's Day.

This was good for us in the committee as it gave us something to keep training for after British championships. The games against Coatbridge were always competitive and occasionally controversial.

After two attempts – a defeat and a controversial late abandonment when we were seven or eight points clear - we eventually got our hands on the trophy which was a good experience for some of the lads who were new to the sport. We were able to defend our trophy the following year as well.

The social aspect of the club was also very important, having a strong social element allowed the guys who maybe weren’t the best players or couldn’t make training sessions or matches due to other commitments were still very much included in the club.

Throughout the year we would hold multiple socials and nights out alongside the ladies team.

The All Ireland Final and the Sky GAA TV deal was a major boost for us at the time, because it meant that we would be able to hold the social in Molly Malone's Bar in Stirling instead of having to travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh.

It quickly became a tradition that every year ourselves and the ladies would watch the game and it was an important social event. It was usually on the weekend after the sports bazaar so it was good for anyone who was joining the team to come along and meet the current team.

Through sponsorship agreements with Dusk nightclub in Stirling we were able to help subsidise our travel to matches, referees, equipment and our accommodation for British Championships.

One year we managed to raise over £4,000 between ourselves and the ladies team through the sponsorship agreement which was huge for both teams financially.

In October 2015, the club’s 20th Anniversary, we reached out to as many former players as we could contact and invited them to Stirling for a meal in a function room at the event centre of the University.

The event was well attended and a number of the former players turned up to support us earlier in the day as we had a home game against Heriot-Watt.

It was great to meet former players and hear stories of their time as part of the club. We had been planning to do something along the same lines last October for the 25th Anniversary, until Covid-19 scuppered our plans.

From humble beginnings and 25 years later, the GAA roots in Stirling remain. Central to all of that was the Derry influence, as the baton was passed along the line.

READ MORE - Part one of the story of Stirling's Derry roots - Build it and they will come CLICK HERE...

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