Ballina Stephenites reaping the harvest of seeds sown
By John Harrington
Sometimes you need a kick in the backside to get you moving in the right direction again.
In 2012, Ballina Stephenites only managed to preserve their unbroken status as senior club by winning a relegation play-off against Kiltane.
Demotion to the Intermediate ranks for the most successful club in the history of Mayo GAA, particularly one that had won an All-Ireland title as recently as 2005, would have cut them to the quick.
Eanna Casey played on that All-Ireland winning team, and the reason for the club’s decline since their most recent Mayo championship success in 2007 seemed apparent to him.
The club as a whole was so wrapped up in that senior team’s journey that they’d taken their eye off their underage structures and so the Stephenites conveyor belt of talent was not nearly as good as it should have been.
In a new role as the club’s Director of Coaching he drew up plans to do something about that.
He wanted young footballers in the town to not just benefit from good coaching, but to also have a real sense of pride in being a Ballina Stephenite.
The club’s underage structures were rebranded as 'The Young Knites', a new coaching blueprint that prioritised skill development through games based training was drawn up, and a number of initiatives were rolled out that emphasied that the club was about community as much as sport.
With the benefit now of hindsight, how successful can we say the Young Knites initiative has been?
The fact that Ballina Stephenites are Mayo champions for the first time in 16 years and their team is stacked by Young Knites graduates such as Sam Callinan, Luke Feeney, Ciaran Boland, Liam Golden, Dylan Thornton, Frank Irwin, and Niall Feeney would certainly suggest they’re now reaping a rich harvest from the seeds sown 10 years ago.
These days Eanna Casey is the Ballina Stephenites senior team coach, so he has worked with many of these players from their juvenile days right up to now.
It’s not remotely in his character to seek any praise for the work he’s done or to suggest his vision is the main reason why the Stephenites are a renewed force, but when he talks with passion and clarity about their underage coaching philosophy it’s easy to join the dots yourself.
“We were basically trying to make the younger aspect of our club more accessible and appealing to those players,” he told GAA.ie.
“We started a nurersy at U-6 and they, the U-8s, and U-10s were all under the flagship of the Young Knites.
“The founder of our club is a fella called James Wallace Melvin and we're called the Stephenites, so we came up with a mascot called 'Wallace the Young Knite', a little cartoon character.
“Building then on the Young Knites we developed a player pathway right the way up to and including assimilation into the senior team.
“We took an idea from swimming where in order to go onto the next level of a swimming class you have to have acquired a certain skill level, they can't just go on up. Whereas in the GAA your level is just decided by your age whether you can kick a ball out of your way or not.
“Now, obviously we were never going to tell a player he couldn't go from U-10 to U-11 if he couldn't complete a certain skill.
“But what we did was benchmark each age-group and encourage the players to reach a certain level in the various skills of the games. So, that way, the children were being encouraged and facilitated to acquire the appropriate skill level to progress to the next age-group.
“Then, moving into U-14, U-16, and minors there was an S&C and movement based focus that was fairly comprehensive. We also really focused on some team-play and tactical awareness as well as skill-work for the U-14s, U-16s, and minors.
“It's one thing drafting it, but the tricky think was rolling it out and getting every coach to buy into it. There were some bumps in the road, but for the most part it was a very positive experience.”
When Casey discovered that one of the young footballers in the club had met Lionel Messi more times than any member of the Stephenites senior football team, he knew something was seriously wrong.
The connection between the senior and juvenile sections of the club was clearly broken, so he made it a priority to weld them back together.
“I'm a primary school teacher so I kind of understand the importance of reforging that connection, but, for the most part, senior footballers are selfish animals, and understandably so because you have a lot to contend with and if you're going to win a county title it's not going to be easy done,” says Casey.
“But with the help of some amazing leaders like David Clarke, Ger Cafferkey, and Padraig O'Hora, we were able to reforge the idea of stewardship within the club.
“So, if Ger Cafferkey is talking at a medal-giving night for one of our juvenile teams, he'll talk about how his time playing for the club is almost over, but now its your time. You get to do all the stuff that we did growing up and do it even better.
“The whole idea is that one of giving the jersey back in a better place. We're all the time trying to re-make the connection that had been slightly lost prior.
“When we won the county semi-final last year we made it our business to call in all of the young lads who were at the game into the dressing-room. They were part of the celebrations as well.
“If we have a home championship game our Young Knites will be playing at half-time. And our Young Knites will be out on the pitch clapping the senior team on.
“We felt it was important to recreate that connection as well coach them all the skills of the game.”
The connection between both sections of the club hadn’t just eroded over time, the connection between the club and it’s community had frayed somewhat too.
The best GAA clubs must represent all parts and peoples of their community, but Ballina Stehenites weren’t fulfilling that brief as well as they once had.
Most especially they had little presence in the Parkside area of the town, traditionally one of the most economically challenged parts of Ballina, so they resolved to do something about that too.
They set up an outreach progamme in conjuction with Mayo Sports Partnership and the Moy Sports forum, that got more kids playing and successfully revitalised the club’s synergy with the Parkside community.
Coming into Saturday’s AIB Connacht SFC semi-final against Corofin, it’s not just pockets of Ballina that’s engaged by that prospect, the whole town is buzzing.
Regardless of what happens in that match or even next year in the Mayo football championship, it seems clear that Ballina Stephenites are now standing on much more solid ground than they were in 2013 when Casey drew up a new bluprint for their underage strucures.
He takes huge pride from seeing players he’s coached from juvenile to senior put Ballina Stephenites back on the map, but any credit you try to give him is quickly passed around the table.
“I don’t have a massive sense of ownership about it because this took hundreds of pairs of hands to put together,” he says.
“But I do feel a sense of accomplisment seeing these young men marching towards their potential. I still don't feel some of them have reached their potential, but they’re marching towards it, and for me to have any hand in that, I'm proud.
“I'm very mindful of grounding myself and keeping things in context as well. If these young men weren't the young men they are, then this wouldn't be possible.
“But what is brilliant is the buy-in that we’ve gotten from them and the sense of pride it seems to have brought to the club.”