These days everyone talks about the development pathway for young footballers in the League of Ireland. With the introduction of the U-19, U-17 and U-15 leagues (along with the impending U-13’s) and also the Women’s U-17 league, the pathway to Senior football, if good enough, is there for both boys and girls.
However, not many talk about the development of coaches. One of those coaches is 21 year-old Isabelle Connolly. Isabelle is a coach with Cabinteely’s U-17 side. Cabinteely were knocked out of the U-17 National League at the quarter-final stage last weekend, losing in heart-breaking circumstances to an injury time penalty against St Patrick’s Athletic.
I spoke to Isabelle to talk about her career so far. She tells me how it all began, “I have always been involved in football in one way or another throughout my life. I grew up in a family with two younger brothers who were both football mad, so I usually spent my weekends on the sideline of a pitch. My dad, Julian, who is on the U-17 Cabinteely LOI Management team, was the real reason as to why I wanted to start coaching myself. I would watch him manage from the sidelines and was fascinated by how his players were inspired by him and how they respected him so highly.”
“I saw how much he had helped these young boys develop, not just in becoming better footballers but becoming better people. I wanted to get involved in football, to not only help develop good players but to also inspire kids to be the best that they can be.”
“A coach, in my opinion, goes far beyond sport – you become a key figure in that persons life, someone who they can hopefully look up to, and inspire to be like. You are setting an example for the kids and showing them what amazing things they can achieve, in both sports and other areas of life if they work hard and enjoy it. Sport has many meanings for different people, but to me, as a coach, I wanted my training session and matches to be a place where the kids had the freedom to express themselves and enjoy playing football.”
“So when I was around 11-12 I started to help my dad out with his DDSL U-9 boys team. From there, I went on to take over the team when they reached U-14 and became one of the few female managers within Cabinteely FC. I played for Cabinteely’s girls team for a few years when I was 14, but as I had been playing hockey for much longer and at a high level – I stuck to that. However, I did enjoy my brief stint as a full-back for Cabinteely FC girls team.”
It’s hard to imagine, but she’s been coaching for almost 10 years!
“It was a natural step up for me to become manager after my dad,” continued Isabelle.
“Its been amazing to be part of a team for so long, and watch the players not only develop as players over the year, but also grow up and become great young men. They are a fantastic bunch of lads and a credit to the club. I have loved every minute being mananger/coach of the team.”
This season Isabelle was approached to see would be like to be involved with the clubs U-17 League of Ireland boys team, something she grabbed with both hands. “I’ve been coaching within Cabinteely for several years and this season I was invited by Pat Devlin, the Director of Football (and Senior team manager) to become part of the League of Ireland set up with the Under 17s. Within that role, I operate as one of the coaches. I take the players through their warm up, strength and condition as well as coaching them through a few of the drills throughout the week. It’s not quite as hands on as my previous coaching experiences, as I’m one of the 3 coaches involved in the training sessions.”
She has taken the step up like a duck to water, but says she feels that her development as a coach has improved no end, “Over the course of this season, I feel like I’ve really come on as a coach as I’ve been working in such close proximity with the other amazing coaches, Val Keenan and Tony McGuirk, who have really helped me develop as a coach. I have also gotten a lot of satisfaction out of seeing how the boys have been performing and how they in turn have developed as I feel I’ve really contributed to their growth as players.”
As for the season that’s just ended Isabelle said, while disappointed to lose out in the quarter-finals, that it’s been a great year overall. “It has been a fantastic season this year for our U-17’s, and they have gone from strength to strength in both the league and the cups. The boys worked really hard this season putting in good shifts at training and it showed on the pitch.
“The chemistry they had and how they worked together as a team really helped them to become a force within the league this season. Although we were very unlucky to narrowly miss out on the semi-finals last weekend, the boys left their hearts and souls on the pitch and proved to everyone why they deserved to do as well as they have done this year. It has been a pleasure to be part of their development this year and watching them grow as both a team and individual players and I can see big things coming from the lads, in the next few years.”
Being a coach alongside her Dad Julian can bring its challenges, especially if there are differing opinions, so how does the dynamic work between them? She says, “It’s been a really unique and fulfilling experience working with my Dad on a day to day basis, one that I’m sure not many other daughters have gotten to experience. I’ve really enjoyed the year as I’ve gotten to see the intricacies of what he does from an even closer vantage point, and been inspired with how he interacts and inspires the lads that play for him.”
“Dad was the person who got me into football and inspired my interest in coaching, so I’ve really been watching him manage and taking elements of how he approaches the game for years. All in all, I’ve definitely developed some of my fondest memories within football which mostly stem from getting to be involved with a team alongside my Dad.”
Every coach has a footballing philosophy, and Isabelle’s is slightly different to her Dads. She explains, “From a philosophy of football standpoint, I’ve always been transfixed with how a team attacks and would describe myself as much more of an attack minded coach, whereas my Dad has always been a much more defensive focused manager and almost always takes charge of coaching up the back four. So, from a purely football standpoint, we have similar ideas with how the game should be played but different focuses on getting to that point.”
Female coaches in football aren’t plentiful, while female coaches in boys/men’s football are almost scarce, so did you find any barriers in the way of you becoming a coach? “Well I was lucky enough to grow up with two younger brothers who were football mad and so I was able to spend a lot of time on the side of pitches when I was younger, and was always really comfortable with the environment and interacting with big groups of players like that.”
“When got my first opportunity to coach and it was with a boys team, I was pretty unfazed and I felt pretty comfortable stepping into the role. Of course, there’s always a little bit of surprise and maybe confusion when opposition players and managers see that you have a female coach, but I’ve had very few issues of barriers to getting stuck in. I was also very lucky that Cabinteely were the club I got started at as I’ve received nothing but support and help from everyone within the club at every level.”
“I have to give special mention for the support I’ve received this year, as it’s the first team I’ve been involved with at such a competitive level. Pat Devlin and all in the League of Ireland set-up have been so helpful and supportive to me. I think a lot of the issues that women may have faced when getting involved with football teams in the past have been stamped out and there’s no better time for female coaches to get out there.”
Currently, Lisa Fallon of Cork City is the only female coach in the League of Ireland. She has a UEFA Pro License and is Head of Football analysis for Cork City. She has also worked with Northern Ireland, alongside former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill, and the Dublin GAA. So does Isabelle have a female coaching role-model? “In terms of female coaches, I would not really have one that I look up to, and maybe that is part of the reason why I want to become the best coach I can be. There are very few female coaches involved in mens football all over the world, and although there was a certain perception about female coaching in the past, I think there is no better time then the present for more women to get involved. From being on the side-line of boys and mens games for so many years, there are no snide comments or funny looks anymore, and once the opposition see the trust and respect the boys have for me, they respected me too.”
She’s very ambitious, and wants to keep developing as a coach, “I would love to continue my coaching career and move on to complete my badges. I have been so lucky this season to work with some of the best coaches around and have gained invaluable knowledge and experience, from both watching and working with Val and Tony, and I cannot thank them enough for that. I hope to continue to grow as a coach, and be a part of helping the great players in Cabinteely develop even further. Who knows – If I’m lucky enough, I may even become a League of Ireland manager one day!!”
That day could come sooner than many think!