NEW West Cork Schoolboys League Kennedy Cup head coach Stephen O’Keefe is keeping his squad busy in anticipation of next year’s tournament.
The cancellation of the 2020 New Balance SFAI Kennedy Cup came as a tremendous blow to inter-league schoolboys players, coaches, and supporters throughout the country.
The SFAI had little choice in the face of the current pandemic until a recent statement gave hope of a possible rescheduling of the prestigious tournament.
That statement included the following: 'we will examine all avenues that might allow the 2020 version go ahead at an alternative date should the health of the nation improve', suggesting there may be light at the end of a dark tunnel for the players born in 2006.
Yet, irrespective of what happens over the next 12 months, the West Cork Schoolboys League have already begun their preparations for the 2021 edition of the SFAI’s annual tournament despite no guarantees that it will go ahead.
Stephen O’Keefe (Richmond), Áine O’Donovan (Bandon), Sean Spenser (Skibbereen AFC) and Ross Smith (Bandon) will coach the WCSL’s U14 Kennedy Cup squad under the tutelage of manager Lorne Edmeade (Clonakilty Soccer Club) until the end of next year.
A series of intensive training sessions, strictly adhering to Covid regulations, were held in Clonakilty during the mid-term break. Those get-togethers allowed a new-look coaching team an opportunity to run the rule over the West Cork region’s brightest talents at the U13 (and next year’s U14) age-grade.
“In terms of preparation, I suppose we got the ball rolling last July once Lorne (Edmeade) had picked his squad for the coming season and started putting plans in place,” Stephen O’Keefe told the Echo.
“Lorne is the manager, I am Head Coach and have taken on most of the coaching responsibilities including organising all the sessions, coordinating with and texting the players.
“A panel of around 20 players from last year’s West Cork U13s was originally put together. We now have over 30 players regularly training on our Kennedy Cup squad.
"We contacted a number of WCSL clubs who were lacking representation and thankfully, players from those clubs have since joined up over the last couple of weeks. Numbers have been really good in terms of attending training and we are averaging around 25 players at each session.”
It comes as little surprise that new Covid restrictions have made things difficult to planning and managing training sessions. For the foreseeable future, West Cork’s players will be split into small pods and every session will remain non-contact.
O’Keefe and his fellow coaches decision to get involved with West Cork is fortunate timing. The WCSL now has sufficient coaches to train their large squad up to twice a week and where safety is paramount.
“Every precaution is being taken from when the lads arrive, take part and before they leave each of our training sessions,” O’Keefe said.
“West Cork’s Kennedy Cup squad will train twice a week, which will be fantastic for the players. We currently use the Clonakilty Sports Complex for an hour every Wednesday. On top of that, Clonakilty soccer club and Castlelack have been brilliant to us in giving us the use of their pitches whenever we need them of a Sunday evening.
“Our sessions involve breaking the squad into small pods and working on possession-specific drills. It is important to note that the players lead the sessions and we, the coaches, are facilitating them.
“Having five or six coaches at each get-together helps facilitate the players requests, be that working as a group of strikers, goalkeepers, defenders or midfielders. We focus in on whatever they are meant to be doing in their respective positions. The players get the benefit of working with a coach on specific skills and end up getting much more out of their hour on the pitch.
“It is a positive dynamic and has worked very well since I came in. The players are responding brilliantly and every one of them has improved since we started.”
O’Keefe is no stranger to schoolboys and women’s football having built an impressive resumé over the past number of years.
The Ballincollig native made a name for himself as a goalkeeping coach with Cork City Women’s FC, UCC and at various FAI Centres of Excellence and Regional ETPs. Add in Cork Schoolboys League U12 and U13 Munster and All-Ireland successes and West Cork has acquired a talented Head Coach for 2021 and beyond.
“The coaches are putting in a huge number of hours preparing and running our training sessions, but we can already see the payoff in the way the lads have responded,” O’Keefe added.
“Developing all 30 players as best we can and giving them the best opportunity to make next year’s Kennedy Cup squad is our only responsibility right now.
“At the moment, we will stick with what we have, probably until the New Year, and then await an SFAI announcement on where and when the Kennedy Cup is going ahead before making any more decisions.
“We are delighted with all 30 West Cork players that we are working with at the minute. Their commitment is terrific and making our training sessions even more worthwhile.
“They are buzzing and enjoying being part of a fun but productive environment. The support we have received from parents has been equally important. They want us to keep going and having a spread of all the West Cork Schoolboys League clubs is making for a very happy camp.”