St Thomas' and Galway Celtic Challenge team manager Kenneth Burke. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
St Thomas' and Galway Celtic Challenge team manager Kenneth Burke. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Burke embracing Celtic Challenge with Galway

By Cian O’Connell

From a decorated and distinguished St Thomas’ family, hurling has always occupied a central role in Kenneth Burke’s life.

Just over two decades ago Burke was an exciting underage prospect in Galway. Now Burke is enjoying managing an emerging generation of hurlers, who contest the Celtic Challenge Cup Division One Final against Tipperary at St Brendan’s Park on Saturday.

Significant work continues to be carried out by clubs in the western county. A collaborative approach involving the Galway GAA County Board, hurling committee spearheaded by Claude Geoghegan and Damien McGrath, and Games Manager Dennis Carr means there is a real sense of optimism.

Fergal Healy, a highly regarded operator, has steered Galway into another Electric Ireland MHC decider, but this crop of Celtic Challenge players have been progressing under the shrewd tutelage of Burke.

“The Celtic Challenge has been a wonderful competition for Galway and I think Galway has been a great contributor to the Celtic Challenge in how it has embraced it,” says Galway GAA chairperson Paul Bellew.

“This year, in particular, the standard of player in Galway across the competitions - All-Ireland and Celtic Challenge - is something to behold. In addition to that, not just the quality of the player, but the quality of coaching and the way they are playing the game is testament to the people we have involved.

“It is great to see people of the calibre of Kenneth Burke, a top club manager, getting involved at this age group and level, the very highest in Galway and the country putting something back into it with the team he has there.

“Looking at the county final from last year between Loughrea and St Thomas' to see a manager of Kenneth's pedigree involved at that level, and Shane Cusack on the Loughrea side to be also involved in the academy set-up, it really is a sign in Galway hurling of the level and quality of people that are willing to give back to underage. It can only bode well for the future.”

The 2023 Galway Celtic Challenge panel.
The 2023 Galway Celtic Challenge panel.

Burke is thoroughly enjoying the experience too. “It has been good, this will be our sixth game, the lads have got to know each other, they have played together for a good few games at this stage,” Burke says.

“We have picked about 23 or 24, a small enough number, which is good to work. They have all got loads of game time, they are getting used to play together with the little pointers we give them.”

Enhancing the club game in the county at every grade is critical according to Burke. “Hopefully they can improve on their own level and then bring it back to their clubs,” he adds. “That is the main thing, if they can go back to their clubs a little bit better it helps to improve standards in the clubs. That will raise the level across the board in the county, that is what we are trying to tell them.

“Okay, you didn't make a minor panel, but that isn't the end of the world. You can definitely progress. In Galway we've had the likes of Declan McLoughlin, Liam Collins, and Tiernan Killeen, these lads are on the Galway senior panel now, they played Celtic Challenge.

“There is always scope for improvement. If they want to play for Galway in the future by all means they can by putting in the work. It is consistent work that needs to be done all the time to make them better, to make them perform better.

"That is a point we need to get across, that they need to be consistent in what they do if they want to progress. There is a fair group of players at U16 and U17 in Galway if you look at the minor squad too performing so well.

“You have seven or eight lads on our panel that could be on the minor panel just as easy. There isn't that much between probably 10 or 12 of them. So you have a good squad of players at the moment.”

Keeping players in the Galway system is hugely relevant too. Before a player mightn’t have made an inter-county minor panel and would have found it extremely difficult to return to wear a maroon and white jersey.

Galway GAA chairperson Paul Bellew. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Galway GAA chairperson Paul Bellew. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

“Exactly, they have been in the gym, they all went in as a development squad earlier in the year,” Burke explains. “Obviously then Fergal picked his panel, a lot of them kept going to Clarinbridge for the gym with Setanta. There will be progress next year.

“You had 18 year olds brought in, who weren't on the U20s, they were given programmes, so you have people trying to monitor their progress too. We can see that they are developing, a couple of years of tracking this is a big thing, that players will come through in four or five years time, that fellas are getting stronger, that you can see that in his performances with the club.

“It is very important at the level it is now - inter-county - it is rare a guy that will make it straightaway when they are 19, 20, or 21. They are nearly 22 or 23 at this stage when they are making their inter-county senior debuts.

“You have that four or five years of a development stage which is very important. It is about retaining as many as you can, keeping them involved in groups between 18 and 20 so they can progress into the senior panel.

“Galway will always be there or thereabouts, they can see if they put in the work that there could be success. There is a good system, they are building and improving it all of the time.”

Burke has guided St Thomas’ to a couple of Galway SHC titles, but is keen to help improve this emerging crop of Celtic Challenge players.

“You have to try to make them uncomfortable first, if it is nice and easy all of the time they aren't going to get any better,” he explains.

“For me it is just about raising the standards for them, trying to keep them developing, pushing them on as much as you can and having a bit of fun too.

Declan McLoughlin, now part of Henry Shefflin's senior panel, featured for Galway in the Celtic Challenge. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Declan McLoughlin, now part of Henry Shefflin's senior panel, featured for Galway in the Celtic Challenge. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

At the end of the day it is a pastime, we want to enjoy it, and to try to be as successful as you can at it. When you are doing something try to be the best at it if you can at all.

“I was involved in the academy before, it is good. Any lad that goes in to try to play with Galway they are always very receptive to try to develop themselves. They are all good lads, who are trying to do their best. I enjoy seeing younger players improving.

“Even in a couple of months you can see that lads are getting better. I enjoy it and it is a good challenge. I've good lads around me with Willie (Burke), Padraic (Brehony), Mike (Gallagher), and Adrian (McGrath), who were involved at U16 the last few years. They were filling me about who the lads were before I got to know them after a few weeks.”

Undoubtedly it has been a hectic stint, but Burke wouldn’t have it any other way. “It has been busy for the last eight weeks,” he laughs. “You are playing games, they are still playing with their clubs and schools.

“Our contact time is once a week, as it went on went on we did a bit more as we were progressing. It is busy, but at the end of this week it is over. You'd be hoping that they made good friendships out of it, I think they have.

“When they are travelling on the bus it sounds like they have anyway. Hopefully we will see them playing for their clubs at senior and intermediate level in the next year or two and with the U20s in Galway.

“That is the main objective, even if they don't play with Galway, that they play at the top level with their club to improve the standards in their club. If they do that it will improve across Galway, so it is about keeping them all playing for as long as possible.”

Burke’s passion for hurling, both at club and county level, isn’t diminishing.