Féile matters deeply to St James'
By Cian O’Connell
As a St James’ juvenile coaches meeting drew to a close at the start of the month, and attention switched to the upcoming John West Féile na nGael, Con O’Donovan turned to Alfie Howley recalling some heated battles in the fabled competition between Mervue and Renmore.
Two great sporting figures Corribside, who flew the GAA flag, were in opposite camps back then, but O’Donovan is adamant that the Féile occupied a central role in how St James’ was ultimately founded on the east side of Galway city.
The old Dublin Road was the divide, but the Féile always mattered in Mervue and Renmore. “What was established was that either side of the road at the time - Mervue or Renmore - were capable of producing top class players at that level,” says O’Donovan a respected figure who flagged the pitch and carried out every duty imaginable in Mervue.
Nearby in Renmore, Howley was doing the same, but they also prepared good underage outfits, who clashed in memorable matches that remain a topical source of conversation in the area.
“The first time Mervue represented Galway was in 1983, we reached the All Ireland final only to be beaten by St Nick's from Cork,” O’Donovan wistfully remembers. “In 1986 Renmore got to the final after beating Mervue in a marathon three games in Galway.
“We used to run the Wilie Walsh Cup which was a very important competition at underage level, we had played in that final a number of times. After the three games in 1986 we beat Renmore in the Willie Walsh Cup which was a big achievement for our lads after losing in the Féile.
“The following year we went on to represent Galway in Kildare in 1987. We beat Nemo Rangers in the semi-final after extra-time, but we were beaten by a team from Armagh, Shane O'Neills, in the final. Our lads were exhausted after the extra-time.
“Four years later there was an All Ireland minor club and we won the Connacht, we went on to beat Nemo Rangers after extra-time in Belfast in the semi-final, but we were beaten in the final by Ferbane. Again the extra-time took a lot of energy from our lads so we didn't reach our standards in the final.”
Future Galway footballers such as Robin Doyle and Mark Kelly were involved in some of those tussles, while O’Donovan’s son, Conor, held the distinction of captaining the Tribesmen to All Ireland minor hurling glory in 1992. Two years previously O'Donovan was captain of the Galway Under 16 football team.
“Mervue and Renmore met in the Minor A final in 1990 and that was the birth of St James' then really. People got together saying if we could work together we could form a senior club. It took a few years to get it going, but that was the birth of it as far as I can see.”
Now officially 25 years since the initial merger St James’ continue to build for the future with David Henry, the Juvenile Committee Chairperson, eager to ensure budding young footballers are crafted.
The club decided to develop a coaching template which greets every visitor upon arrival at the Pa Grealish clubhouse.
“The emphasis is on participation at Academy level, player development is very important from Under 12 to Under 16,” Henry says.
“At minor it is key because you really have to sell the package to them. What you have now is a lot of dropout rates in different codes, it is about making it a bit different from everything else. How you talk to the lads, how you train the lads in a professional manner.
“That suits the senior team, we have a coaching template from Under 6s up to minor level. We are developing these lads in different phases from Phase One up to Phase Six. There is emphasis on the skills of the game, how it should be played, and how we want to play as a club.
“When they become a minor and graduate after being a minor that they know how to kick with both feet, they have the fundamental skills right so that whatever style of play the senior team are trying to adapt that they can adapt. We want them to have the required skills to slot in.”
Significant work was put into the coaching template according to Henry, who believes that progress is being made by the club with Daniel McNulty and James Egan presently part of Donal Ó Fatharta's Galway minor panel.
“It was always our vision to have a coaching template,” Henry states. “As a committee we sat at a table and we brainstormed a lot about what was important for the different age groups.
“A lot of coaches can get carried away, not just in St James', they can lose the concept of what they are actually doing. The session plan should always be based on skills and football. We have adapted that template, we will stick with it for the future. It wasn't always there.
“What you had was coaches doing serious work on the ground, doing all different types of sessions. You have a pathway now, the coach sticks to the template, but they can design their own sessions.
“The plan isn't to win underage county titles year in, year out. If you win it is a bonus, but the real win is if they are representing at minor level or the senior team and then again at Galway level. That is the real end goal.”
Five years ago James’ hosted matches in the Féile and Henry uses that panel as an obvious example of what can be achieved through sheer hard graft.
“When Féile came in 2014 we had an average enough team, but they contested reaching the quarter-finals,” Henry states. “They went on to win a West Board Minor B and lost a county final to Mountbellew, but four of the players have already graduated to the senior panel.
“You can win all the way up, but you mightn't have players at senior level. That was the end goal for them to get to the senior panel, if they won along the way at underage it was a bonus.”
Henry, who started coaching in the club while in his mid 20s a decade ago, believes that those who have performed at the highest level for Galway are vital ambassadors. “We are blessed we have such role models in Paul Conroy and Johnny Duane,” Henry remarks about James’ two current Galway footballers.
“Even the ex county lads we had like Eoin Concannon, David O'Connell, John Egan, and Fintan Cooney, they have been great for the club. To aspire to be a Galway minor or Under 20 or even a junior or senior that is the end goal if you aspire to be a Gaelic Footballer from an underage club.
“To play for the county should be the end goal. Playing with the senior team in the club is probably the most important part of it all. That would be step one and then step two would be to play with the county. That is the format we would look at.”
During his teenage years Henry was unable to play football due to illness and that is when he first began to take a keen interest in coaching and how the structure of a club could be improved. “It stems from when I was playing underage and the grá you have for the game, that passion and love makes you go on to want to be involved in the GAA even after you stop playing,” Henry comments.
“I was diagnosed with chron's disease when I was 14 so I had to stop playing for three years. Then I went back playing after it settled down.
“I probably started in 2008 in terms of coaching in the club and I built on from there. You are coaching young lads on a Saturday morning and then you see an opportunity to improve structures within the club. I took on the role as Chairperson five years ago. We set up the underage Academy on Saturday mornings where we have all the age groups from Under 6s to 11s there.
“We had lots of meetings when I first came on board as Chairperson, we did lots of planning and organising in terms of when the teams would train, how we would do it, what are our short term and long term goals as a club? Where do you see yourself in five years time?”
It is why James are proud to host matches at Mervue this weekend with the Féile committee ready, willing, and able to ensure everything is in place for the visiting clubs St Loman's Mullingar (boys) and Knockainey (girls).
Several fundraisers took place, a 100 page St James’ Féile Magazine compiled by Henry will be available underlining the enthusiasm for what is set to unfold in the coming days.
“We combined our juvenile committee with the girls juvenile committee for Feile since the two clubs were hosting,” Henry explains. “Everyone brought something to the table in terms of their skills. We had several meetings with a lot of planning so as a result we will have an excellent set-up for the weekend.
Different challenges are faced by clubs in urban areas, but Henry has been struck by how co-operative and interested people are as the Féile edges closer. “The parents see what is being provided for their own children, without the parents you'd have nothing,” Henry acknowledges.
“The generosity of the local people in Galway city is beyond belief, everyone knows what the Féile is, what the GAA is, and what St James' is. So we must be doing something right getting good publicity through social media.
“All the kids from the Academy will be there for the Féile, they will be mascots. We are looking for the next generation of role models.”
Mervue and Renmore were rivals once, but a solid partnership has been formed. O’Donovan felt that potential existed. “The late Mike O'Neill was a very strong advocate of this, the late Pa Grealish too,” O’Donovan replies when asked about the influential people involved.
“We have lost a few of them since. On the Renmore side you had the likes of Alfie Howley, Ger O'Connell, Pat Burke, and Martin Crowley. It got good support from the start and it has gone very well. There has been no disagreements about who is playing or which road he is from or anything else. It has gone exceptionally well as a joint venture.”
Féile na nGael has brought every kind of emotion from unbridled joy to despair in defeat, but it also helped create St James’. On Friday and Saturday that won’t be forgotten in Renmore or Mervue.