‘Only one team can win a league or a cup, but everyone can do good things in their area’
‘Only one team can win a league or a cup, but everyone can do good things in their area’

‘Only one team can win a league or a cup, but everyone can do good things in their area’

IT’S A QUIET Wednesday night in Derry, two days before the new League of Ireland Premier Division season is due to get underway.

Derry are away to Dundalk on the opening weekend, and like most League of Ireland players around the country, the bulk of their first team squad are at home taking it easy ahead of the big kick-off. 

Yet Ciaron Harkin and Jamie McDonagh are kitted out in their club tracksuits, gearing up for a training session.

Both are slightly nervous about how the next hour or so will play out.

First a quick warm-up to get the blood pumping.

The group then move on to some passing drills to get their touch going.

Then the bowling pins come out, and the real fun starts.

This is the first time Harkin and McDonagh have helped out at Trojans YCG’s training for visually impaired kids, but already they know it won’t be the last.

“The young ones, they see Derry City players coming in and they were all buzzing with us coming in to help them with drills and show them [a few things],” says Harkin.

“There was about 10 of them there and they all seemed to enjoy it. It was great for me and Jamie to do it with them. The team they are playing for, it’s obviously not competitive but it’s just good for them to be able to enjoy it and to give them that option to play some sport.  

“They have to play mostly non-contact stuff, just trying to practice their passing and things like that. Then we had a normal game at the end with a wee bit of contact but we try keep it more towards the non-contact side of things. It’s mainly about getting them warmed-up and then doing a few wee fun games.”

It’s just one example of the many ways in which League of Ireland clubs interact with their local communities. 

Few do as much as Bohemian FC, who recently earned international headlines after launching a new shirt emblazoned with the message ‘Refugees Welcome’ in place of a sponsor.

Yet the good work being done by Bohemians stretches far deeper into the local community.

Director of Commercial and Marketing at the club, Daniel Lambert, is just out of the latest in a long line of interviews about the new away jersey when asked to detail some of the work currently being done by the Bohemian Foundation.

He pauses for a moment, perhaps wondering where to begin.

“We do a lot of work in Mountjoy Prison,” Lambert begins.

“We provide coaching in there and play games with prisoners, and the idea is that when guys come out of prison they have a skill and a passion that they can maybe get involved in coaching, and you lower the re-offending level, which has been proven. So that’s one area. 

“We do a lot of work with older people. Things like walking football, mainly men at risk of loneliness and social isolation.  

“We do other work with people that have early on-set Alzheimers. 

While this work doesn’t command the same attention as a message on a new shirt – which has so far been shipped to over 40 countries – it is all treated with the same level of enthusiasm.

Crucially, the players are always happy to buy in. 

“I remember chatting to Oscar Brennan, who moved from Shelbourne, and I think he found that he was getting more from it [volunteer work] then the people he was going in to help,” Lambert says.

“That’s a common thing you hear back.”

At just 24, Derry midfielder Harkin is already an old hand at working with young players.

“I work with the Ryan McBride Foundation and coach the young ones,” Harkin says.

“I do camps and go into schools and things like that. I also coach for the Trojans U12s team. Trojans is a youth team in Derry and they’re the team that I grew up playing for for 12 years underage.

“I do enjoy working with the younger ones and coaching. I saw that they were bringing out this visually impaired team [and wanted to get involved].”

Emma Friel, who looks after community initiatives for Derry, explains that that enthusiasm is evident right across the squad.

“There isn’t a player on the team who has shown any sign of not wanting to be involved. It’s fabulous to see. When I get a community question coming in, I can fill anything that’s required really, and that’s down to the boys [in the squad].

“In fact, sometimes, depending on the schedule, I’ve literally had to say to our players that we’ve got enough of you going and a few will have to back off.”

Rolling up your sleeves is also part of the package at Bohemians.

“What has been most heart-warming the last few years has been a new player comes to the club, and it may be a player who has just come from the underage set-up or someone who has come from another club, and this is new to them,” Lambert explains.

“There might be a little bit of apprehension, it’s something a bit unknown, but players respond so well to this stuff. You call a player and ask them to go and do something for the foundation, which isn’t linked to them being a footballer, and you find really quickly that they all really enjoy it and they get a lot from it too.”

Like Bohemians, Derry are involved in a number of initiatives across the city. 

“We go out into the community and try and get people involved in sport,” Friel continues.

“We’re very much about about promoting sports and facilities in Derry, and partnering with people like the visually impaired.

“So our boys are pretty good at getting out there. You can imagine how manic it is at this time of the year but we’ve already got a few other things lined up for throughout the season.

“It is part of our club’s ethos. And yes, it’s predominantly football, but the visually impaired one in particular I think is a fantastic new group that has been set up. We want to get the message that there is that option there for people. Hopefully, once we’ve built up a few more [players] we’ll get them out at half-time at the Brandywell and they can do a skills shop.

“We also bring groups in that maybe don’t get to see football. We try every couple of games to have a different youth group in, give them some free tickets to come in and see the match and join in.”

The list of different projects happening around the league is increasingly diverse.

Cork City, for example, have safe spaces at Turner’s Cross for children with special needs, and have also held fundraisers for autism and LGBT charities.

First Division side Wexford United are one of a number of clubs who have run training sessions with groups of local children with special needs.

The list goes on and on.

One of the more popular initiatives across the league has seen teams welcome people from Direct Provision Centres to games. 

Last week, Shamrock Rovers announced the return of their Direct Provision Initiative, which sees the club welcome up to 30 residents from the Towers Direct Provision Centre in Clondalkin to all home games at Tallaght Stadium.

The initiative is headed by Matthew Kenny, a life-long Rovers supporter who grouped together a number of members of the legal profession in Dublin to sponsor the programme.

They state their aim as “Wanting to ensure that the new Irish have the same opportunity as the rest of our community to watch Irish football on a Friday night.”

Rovers also welcomed over 1,000 young players as guests of the club to their first home game of the season on Friday night, the 6-0 defeat of Cork City.

Bohemians have been running a similar direct provision initiative for a number of years, and before Christmas, the club held a Christmas party and supplied presents for children who live in direct provision.

“That day… I genuinely left the ground happier than if we had won the league,” Lambert says.

“It was brilliant, and it just felt like ‘This is the right thing to do.’

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“It doesn’t cost anything to do this other than people’s time, and the hours of volunteers, but it leaves you with a sense that… Yes, everyone wants to win a game or win a league or win a cup, but only one team out of 10 or 20 in the two divisions can do that, but everyone can do good things in their area, and you can finish a season knowing that ‘Right, we’re proud of what our club has done this year and we’ll be able to do that again next year,’ and that’s irrespective of how we finish on the pitch.”

Perhaps the main obstacle to such initiatives is the simple fact the league isn’t exactly flush with cash.

With stories of financial difficulty never in short supply, clubs could be forgiven for being more focused on simply looking after their own interests.

Yet for most, there is a bigger picture in play.

“I know it sounds like a textbook response, but it is rewarding for the players,” Friel says.

“I remember asking Ciaron [Harkin] last year what his favourite part of the season was, and he said ‘Oh, going out to the disabled basketball players,’ and I had to say, ‘No, your season on the pitch with Derry!’  

“We are a community club. Football is top-heavy is Derry. It also links the players that have come from outside of Derry with Derry. We’ve got a small amount of foreign guys here, and generally I think it helps them feel more about the city itself. Like Tim [Nilson] is over here now, he’s over from Norway, and I’ll be pushing him out to do something soon.” 

Lambert shares a similar sentiment.

“It comes from the club structure,” he says.

“The club only exists because of the community’s engagement with the club. We’re a members-owned club. If we don’t have any members, the club doesn’t exist, and the club is its members.

“Bohs has always been represented by the community, and if it doesn’t give back to that community, it’s role seems to be a strange one. And I suppose we went through a period around 10 years ago where that sense of responsibility had been lost, and the club found itself very close to going out of existence. So I think the two are as important [as each other]. We can’t exist without the community, and then if we can’t do that, we should be giving as much back to the community as we can. 

“And at the end of it, we talk about cost, it’s more about the people who are willing to put in the work, and they are all volunteers. We have some funding for the Bohemians Foundation but it is a small amount of funding. Almost all the work we do in the area is done by volunteers and the players, the coaching staff and everyone connected to the club.”

That commitment doesn’t go unnoticed.

“I think a lot of what we have done in the community has played a role in the number of season tickets we have now and the number of members,” Lambert adds.

“We’ve been around for 130 years but we now have the highest number of members in our history, by a long shot. There are different reasons for that, it’s hard to quantify exactly, Keith [Long, manager] has done an amazing job on the pitch, qualifying for Europe, but I do think our work in the community has played a part.”

It’s hard to disagree.

When it comes to the importance of the League of Ireland, 90 minutes of football on a Friday night only scratches the surface.

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