‘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.