Founding the club that brought Liverpool, Man United and Ajax to Monaghan - The legacy of Sean McCaffrey

The42 reflect on the legacy of the late Sean McCaffrey by looking back at the improbable journeys and successes of the club he founded Oriel Celtic.

THE BOLDEST ACT of all is to remain in Irish football and utterly without cynicism. 

The game in Ireland has usually been stony soil for romantics: few have melded ambition and determination with a devout refusal to be told none of it is worthwhile.

Stephen Kenny is one of them, while yesterday marks the fourth anniversary of a man better endowed with those traits than most: Sean McCaffrey. 

He is known to most for either his work in the domestic league – at 23, he became the youngest manager in League of Ireland history with Monaghan United – or at the FAI, where he led the U17s to the 2008 European Championships and played a part in developing a plethora of senior internationals including Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Darren Randolph and Aiden McGeady. That influence is still being felt to this day: Will Keane was capped at senior level for the first time last month, and it was McCaffrey who alerted the FAI to his eligibility more than a decade ago. 

But the story that best encapsulates his audacity is closer to home. 

“A few friends and I played football, but there was no team and we were just playing schoolyard football”, his brother Conor tells The42. ”So in 1989, during the whole summer, I tortured him.

“He eventually asked how many of us there were.

“‘There’s 17 of us.’

“‘Right, we’ll have a meeting in Beech Hill Gym at 6pm, after school. If there is one player missing or late, I’m turning on my heels.’

“So he walked in the door of the gym, didn’t say hello but counted 17 of us and then threw his eyes to the sky as if to say, ‘Right…here we go again.’” 

Thus Oriel Celtic FC was born.

The squad was made of local U15 players who largely played Gaelic football and had little experience of playing football outside of the school yard.

Players were found more easily than a competition, as the closest league McCaffrey could find was what’s now the Meath and District Schoolboy League.

McCaffrey coached the team and held his standards high. Conor helped to found the club and was the manager’s brother yet didn’t make the starting line-up until the latter half of the first season. 

As with most Romantics he was ahead of his time, and so the Oriel Celtic U15s were at the country’s cutting edge of video analysis. Games were taped and the team would then gather in McCaffrey’s mother’s living room, reviewing the game that had been, clip-by-clip. 

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-21 at 4.37.14 PM Oriel Celtic, with Sean McCaffrey (back left) and Tom Mohan (centre of front row.) Conor McCaffrey Conor McCaffrey

“He had that foresight and ambition”, says Tom Mohan, who played on the first Oriel Celtic team and is now the Republic of Ireland U19 manager

“He could see the reason behind having the video analysis at the time. Sean spent time as a player with Leicester City and West Brom, I think he played with Gary Lineker and Bryan Robson, and I am sure he picked things up over there.”

“It was the first real coaching I’d have got, and like many other players from the Monaghan/Cavan area at the time, don’t realise how fortunate I was. Little did we realise at the time that, with the level of detail he was providing us with, not only were we being coached to be footballers, we were being coached to be coaches as well.

“He could break every aspect of a pass down, and you’d leave a session with football homework.

“Simple things: ‘Get to your local handball alleys, your community centres, anywhere with a ball and a wall. And the details. You must train with a leather ball. You must have the ball pumped up good and hard. You have to test yourself everytime you go out to practice.” 

Mohan had a trial at Southampton within a year. 

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-21 at 4.49.20 PM An example of the weekly homework prescribed to Oriel Celtic players by Sean McCaffrey. Conor McCaffrey Conor McCaffrey

This minute attention to detail was set against a backdrop of endlessly broad horizons. 

“It wasn’t just a case of starting a small club in a small area locally”, says Mohan. “It was, ‘Right, we’ll get started, we’ll get a team together, and next summer we’re going to Norway to a tournament.’

He was true to his word. Oriel Celtic – buttressed by a couple of Irish underage internationals recommended by Noel O’Reilly at Belvedere – went to the Oslo Cup and got knocked out on penalties in the last-16 of a 168-team competition. (McCaffrey arranged another three friendly games to ensure everyone who travelled had a chance to play.)

Upon return, the club exploded. 

A year after agreeing to start an U15s team for the benefit of 17 local kids, more than 100 kids wanted to play. There followed the founding of an U10s, U12s, U14s, U16s, U18s and two girls’ teams at Oriel Celtic, along with a club committee to raise funds for them. 

“There were kids coming out of the woodwork”, reflects Conor. 

“He would always look at the bigger picture: he was taking kids off the street”, says Mohan. “He was giving them a different focus in life, and a broader horizon on their life.”

McCaffrey’s own coach and mentor growing up was Patrick Vincent Turley, who became the editor of the local Northern Standard newspaper, and the same paper carried extensive coverage of the early days of Oriel Celtic. Local media played an effective role in swelling the size of the club, and in 1991 McCaffrey and his players launched a PR campaign replete with recorded radio ad to pack 5,000 people into Gortakeegan to watch the Oriel Celtic U16s play QPR. 

The QPR side included Kevin Gallen – who went on to play more than a hundred times for the first team – Danny Dichio and the-then England U16 captain, Steven Bircham. 

QPR played a Irish Schoolboy League Selection XI earlier in the week and won comfortably, which McCaffrey watched with keen interest. 

“They played 4-4-2, we played 3-4-3 when on the attack and the wing backs, without the ball, dropped in as a 5-2-3″, remembers Conor. “But we always kept three up front, he developed that formation to counteract their strengths.

“They hammered the league selection but they didn’t hammer us: we beat them 3-2. Tom Mohan scored twice.”

“He was so ambitious”, says Mohan. “It was such a positive experience for us as young players.” 

QPR donated a set of jerseys and then offered McCaffrey a job in London. 

He didn’t take it and instead saw several high-profile clubs visit Monaghan. A Liverpool side featuring Robbie Fowler, Dominic Matteo and Phil Charnock (who had already made his first-team debut) won 5-1 in 1992; Wes Brown featured in a Manchester United side that won there in April 1995; Rafael van der Vaart and Andy van Der Meyde played for an Ajax side remarkably held 0-0 by a team made solely of players from Monaghan. 

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-21 at 4.40.16 PM The Northern Standard question the logic of bringing Liverpool to town.

Then-Irish senior manager Mick McCarthy was supposed to attend the Ajax game but had to withdraw at the last minute, instead writing a message for the programme in which he made it clear McCaffrey was to thank for Gortakeegan’s latest visitors.

The greatest moment of all came came in Ajax’ home city four years earlier, in what the Standard described as “the most prestigious achievement by soccer players from Monaghan at any level.” 

In 1991 McCaffrey took Oriel Celtic’s U16s to renowned – and locally televised – youth tournament the Holland Cup..and won it. Though winning may be an understatement. 

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-21 at 4.29.30 PM The journey to the Holland Cup. Conor McCaffrey Conor McCaffrey

“We wrecked it”, grins Conor. 

Their record read: seven games played, seven games won, 32 goals scored, two conceded. 

Conor captained; Tom Mohan starred.

“It’s a great memory”, says Mohan. “The pitches were fantastic and we went unbeaten throughout it, we played really well. Looking back, Sean had a fearlessness about him. That’s what struck me about that Holland Cup. Reputations, big teams, whatever: didn’t matter. We were better than them.

“That fearlessness he had about him. It didn’t matter if it was Spain or whoever, that fearlessness and belief you could go and win.” 

The supporting Oriel Celtic contingent swelled with every beaten opponent, meaning there was a sizeable following by the time of the final victory. 

“The digs we stayed in were local schools, we were lying on mattresses lined in classrooms”, remembers Conor. “It was nothing fancy. There were a few wild boys on the team, but Sean had a great ability to be able to hand one kid who was well-to-do and another who had come from nothing and had a different attitude to life.

“He knew the kids’ names, he knew their parents names. He’d know what to say to people. He’d know that wee Jimmy there was doing an exam next week, and so forth. He’d remember that level of detail.

“It made kids feel big and proud when Sean would call them by their names.

“That was the great thing about Sean, it didn’t matter if you were five or 50, he’d listen to what you had to say. Everyone had a voice. He’d never beat anyone down, it would always be positive reinforcement.” 

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-21 at 4.31.45 PM Sean McCaffrey and Oriel Celtic win the Holland Cup. Conor McCaffrey Conor McCaffrey

Mohan followed McCaffrey’s footsteps – first as a Development Officer in the north-east -and then to the FAI, where he is now coach of the U19s, whom he led to the semi-finals of the 2019 European Championships. The achievement carried more than an echoe of Sean McCaffrey. 

“I remember playing for Derry City against Celtic [in 1997], and we beat them 3-2 at Lansdowne Road. I couldn’t wait to ring Sean the next day, I was absolutely thrilled. Thomas McKinley was playing left-back – a Scottish international – and I was playing on the right side of midfield for Derry.

But he still wasn’t happy. ‘You should have done more.’

I was thinking, ‘He plays left-back for Scotland and left-back for Celtic, I’ve done alright’, but he said, ‘You should have done more. You should have gone inside him more.’

“But that was the level of his ambition. Doing okay wasn’t good enough. You can do better. That was a great lesson for me too. ‘There’s more in you, so go and deliver.’

“It’s an experience that really stuck in my mind, it was a good learning for me.”

He left them for everyone. 

You can support the Sean McCaffrey Foundation. For more details, see here. 

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