IN THE ENGLISH Premier League this year, people have marvelled at the success of smaller clubs with limited resources such as Bournemouth and Leicester.
However, closer to home, the League of Ireland has its own incredible underdog stories.
Wexford Youths are one example of a club that can only dream of having the kind of financial clout that sides like Leicester and Bournemouth currently possess, yet they’ve been punching above their weight substantially in recent times.
During the week, the Youths’ manager Shane Keegan signed his first-ever full-time contract with the club, leaving his job as Advertising Sales Manager with The Leinster Leader in order to commit to the role.
It was a big step for the man who joined the club as coach from FC Carlow in December 2011, and who has been steadily building the side that were ultimately promoted as First Division champions last season, less than 10 years after they came into existence.
In addition to continuing as manager, an official statement released during the week explained that Keegan would “take on the role of Commercial Manager and assist in attracting and negotiating advertising and sponsorship revenue for the club as well as assisting the development of the clubs underage teams”.
It is the latest development in an exciting time for the newly-promoted team. Work is currently being undertaken to improve their home stadium, Ferrycarrig Park, while ex-Wexford GAA manager Jason Ryan has joined the backroom staff as strength and conditioning coach for the pre-season period.
Soccer, in general, seems to be taking off in Wexford. The success in recent years of Adamstown-born Ireland striker Kevin Doyle has certainly helped, while the the county’s Junior Football League is currently the biggest underage competition in the sport in Ireland outside of Dublin. Therefore, the Wexford Youths’ first-ever season in the top flight will do little to hasten this burgeoning interest in the game there.
And though the First Division was clearly a tough sell, Keegan’s task of attracting sponsors and partners has been made much easier by the team’s recent on-field success and the increasing visibility within the local community it has granted them, while the additional coverage that playing in the Premier Division will give the club is another boost.
“The response I’ve got in the last couple of weeks from the local business community has been really good in terms of trying to strike a partnership, be it sponsorship, or businesses opening their doors to us to allow us to use their facilities, or giving us products that might help us in terms of our preparation for the Premier Division,” Keegan tells The42.
Keegan says he feels satisfied with the decision of committing to a two-year full-time contract, despite having to think carefully about it initially.
“The extra time commitment of the Premier Division and everything that goes with it, you really do need to be given a chance to do it all and not be pulled in different directions and only be given a limited amount of time. (The new contract) allows me to do the job to the absolute best of my ability for the next two years and try to establish us in the Premier Division.
It was a difficult decision in that it was a risk. I had to wrap my head around the fact that I was going to be okay, knowing that I was going to be taking a risk. In terms of the change in lifestyle and the change in how we could operate, that was a no brainer. It allows me to give the extra time to the soccer club while also giving me a few extra hours, which were badly needed, with a one-year-old at home and different things like that.
“It was just a case of making sure I wasn’t making a short-term decision and that this was something I really wanted.”
One of the happiest people to see Keegan lead Wexford Youths to the First Division title last season, finishing six points ahead of nearest rivals Finn Harps, was independent TD Mick Wallace.
Wallace, who is a keen soccer fan and enthusiastic promoter of the game in Wexford, also happens to be chairman of the club. Keegan says he enjoys a good relationship with one of Ireland’s most well-known politicians.
“He took a chance on a 29-year-old with no playing background and no profile when he appointed me. He’s a guy who, you can see from his political dealings, is different and thinks very much outside the box. He swims against the current in a lot of his decision-making and moves, and I suppose appointing me was in line with his whole thing of doing something a little bit crazy and a little bit different.
I don’t know how much involvement he would have had before I landed, but since I’ve been there, he’s been brilliant in that he’s just stayed out of my way. He’s never put any pressure on me in terms of any decision-making around the club in any shape or form. That obviously has a lot to do with the fact that he’s just too busy, but it suits me knowing that I don’t have to be running every single thing past him and he trusts me and understands that the decisions I make off my own bat are in the best interests of the club.
“In saying that, he’s still very much involved. We’d certainly be on the phone to each other four to five times a week. There’d be a very odd day where we wouldn’t have cause for a conversation.
“And his love for the club is as strong as it ever was. He was there the night we won the league and he was as excited about us coming to the Premier Division as any of us, that’s for sure.”
And while Keegan is glad the chairman isn’t overly domineering in his running of the club, that’s not to suggest the young manager isn’t open to outside assistance or alternative ideas, as evidenced by Ryan’s recent arrival.
“We’ve brought Jason Ryan into the set-up, who primarily has a GAA background. He’s been involved in the pre-season for us so far.
The thing with Jason is, he’s recommended a lot of procedures and structures and kind of ways of going about things that he would have done in GAA. They have been massively beneficial to us, but almost all those things he recommended required quite a bit of time to put into action.
“If I was still working full time in the day job, as much as I would have liked to have implemented his ideas, I wouldn’t have had time to. Whereas now, I’ve been able to pass on nearly all the recommendations he’s given in terms of structures and that kind of thing. The extra time is a huge thing, it’s been great.”
Still a young and relatively inexperienced coach, Keegan’s desire to learn about the game remains undimmed. Having already become a Uefa Pro Licence Holder, he is currently undertaking a Coaching & Exercise Science MA in UCD. He acknowledges that while ex-footballers who go into coaching having competed at a high level may not really need such qualifications, for people with limited playing experience such as himself, they are invaluable.
The only way for me to learn was to get on courses and go and watch coaches, even in other sports. It might sound a bit crazy, but the internet has been a massive learning tool for me as well. There’s almost nothing that can’t be accessed or researched by messing around on that and coming up with a few ideas on coaching sessions and structures.
“I’m trying to upskill as much as I can, and so far, it’s been going well for me. That said, there’s going to be tough times and tough seasons and the inevitable sack if you’re in this game long enough.”
A passionate League of Ireland follower away from his managerial duties, Keegan feels that current players can take encouragement from the recent success in England of ex-Pat’s star Chris Forrester among others.
He also cites Shamrock Rovers’ Brandon Miele and Mikey Drennan, as well as Jamie McGrath of St Pat’s, as three players who could potentially make a big move across the water at some point.
Mikey Drennan is a player I had when I was coaching for six years in Kilkenny, from U10 up to U16, so I’d know him very well. He’s a player who, if he can have one or two big seasons, may want another crack (at English football). There’s no doubt that there are players in this league that can go across, certainly to League One level if not higher and make an impact. I think the more that happens, it’ll start a spiral.
“Chris doing as well as he is, you might have a couple of other teams in that division thinking: ‘Jesus, are there a couple more like him?’ The problem is they’re always going to get them on the cheap, aren’t they?”
Keegan also believes that reigning champions Dundalk are the team to beat again in the coming season, despite the loss of Richie Towell, pointing to the acquisitions of Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney in particular as astute-looking purchases, and adding:
“People are saying they haven’t replaced Richie, but how do you replace him? You’d want to be bringing in feckin’ Yaya Toure or something in terms of the amount of goals he’ll get you.”
As for his own side’s transfer business, Keegan says he is relatively content in that regard. They have signed Danny Ledwith, previously of Sligo, and ex-Waterford United player Matthew Connor among others, while retaining much of the squad that got them promoted last season.
Aside from potentially “one other new face” and finalising deals involving the re-signing of a couple of other players from last year, the young manager says there won’t be many more deals done at the club between now and the start of the season.
It was very important that the new faces that came could fit the culture of the dressing room,” he explains. “We’ve worked four years to create a kind of atmosphere within the dressing room. It’s nearly even more important than the playing ability side of things. But I think we’ve recruited really well. I’m really looking forward to the start of the campaign and I’m sure the lads are too.”
And while Wexford Youths will be many people’s tips for relegation in the coming season, Keegan is optimistic his side can surprise a few people and continue to play the role of the underdog impeccably.
“I think it has to be a tiered approach — you can only aim for bigger objectives when you hit your initial objectives. Ourselves and Finn Harps are much in the same boat. We’ve both just come up. We’re both working off by far the two smallest budgets in the division. We both have squads full of players that have little to no Premier Division experience.
I read Ollie Horgan’s quotes where he said ‘staying in this division and keeping Finn Harps up would be a far greater achievement than actually gaining promotion’ and I couldn’t agree with him more. We’ve a massive challenge. If people think we pulled off a miracle to win the First Division, we’re going to need another one to stay up. I think the most important thing is knowing that.
“If we went into the league with expectations of sitting comfortably in mid table and challenging for Europe, the next thing you’re down around the bottom and people start hitting panic buttons. That’s when things are going wrong.
“You can think ‘it’s going to be tough, there might be weeks where we’re bottom of the table, but that’s how it’s going to be’. You can also think ‘we can do this, we have the quality within this squad’. And more importantly, as times get tough, I really believe we have the mentality within our dressing room that we will relish it rather than going: ‘Oh Jesus, this is tough.’ So we know what’s to be expected — bring it on.”