New York GAA developing a generation of homegrown heroes
By John Harrington
When the final whistle blew in the 2020 New York Senior Football Final replay last September and St. Barnabas were crowned champions after a thrilling victory over Sligo, it felt like a real watershed moment for Gaelic Games in the Big Apple.
What made the victory especially significant was that St. Barnabas achieved it with a team of native New Yorkers.
For New York GAA Games Manager, Micky Quigg, and Games Promotion Officer, Simon Gillespie, watching clusters of young St. Barnabas supporters invade the pitch joyfully after the final whistle to get closer to their heroes was something very special.
Here you had a St. Barnabas team full of players who had been developed by New York GAA’s excellent player pathway inspiring a new generation already following in their footsteps.
The symbolism of that moment was huge, and felt like a great reward for all the hard work that New York GAA have undertaken in recent years to deliver high quality coaching to their young players.
“After the game the little St. Barnabas kids were asking the players for their autographs which was really nice to see,” says Gillespie.
“Before they might have been looking for the autographs of the players who had come over from Ireland like Jamie Clarke.
“But now they're looking for the autographs of players like Shane Hogan, Mikey Brosnan, and Gearoid Kennedy.
“If those guys are now the heroes, it's a lot more relatable for little kids. They see these guys training in their club pitch and so reaching that same level themselves some day suddenly feels far more attainable.
“They want to be like these players when they’re older, and that’s a powerful motivator.
“When I started in New York, St. Barnabas were a junior team. They had a lot of kids playing, but at a young age-group from nines to twelves, and their older players were Junior level. There was just Junior, Intermediate, and Senior Football back then.
“They basically worked hard and they won a Junior Championship in 2012 or 2013 and as they developed their younger players they were able to field a second team and now they have three teams, Senior, Junior A and Junior B teams.
“And while the standard of individual clubs like St. Barnabas has improved, the general depth of talent across the board has too because we now have two new divisions of football.
“Back in 2010 it was only Junior, Intermediate, and Senior, now there's Junior Novice, Junior B, Junior A, Intermediate and Senior.”
Considerable work has been done by New York GAA over a sustained period of time, especially by the industrious New York Minor Board, to deliver Gaelic Games to the youth of the city.
The migration of so many Irish people to the city in the ‘80s saw a big growth in the number of kids playing Gaelic Games in the late nineties/early noughties and structures were put in place to nurture them.
St. Barnabas and New York county team star, Shane Hogan, is a good example of someone who benefited from a robust player pathway.
He played in the first Continental Youth Championship (CYC) in 2004, competed for New York in the Féile Peile na nÓg, played for New York in the Connacht minor football championship in 2010 and 2011, and made his senior debut for New York in the Connacht Championship at the age of just 17.
Have a read of the latest New York GAA Games Development Newsletter and you get a good sense of the considerable work that is being done at juvenile level in the city.
The dates for this summer’s Cúl Camps are already set in stone, specialist sessions on sports psychology, physiotherapy, nutrition, and playing at the top level have just been completed with the U-21 development squad, their coach education program is a very active one, and they’ve even recently published a ‘Big Book of Training Games and Activities’ for U-7 to U-11 players.
“Our player pathway model has been strengthened in the last couple of years,” says New York GAA Games Manager, Micky Quigg.
“Clubs now are coaching children from U-7 up and then the biggest formal competition would be the CYC in the summer.
“Then you're into Feiles and after that the footballers would join development squads.
“New York College teams have entered in the British University Gaelic Football Championships for the past number of years and then in last three years they've entered the Cork na Mac Leinn in the All-Ireland University Championships, reaching the final in 2020.
“Then you have the World Games every three years, and we’d hope to compete at minor level in the Connacht Championship in the future.
“We’ll soon also have a native New York team competing in the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship so there’s a very good structure there now for football, and we’d be hoping to replicate that in hurling too.
“We’d like to get a New York team in the Lory Meagher Cup, and we’re making good strides in Camogie too with the New York Camogie League.”
The consistently high quality of the New York teams that compete in Féile every year is a testament to the coaching they’re receiving with their clubs, with the U-14 boys winning the Division 1 Cup in 2017 and the girls winning the Division 2 Cup in 2019.
Continuing to nurture that talent up through the older age grades into senior level has historically been a challenge, especially when those kids become teenagers and start attending college, but the introduction of a Development Squad Programme is really helping in that regard.
“The Development Squad Programme for all codes was started back in 2017,” says Quigg. “Joan Henchy (New York GAA Chairperson), in fairness to her, has done a great job on them.
“We're bringing players together from all clubs over an eight to ten week period.
“They get high quality training from inter-county players and they get a good competitive game against a USGAA team at the end of it where they all play regardless of ability. It's all about attendance at training and commitment.
“Then they get a bit of gear at the end to encourage that feeling of pride in the whole thing. It has really brought on the players who have taken part. You look at that St. Barnabas success, a load of those lads have come through the development squads in the last few years.
“Even look at the Junior B Championship Final last year, it was Rangers against Shannon Gaels, two native born teams. And then in the Junior A it was Kerry against and all-native Rangers team.
“We're seeing those native-born teams getting better and better thanks to the structures that have been put in place over the last few years. It's great to see it happening.”
The Covid-19 pandemic hit New York especially hard last March and April and Simon Gillespie admits he was concerned that the numbers of young people playing Gaelic Games when they did get things back up and running again would dip significantly.
But not only did the numbers in existing New York GAA clubs increase, a new club, Dutchess County Griffins, was established in 2020.
“Dutchess County are in upstate New York where we’re seeing a lot of people migrate to because the city is now so expensive to live in,” says Gillespie.
“They’re basically our version of towns like Ashbourne in Meath where you’ve seen lots of Dublin people move to.
“A lot of former players, guys who retired from playing six or so years ago, have now moved to Dutchess County and have started an U-9 and U-11 programme.
“It's going to be really interesting because they have a really good core group of people involved who have been very into getting things right from the start. They've got all their gear and they're very active on social media.
“Seeing a new club be formed is fantastic. We were very worried this time last year that our participation would collapse. But what we've noticed is that more kids have started playing GAA and we have a whole new club which is a big success story. We're very hopeful that those guys will do well.”
As challenging as the Covid-19 pandemic was in New York when it was at its raging height there, the Gaelic Games family in the city has come out of it stronger than ever before.
GAA clubs were at the forefront of helping the most vulnerable in their community, and the fundraising initiatives of the New York footballers and hurlers generated massive good-will.
And because no players travelled over from Ireland to play in the New York Championships on sanctions, many more native-born players were given the opportunity to show what they could do at senior club level and really made the most of the opportunity.
“I think home-based is the way to go for us,” says Gillespie. “People used to think, and it was very much an 1980s mentality, but people used to think that people would only come to Gaelic Park if you had a star like Pat Spillane over from Ireland playing or if there was a big inter-county game.
“But it's clear now that people want to go and see home-based players. The demand for our games last year showed that. People want to go to these games because their family, friends, co-workers are playing.
“We're going to really benefit in the short-term from a lot of the American kids getting playing with the senior teams.
“It’s what they deserve, really, because it's their county at the end of the day.”