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Two of Ireland's top athletes out to reshape how our football clubs are run

We talk to Ger O’Brien and Mark Kenneally, who have recently set up Elite Performance Consultancy.

Ger O'Brien 28/10/2014 Pat's skipper O'Brien is also a UEFA A licence coach with Maynooth and Director of Football at St Francis. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

TWO OF IRELAND’S top athletes, St Patrick’s Athletic captain Ger O’Brien and Olympic marathon runner Mark Kenneally, are using their wealth of experience to assist football clubs around the country in improving their structures. 

With their new business venture, Elite Performance Consulting, they recognise the need for a more focused approach to how we develop our young players into elite athletes and believe there is an appetite for change. 

We spoke to Ger and Mark this week about their plans. 

Hi lads. Can you explain to me what service Elite Performance Consulting is offering?

GOB: Basically, we feel that football clubs in Ireland don’t have the structures in place to be able to develop players properly. If you look from the top right down to the academies, there is no syllabus in place.

Education of coaches is actually quite poor in this country. You have to understand that a lot of parents are volunteers at clubs and they need that to survive but it’s very important for the kids’ education that the coaches are educated properly so they can get the best quality of coaching available.

Then you have to mix that with the athlete development. When the elite Irish kids go to the UK at 15 or 16, they are already so far behind the local boys who have been in the academies since the age of eight.

It’s very important for clubs in this country, no matter what level they are at, to realise that in order to develop these kids for the long term they have to be doing the right things from a young age.

So what happens when a club gets in contact with you?

GOB: We will go in, have a look at the club and listen to them first and foremost. It’s important to let them talk and hear what they have to say, then go through exactly what is needed from top to bottom.

We have our own methods and strategies, which are fairly basic but at the same time really important to have in place.

From dealing with schoolboy clubs already, it is amazing how many don’t have any structure in place. They don’t have a philosophy on what way they want the club to be run and the coach education is completely ignored.

We’re not producing enough quality players and the clubs themselves have a massive role to play in that. Unfortunately, it’s all about winning and training rather than coaching and developing — on and off the pitch.

EPC

It is obviously early days but how has it gone?

GOB: We’ve spoken a number of clubs like, for instance, Celbridge Town. They have 14-15 schoolboy teams and needed guidance.

We chatted to them about academies, their underage system and what they should be doing. Then we looked at off-the-field stuff. What are the kids up to? Are they doing any gym work?

When we say gym work in this country unfortunately people automatically think you have to start lifting weights but there are plenty of other things they can be doing way before any of that comes into play.

They are the foundations that we want to introduce in this country.

Mark, how did the two of you get involved in the business and what can you offer?

MK: I’ve worked with Ger in Maynooth College over the last couple of years and my first love growing up would have been football. I would have played up until late teens at an okay level.

As a physio, most of my work would be within football. From working day-to-day in football and athletics, you see kids coming in with the same injuries and the same problems.

When you see some of the kids competing at international level for Ireland, they don’t look like athletes and it takes ages for us to catch up and start doing the right work in terms of moving properly and getting as strong as we can possibly be.

There is loads of stuff out there and it is not reinventing the wheel but if you put them in the right order in terms of athlete development, there is the potential for something to work quite well.

Are there a lot of ill-informed people involved in sports on a volunteer basis?

MK: It’s hard to have a go when people have good intentions and maybe there are people there who shouldn’t be helping out but you can have systems in place around that.

Having structures for everything from injury prevention through to football will help prevent individual errors.

Mark Kenneally Kenneally competed in the marathon at the 2012 Olympics. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Have you been dealing with the various schoolboy leagues and what has their reaction been?

GOB: I don’t think it should have anything to do with the leagues. I have worked within the league structure in the DDSL and I don’t think they should have a major impact on clubs. Where do a club go to get help if they are new or they are standing still and need guidance?

There is nobody out there doing it but we can offer them a product that we feel is very good for football as well as athlete development side of things. Unfortunately, that is often forgotten about even though it should go hand-in-hand when you are trying to produce elite players on a consistent basis.

The Scandanavian countries and the likes of Belgium and Holland have been doing that a long time now.

Have you a vision for Irish football?

GOB: It has been in the news this week about the new development plan with (FAI  High Performance Director) Ruud Dokter and there are plenty of people far above myself who are looking to put different plans into place for the schoolboy football in the country.

Some of the debates which have taken place since the plans were announced have been crazy. People shouting down ideas which haven’t been given proper thought and others getting very excited a little too early.

It’s all about players learning rather than trying to get them there as quickly as possible. They are there to be coached and developed as players and we don’t do our jobs properly enough.

What kind of reception has EPC got so far?

MK: It is very early days but we have got very positive feedback and there is loads of interest. You can go and read up about long-term athlete development and how to coach teams properly but it’s putting the two of them hand-in-hand that people are interested in.

Have you any plans to hold seminars? 

MK: Yeah, that will be part of it as well. It’s one thing sitting down with a club’s committee but maybe they want all their coaches, parents and volunteers to listen in to what we have to say. So it is something we’ll be looking at.

For more information, visit eliteperformance.ie and follow them on Twitter

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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