In advance of our inaugural season in the FAI Women’s U17 National League, we have an an interview with the team’s head coach Sean Kelly.
Sean, first of all, could you give us some background on your own playing and coaching career before you came to the club?
“I started coaching about 12 years ago up with local teams. I’m a Tallaght man so I started coaching Sacred Heart Boys and I had a couple of years with them. Then I progressed down to Kilnamanagh coaching the boys and I enjoyed that. I have three daughters of my own and they started to show an interest in playing football so I decided to start coaching with Kilnamanagh and I was with the girls’ set up there. From there we just found that it took off and we were attracting very good players. Before we knew it the players were very good and then I ended up at Peamount for two years coaching girls. We’d won back-to-back All-Irelands but all of a sudden there was a bit of an impasse where there was already a Peamount team in place in the Women’s National League 17’s, just an age group above us. The opportunity at Rovers came up. I spoke to Shane [Robinson] and we ended going to talk to Rovers and that’s how I’m there now. On the coaching front I did the youth cert many years ago and I have one phase left in the UEFA ‘B’ at this stage. As far as football goes myself I played a bit of intermediate football but I had to stop early because of a bad knee so that was the end of that.”
Tell us about that meeting with Rovers and what attracted you to the role of Under 17s coach?
“I met with Shane and we had a good chat and straight away I could see Shane’s professionalism come through. I’d already known what they were doing at Rovers on the boys’ front, I was very impressed with how they were going about their business. After meeting Shane and seeing the professionalism there and everything else it was a no brainer for me to say yeah, let’s get something done here. Since then it’s been brilliant. I met with Jonathan Roche the chairman as well and Jonathan was very positive and that’s how we came into Rovers.”
What style of football do you like your teams to play?
“There’s no question about it, we love to get the ball on the deck and play. We have been playing some excellent football for a number of years, and this year, obviously with the name Rovers we’ve attracted a few more players. The style of football we’re playing is on the deck, we move it quick and try and play through teams as much as possible. We’ve got some excellent players so we play the same way Rovers would; a high press play out from the back and we’re always looking to play even in tight situations.”
How did you go about assembling a squad for the 2020 season and are you happy with the balance of it?
“We’ve a very good squad and the balance is excellent. We’ve got 20 players signed. We’ve got a couple of long-term injuries unfortunately but that’s part and parcel of football and they’ll come back soon. So we’ve 18 fit players currently and we’re going very well. We’ve about 12 players involved in underage international football in Ireland.”
On the same night that Jack Byrne won the 2019 League of Ireland player of the year, our own Jessie Stapleton was presented with the FAI Under 15’s Women’s Schools International player of the year award. Jessie is a very talented player, you must be delighted she’s joined Rovers?
“The award was a great honour for Jessie, her family and the club. We’re absolutely delighted. My management team had a great track record and everything but I think there was a huge pull from the likes of Shane and Rovers. It’s very hard when a club like Rovers with their history, knowledge and professionalism comes calling. It’s very hard to turn the other cheek because they are second to none in Ireland I believe now. So I think Jessie wanted to come to Rovers as much as anything else. It’s great to have a player of that calibre. She’s knocking them in for fun at present, she’s playing out of her skin and a worthy winner of the 15’s player of the year.”
How often does the team train at Roadstone and how impressed are you with the set up and facilities?
“The set up at Roadstone is brilliant, you couldn’t ask for anything better. We train twice a week up at Roadstone and we play at the weekend there as well. From everybody involved, Stephen [Bradley], Aidan [Price] and Shane it’s absolutely fantastic the way they run it. You’ve got Stephen, Conor, Chris and Anthony there as the video guys and it’s brilliant. The likes of Lorcan and Pat Deans are there for you too and you couldn’t want anything better. We got some headshots done on Tuesday morning and Robert Goggins and George Kelly are there so everywhere you turn somebody is looking to help you. It makes it very easy for me as the coach to get things done because the professionalism behind the scenes is amazing. Rovers have been so welcoming to the girls and Aido was saying to me they’re like a breath of fresh air around the club. It brings that bit of diversity to Rovers. The girls are delighted to be part of Rovers and it’s a credit to the lads that run it.”
What friendlies has the team been involved in these past few weeks and how do you feel pre-season has gone overall?
“Pre-season has gone very well. We’ve gone through it unbeaten and played some good National League teams. The age would be 2003-2005 for our squad to play in the Women’s 17s National League and our squad consists of 04’s and 05’s so in theory we’ve got another solid year ahead of us after this. Then the 05’s would have two solid years after this year so we really are set up for success. Our friendlies have gone very well, we’ve beaten all the competitive teams around us and played some good football along the way which is as impressive as the results that we’re getting. In our first season I think we’re turning heads with the style of football we’re playing and that’s as important to us as winning matches. Because I think the way you do it says something about your team as well. We want to play the Rovers style and we want to put it on the deck and play football.
What are your hopes and expectations in the league this year?
“You never know from one day to the next how you’re going to perform but our hopes are that we go all the way to be honest. We have the squad that can certainly compete but you never know what can happen in 90 minutes. Whoever beats us is going to win it, that’s how I feel about it, and if our friendly results are anything to go by it’s possible but they’re only friendlies. Teams will improve as the season goes on but I’d like to think we will as well. We’re really looking forward to a positive year. It’s been a great start into Rovers, a great introduction and we’ve made great strides. We really are hopeful for the season ahead.”
How has Covid-19 restrictions affected your preparations and are the players adapting to them?
“We are adapting, there’s no question about it. When we were in lockdown for a good few months Rovers and ourselves were sending the girls regular things to keep them ticking over and doing a few bits and bobs. It has slowed us down, we were hoping to start our season way back in April but unfortunately it got knocked on the head. But we’re back flying, we were flying before then in pre-season before the original start date and we’re going well again. Unfortunately three girls out of Kildare couldn’t train on Tuesday night because we couldn’t have them up but there’s nothing we can do about that – some things take priority and that does clearly in this case as well. We’re getting through it. We’re really positive about the season and have everything set. When we’re there, Shane and Aido will take the odd session and it’s fantastic, I think the girls really enjoy that side of it too. The way Rovers handled the whole Covid-19 training with social distancing was first class.”
The GAA are well ahead in terms of women’s football but women’s football is reckoned to be the fastest growing sport in Ireland. Are you seeing that yourself?
“I’ve been involved in women’s soccer now for seven years and I’ve spoken to a lot of women and people who’ve been involved in women’s soccer for a long time. It really is in a boom at the minute. The FAI have helped that greatly with the Emerging Talent programmes and stuff like that. I do think the amount of girls going out there and aspiring to play soccer now is amazing. I’ve three daughters and the three of them played soccer, the youngest one is still playing it and enjoying it as well. Women’s soccer is on the crest of a wave, you can see it when you go down to the Irish international games at Tallaght Stadium. It’s fantastic the crowds that they’re getting there, where as if you go back ten years ago you’d be lucky if you got 500 at a match. Now you’re getting three or four thousand and there was five or six thousand at a match there recently. It’s going great, the Women’s National League has been fantastic as an initiative for women’s soccer and it just keeps going from strength to strength. It’s backed by the FAI and the clubs who participate, who are important as anybody in my opinion. Rovers going into that arena is brilliant. Right now it’s the 17s National League and the first logical step but I know from speaking to the club that we’d like to see ourselves in the Women’s National Leaguewo. I don’t see why the squad I have can’t be the backbone of that in a couple of years’ time.”
Do you get any negativity about the sport from the mens’ side of the game?
“You always have something there but most men are very respectful when it comes to that. They wouldn’t really be negative about it and I’ve been involved in women’s soccer a long time. I think they take it for what it is because it really is apples and oranges between men and women when it comes to soccer. A Women’s National League team would only be comparable to a 15s or 16s boys’ team and it’s physicality it comes down to every day of the week. That’s just normal. It’s all about physical strength and sometimes speed but I often liken it back to women’s tennis. People watch women’s tennis because it’s enjoyable and it’s the same sometimes with women’s soccer. It might be a bit slower but it doesn’t mean that it’s any less enjoyable than watching a men’s game. It’s just different. As a coach in the women’s game it’s very enjoyable because they will absolutely follow your instruction to the letter of the law and they will do their best all the time which is a fantastic thing to coach. I’m not saying boys don’t but I just know that the girls are very easy to coach and want to learn. So that’s my experience – people don’t tend to look down their nose. If you’re in the bubble of a minority sport you know all the usual faces but having said that it is growing exponentially. If you look at America, there’s 20 million kids playing soccer there alone. The reason women’s soccer in America grew so big was they pushed it huge before they won the World Cup in 1999. It’s all about the FAI, the clubs and everybody pushing it and to be fair there is a huge backing to women’s soccer at this point in time. And rightfully so. The skills that they learn are invaluable in life. You get to go out there and interact with a group. I love soccer and I’ve always played it. I think the tools that it gives you in everyday life are fantastic and it’s brilliant that the girls get to grow up with that, to enjoy it and experience everything that a lad will.”
How do you see women’s football at Rovers developing in the near future? You alluded to it earlier, has there been any discussion that this Under 17’s side can be a stepping stone to the return of a senior women’s team?
“Yes I think it will. Obviously it won’t be this year but it could be 2022 or somewhere like that. I don’t want to talk out of school, it’s not my decision ultimately but I do think the backbone of this 17’s team is certainly strong enough to be the backbone of that team going forward. It’d be great for Shamrock Rovers, who I know were founding members of the inaugural Women’s National League back in 2011 and for different reasons they fell out of it. Rovers back in 1996 when they first got going in the women’s side of it, they were an excellent team. They won five FAI Cups on the trot so they really have got a rich history in women’s football. They had some fantastic players playing for them. I never got to see Olivia O’Toole play but from everything I heard she was a top footballer and she was obviously Shamrock Rovers. I think to Rovers, that sort of generation of players is huge and you do see women in their 30s and 40s have a glint in their eye when they hear Shamrock Rovers winning because they played with them. That’s what it’s all about.