WITH the GAA ready to ramp back into action, the full-time coaching officers in Cork will have their work cut out to support underage clubs after a significant break.
We're entering unknown territory as Gaelic Games resume, with issues still to be ironed out regarding competition structures from U12 up to minor, blitzes for U11s down and Cúl Camps.
Under the guidance of Games Manager Kevin O'Callaghan, and with assistance from Cork County Board coaching officer Ronan Dwane, Cork has a relatively strong Rebel Óg network in place.
Great progress has been made across the past decade, with 3,500 kids at U7 and U8 and 5,500 from U9 to U11 enjoying the games organised annually through the Go Games model of Monster Blitzes and non-competitive games. Up from 60 in 2009, 275 primary schools now receive support; in 10 years the number of active coaching officers per club has risen from 12 to 88.
This despite the fact that, given the geographical size of the county, along with the volume of clubs, Cork is vastly understaffed. In Dublin, there is a Games Development Administrator per club, though this is well funded by the clubs themselves as well as various grants and Croke Park.
The contrast between the manpower in the counties only makes the work of Kevin O'Callaghan and his staff more commendable.
There are five GDAs: Paudie O'Brien, Colm Crowley, Pat Spratt, James McCarthy and Sean Crowley
Paudie Crowley is the recently-appointed Carbery Games Promotion Officer Paudie Crowley, while John Grainger (UCC) and Keith Ricken (CIT) operate at third level.
Cork also have a new High Performance Manager in Aidan O'Connell and while his focus is on older teams, his work is already filtering down. Conor Counihan was recruited last year to make more of Cork's football promise.
There also part-time coaching roles, filled by Mark Lynch, Martin Farrissey, Conan O'Donovan, Gavin Webb, Noel O'Brien and Martin O'Brien, while clubs have their own school coaches in place, like Fachnta O'Connor, whose splits his time between Blarney and Bishopstown.
Whatever way you stack it up, the cover is spread thin across Rebel county, particularly as they are supporting schools as well as clubs.
The main focus of Rebel Óg Coaching us to increase participation while optimising standards, and they also liaise with the coaches and help run the Development Squad system. The benefit of this approach has been seen in Cork's progress at minor and U20-U21 in both codes since 2017 after a lean spell.
The Benchmarking 2020 Vision Initiative challenges clubs to develop their coaching structures with recognition in bronze, silver and gold categories.
O'Callaghan, a native of Kilshanning, a club whose underage development in recent years has been noteworthy in itself, believes his GDAs deserve huge credit given the demands on their time.
"They deliver on all projects at grassroots level. They coach at primary school, post-primary school, regional squads and club level in addition to their vast amount of administrative work.
"They play a key role in backing up the formal coaching courses with workshops for club coaches and all are competent coaches and while we would like to have more staff on the ground Cork is certainly getting a lot from the staff we do have."
O'Callaghan started as a GDA in 2007 before progressing to his current role two years later. Participation levels have soared and the format of bringing clubs across the county together for a variety of hurling and football blitzes and mini-league games for the young players, with no trophies at stake and therefore no pressure, has generally been a huge success.
"Cork has been one of the most innovative counties in the last 10 years, the leaders in implementing the Monster Blitz programme, with nearly all counties now following this model. We have the highest participation figures on Cúl Camps. Our coaching officer, Ronan Dwane has been a key driver of these policies also and has been a really progressive coaching officer for Cork County Board."
During the Covid lockdown, the GDAs hosted a virtual Easter camp for kids and numerous webinars for underage coaches.
While all teenage inter-county events were suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Cork had already made significant alterations. Having been the dominant force, particularly in hurling, at competitions from U14 to U16 in the second half of the last decade, Cork opted not to enter the prestigious Tony Forristal or Jim Power tournaments in 2019 based on two U14 panels, they moved to eight regional squads competing in a league format.
"The long term picture is foremost in our minds: develop as many players as we can for as long as we can," explains O'Callaghan. "This model would have been used in 2020 along with a doubling of numbers at U15 in both codes with a move to four regional panels for the full year."
This regional-based model has been recently endorsed by the GAA National Talent Academy Framework report which will see other counties go the same route.
Despite the perception that development squads zoned in on producing inter-county players, O'Callaghan points out 90% of the boys involved are not going to join the elite as adults.
"You hope they return to their clubs as better players and better people from their experiences. Those mentors work so hard in developing the lads and the amount of time they devote is phenomenal. Most of it is unseen."
Prior to entering a sporting purgatory from March, development squad players had six weeks of injury prevention workshops.
"The players are being equipped with the tools to self manage to meet the demands of the game and that's the way we try and take in the bigger picture, not just winning now."