Paddy Christie's remarkable Ballymun coaching journey
By Cian O’Connell
One football is what Ballymun Kickhams’ rejuvenation commenced with. That it was being minded by Paddy Christie, the emerging Dublin full back at the time, meant it was in safe hands.
On Saturday evening Croke Park will be brimful of expectant people eager to see where Sam Maguire will reside for the rest of 2019. In the Dublin panel of 26 for the gripping draw six Ballymun Kickhams players were involved.
Christie’s role in the development of two gifted crops ensures Ballymun Kickhams’ senior panel is nicely stocked with quality footballers.
Throughout the years Ballymun Kickhams has contributed to the Dublin tale, but the mid 90s brought worry, and Christie wondered about the future.
“By that stage I had been playing a few years as a senior for the club and I was getting into the Dublin panel,” Christie recalls.
“I went up to my brother's Under 10 team and it was very messy at the time. Compared to where it is now it was chalk and cheese.
“It is certainly better, but being brutally honest when you compare it to other clubs Ballymun really do well.
“It is very much a medium sized club, people should remember that. People down the country when they hear about Ballymun Kickhams they automatically remember the strong teams they had over the years, the number of fellas on Dublin panels, that sort of thing.
“Realistically Ballymun is a medium sized club competing with the heavyweights all of the time.”
That Ballymun Kickhams are in that company is chiefly because of Christie’s vision and willingness to graft. “Ballymun have always had a number of good players,” Christie states about the tradition within the club.
“Before I started playing you had the lads like Gerry Hargan, Dermot Deasy, and Anton McCaul, right the way through. Even when we went through a bad patch we still had some really good players. It has never changed, but we certainly aren't what people think we are.
“We've very basic facilities and we don't have a pitch in our own area, we just share a couple of Dublin City Council pitches in local parks. We don't even have our own pitch in a park. The pitch in Páirc Kickham, beside the airport, that is a long way from the catchment area.
“With poor resources, lack of finance, you are still producing good players. So the coaching has always been good over the years. We have plenty of teachers in different schools, who have done bits and pieces. That has kept us going, but compared to the powerhouses we are an afterthought.”
Christie was just turning 20 when the Ballymun Kickhams Under 10 team became his first coaching role. It was more by accident than design, but 11 years on Christie was still managing the same crop at Under 21. Philly McMahon, Alan Hubbard, and Sean Currie went on to play for Dublin.
As coltish teenagers Dean Rock and James McCarthy played a couple of years above their own age group when that outfit was finishing up.
Then Christie merely went back to restart once more at Under 10. Another 11 year cycle brought titles with Evan Comerford and Paddy Small amongst the next generation.
“I had two teams back to back,” Christie explains. “In fairness they would form the core of the Ballymun senior team.
“If you looked at the Ballymun senior team you would see an imbalance, you would see a load of 20/21 year olds and a load of 30 year olds. Then you will have the odd fella around 24, 25, 26, but not many. So it is based around two teams and a few others.
“James McCarthy and Dean Rock were a few years younger than Philly McMahon, who was on the original Under 10 team. Dean Rock and James McCarthy only became part of the initial group at around Under 21 level.
“When Philly and Alan Hubbard were 20 and 21, Dean and James would have been 17 or 18. So they would have been good enough and physically strong enough to play Under 21. That is how they became part of the group, they all went up to play senior then.”
Christie’s unstinting service brought pride to the club, who began to stir again. Being a force at Division One in the underage ranks in Dublin is a demanding challenge.
“Off the top of my head I think we've only had about three teams in the last 15 years that competed in Division One at underage in Dublin,” Christie admits.
“That will probably shock a lot of people. The two teams I had and one in between which John Small was on. He was on a team that played in Division One. They didn't win anything or win a Championship, but they were competitive getting to Semi-Finals at Under 15, Under 16.
“A few fellas came through, including John, from that. Most of the teams and unfortunately still are playing in Division Two, Three, Four, and Five. Numbers wise there wouldn't be huge numbers.”
It is due to a plethora of factors, but Ballymun try to do what they can. “You've a few different things, the catchment area is wedged between Finglas and Whitehall,” Christie adds.
“You've Erins Isle in Finglas, Whitehall the other way. If you look south you've got Na Fianna, you are covered on three sides.
“If you go north you are on the M50, there is nobody on the far side of that. You have quite a small area, it is still bigger than a local parish down the country that might only have 300 or 400. It isn't that sort of set-up.”
In the mid 1990s, though, the landscape was completely different. Looking back Christie acknowledges that so many valuable lessons were learned.
“I stumbled into it, I went up with my brother,” Christie states. “A couple of lads were trying to do their best on their own so I gave them a hand.
“The rest is history, you end up getting roped in and sort of running it yourself essentially. I was doing that for a few years, I was doing coaching for the County Board with the summer camps. That created an interest and I enjoyed it.
“I wouldn't say when I was leaving school that I had any great interest in teaching or coaching. It just sort of happened.”
Ian Robertson was another who soldiered through tricky times for Kickhams and Dublin. “I'm a physics graduate from DCU, I've a degree in physics and maths, I was in with Ian Robertson,” Christie continues.
“He was great, he got involved with the first team at around minor and Under 21. He was great, he did his bit. The thing is when we finished our physics degree, he went off to do a masters in physics. He went off to become a doctor so that cut down his time an awful lot.
“I went down the teaching route which was hectic enough, it was 18 months at the time. It was from the coaching that I got interested in teaching. I started to have an interest, I got near the end of my physics degree, I was getting tired of it, but I finished it out.
“Obviously you want to get the piece of paper. I figured I wanted to do the coaching or teaching. The teaching course came up, I went for it and I got it. Once I got into that it made a huge difference.”
Away from the halls of St Patrick’s Drumcondra Christie was still stitching a team together with Ballymun Kickhams.
“If I'm being honest the first three or four years were chaotic,” is Christie’s assessment. “I didn't really know what I was doing with Philly's team. They were hard and difficult to handle.
“It wouldn't be as easy as a middle class team in the suburbs of Dublin or a team down the country. You would have a lot more difficulties. I flew by the seat of my pants, I picked up a few things. I made mistakes first and sort of learned from them.”
Becoming a problem solver, a fundraiser, a confidant, and a coach wasn’t part of any great Christie masterplan, but that is what occurred.
A couple of decades later Christie believes it was a real benefit to his own teaching career. That wasn’t the reason Christie, now principal at Kilcoskan National School, took the group, but it helped his own personal growth and development.
“Hugely, it was a massive advantage to me,” Christie replies instantly. “People to this day will say it was a good thing you did coming in like that to teaching because I had a different perspective on things.
“When you do a teaching course you have all these lectures and things to do, it all sounds grand in theory, but if you have a fella in a disadvantaged area with a very bad background you need to be able to deal with that. It isn't easy.
“College can't prepare you for that sort of a thing. I'm not saying any of those fellas on the panel, thankfully Philly wasn't one of them, he was a character, but he wasn't too bad.
“Other fellas had terrible behavioural issues. I won't say I was ever able to deal with them that well, but you managed them, tried to get them playing. You found ways to get things done.
“Rather than just go from A to B you found other ways to negotiate just to get fellas playing. That stood to you long term. You can go to college all you like, but the real world was something different. It was an immersion into the real world with the team like that.”
When Robertson got involved and Phil O’Dea brought positive vibes Christie noticed that delegation worked. Surrounding yourself with people was critical.
“The second team I took I had learned quite a lot, I won't say I knew it all because nobody ever does,” Christie reflects
“I had picked up an awful lot and I found that when I ran the second one it was so much easier and so much more enjoyable. I knew exactly what I was doing, it was like clockwork. All the mistakes I made, I won't say I eradicated them all, but I certainly eradicated three quarters of them.
“It ran really well, hence they were a better team, they won an awful lot more and were easy to deal with. I just knew what I was doing, I suppose it is the nature of anything as you move on in your job and career.
“If you are learning you get more capable, I know some people get worse in their jobs, but most people if you are paying attention you pick up things as you go along. That is what happened with the second team.
“The first team it was very chaotic. Unfortunately the club was in a very weak place at the time and there was very little support.”
A 2006 Senior Division One relegation play/off against Raheny hinted at the potential within the first batch of Christie’s youngsters. Only a few years previously Christie remembers enduring and watching some harrowing losses unfold.
That Raheny match when many of them were still minors gave Christie an injection of hope. “We won, fellas like Philly and Alan Hubbard played,” Christie says. “They were basically like kids, we put them out when they were young.
“We managed to survive another year, the next thing they were 18 or 19 starting to fill out, then we were okay. We were now getting to quarter finals and semi finals and then you had John Small coming into the group. It started to completely stabilise.
“After John Small came through you had nothing for years again. There seems to be a lot of droughts in the club. You'd have very weak teams so you don't get players coming through.
“Every so often you'd get a really good batch. Then you had Paddy Small, Even Comerford and another fella on the Dublin minors with them, Dillon Keating, a corner forward. He is still playing, he is good.
“Another fella on the Dublin Under 21s the year before Aaron Elliott, a lot of these guys would be very good players.
“They came through around three years ago to give it a boost again, but there is nothing much behind them. You go through droughts which last a long time, but it is just the nature of being a medium sized club with very limited finances.”
Christie ploughed on defiantly, believing that bright days awaited. Ballymun returned to the summit of the Dublin game in 2012 advancing to the AIB All Ireland Club Final on St Patrick’s Day on 2013.
“I had around 17 players, it is incredible,” Christie chuckles briefly seeking to make sense of the journey. “Years later to go into Croke Park in 2013 on St Patrick's Day to see them playing St Brigid's in a final. I sat in the stand that day, I was involved in the panel until Christmas, I had picked up a lot of injuries, we had won the Championship so I was happy with my medal. I had enough.
“I went to the semi-final in Thurles and final in Croke Park. That is all I could think of. If people only knew, you had people that maybe had just moved into the area or their kids had started playing thinking this was great. I was saying to myself if you only knew where this came from.
“These fellas were out on the pitch and they started with nothing. I couldn't believe how bad it was. Going around summer camps in other clubs you'd see what they had and the way they were set-up.
“There wasn't teams in some age groups and when there was teams they were badly organised. There was no regular training, a structure was completely absent.”
It is what Christie gradually implemented. Christie knew that the players could represent Ballymun Kickhams. Potential existed. Finding the keys to unlock it was the mission.
“I wanted to make sure that these lads had a bit of pride about themselves,” Christie stresses. “It took around six months of trying to mind a few quid. I collected 50p off them, I collected them for a while. You wouldn't even get that many, some of them wouldn't have even had that money.
“So you just had to pay for it yourself and if there was a referee you'd hope you might have a few quid extra to save it. I remember saving up around 30 pounds.
“A local businessman, a Wexford man who was connected with the club, an electrician gave me 50 pounds towards a set of gear bags. We got a set of gear bags. It was the biggest deal in the world.
“They were so delighted. It was a red gear bag with green straps. On the side of it was Ballymun Kickhams and on the other side was the electrical company.”
Suddenly Christie’s brain was floating with ideas. Footballing thoughts were always there, but any help was greatly appreciated. Kildare native Jack Dunne, who had a steel engineering works in Finglas, answered many financial calls.
“He said to me, mistakenly so, that I was doing great work with the juvenile team and that any time I needed a hand to give him a shout, It was the biggest mistake he made, I was at his door all of the time any time I was stuck,” Christie laughs.
“That is the thing you pick up. When I was keeping the 50p pieces I didn't even know how to do that. I was only a kid myself, I didn't have the contacts, and I wasn't known. Eventually I became a reasonably well known Dublin footballer so I had a profile, I started to find people were happy to do things for you.
“I was able to use my profile to get fellas things. For instance Puma years ago gave me a massive discount when the lads were around 14. I got them Puma King boots, they weren't free, but we got a substantial discount.
“Fast forward 10-12-15 years when they are playing in front of 33,000 people at Croke Park on All Ireland Club Final day. It is hard to believe it could happen, but it did.”
When Christie went back to where it all had been launched initially with the Under 10s, he was better placed for the second instalment. “I looked for a teacher and got a fella called Tomas Hayes, he is now principal of a school in Tallaght,” Christie reveals.
“At the time he was only starting to teach in Kilbarrack. He is a Corkman originally, he was up in St Pat's in Drumcondra. He transferred to Kickhams to play with us, I saw him do a bit of coaching. I thought he was fantastic and he was absolutely fantastic.
“A teacher has such an advantage because that is what they do everyday. They don't have to try, they can just do it naturally. That was one of the things I learned, if you get the right type of people it will make life a lot easier.
“I thought it was good that I was running everything, that I was the main man, but when I got a bit more cop on I realised any set-up that revolves around one person is not a good set-up. It isn't well organised if you do it like that. You are actually doing a bad job, you need to have delegation.
“This guy Tomas Hayes was such an addition to the club. He played senior football for 10 years, but more importantly he kept that team going with me.
“He just was a really clever guy, who had a great rapport with the young fellas. That is the sort of thing you learn. Unfortunately we just don't have enough fellas like that.”
John Costello, Dublin GAA’s highly regarded CEO, was always available for worthwhile advice. “I'd be talking to him and he was such a helper to me,” Christie reveals.
“He was one of the guys who would get me juvenile tickets for Croke Park for the team so you'd encourage them to go. You needed to bring them to Croke Park. He would tell you things. I remember saying to him one day that I couldn't get anyone to give me a hand, he said don't ask anyone for a hand.
“That could mean them having to give over their lives to something, ask them to come out for six weeks to do six sessions with you. If they don't want to stay that is grand or whatever. Don't be saying vague stuff like that he said. If somebody is to volunteer give them something concrete.
“Ask them for money for tracksuits or for six sessions. Don't just ask for help because that could mean anything. Nobody wants to get caught like that, he was right, it is exactly what to do: I learned.”
Following the 2018 Dublin Under 21 Championship victory with Kickhams Christie couldn’t recommit for a third 11 cycle. Instead he hopes the torch will pass on to the next crew.
Football remains integral to his everyday life. The coming months will be busy taking sessions with Burren in Down, Castlebar Mitchels’ Dublin based players, and the DCU Sigerson Cup outfit.
The first team he took, though, shaped his sporting outlook. It was simply a case of seeking to improve, to maximise the resources at his disposal. “We had one football,” Christie remarks.
“That is what we had. We had that for six months and that is what you had to do your training session with: one football. I remembered we played somebody at Under 10 in a challenge game. They headed off at the end of a game and left a ball in a ditch. That meant we had two, I was so delighted with it.”
Christie just found a way to survive and thrive. That so many benefited from his guidance, effective leadership, and enduring passion for Gaelic Football is what ultimately counts. A half dozen players on the Dublin panel is a testament to Ballymun Kickhams’ sheer hard graft.