Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, Liam McHale and a TV crew were in Kiltimagh on Sunday
SUNDAY morning in Gilmartin Park and, 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the training session, a large crowd of players have gathered outside the dressing room. Out on the field, their temporary manager Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and her mentor Liam McHale are discussing drills to be carried out over the next hour or so.
If you didn’t already realise that something a little unusual is happening, the presence of five men with cameras and microphones would serve as some clue. It’s football training, all right, but not quite as we know it.
Posters dotted in various shop windows alert passers-by to the fact that next Saturday, Kiltimagh will take on Taghmon-Camross from Wexford, managed by former Fine Gael TD Ivan Yates, in the GAA/RTE Celebrity Bainisteoir competition. It’s all part of a TV programme which has seen eight personalities with no football knowledge brought in to manage intermediate club teams throughout the country.
“You’re not from Wexford, are you?” one man asks with a laugh, eyeing this reporter’s notebook. They can’t be too careful about the possibility of spies in their midst. “We’ve had a few sessions with Aoibhinn now,” he continues, once my bona fides is established. “It’s got the lads training earlier anyway, and you’ve one or two here who haven’t seen a football field for years!”
Kiltimagh is one of the few towns in the west of Ireland with a ‘fun park’, but Gilmartin Park certainly doesn’t fit into that category today. Having gathered the players in a circle, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin lays down the law. “It’s six days to go to the game so no messing – it’s going to be very intense,” she promises. “We’ll start off with a full lap of the two pitches.”
Having been denied the intermediate title at the death by Ballintubber last year, the novelty of TV cameras and famous faces may help Kiltimagh fight ‘difficult second album syndrome’ in 2008. Many clubs introduce a new voice in the camp to keep things fresh – it’s just unusual that the new voice would belong to a former Rose of Tralee. So what has it been like stepping into Big Tom Byrne’s shoes?
“At the start, I was looking forward to it, and then when I realised how much work was going to be involved, I did get very nervous,” she told The Mayo News afterwards. “It is daunting to go in front of a gang of lads. They know that you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re trying to shout at them! But we’re getting on well. The lads are fantastic.”
They gather in a circle to do stretches, and the watching John McNicholas is called down for a quick conference with Ní Shúilleabháin and McHale. “John, if you want to go home, go home,” she tells him afterwards, and the player’s ready agreement draws mildly resentful laughter before a call for ‘good, hard graft’ is heeded.
Next is a three-on-one defending exercise – Gaelic football’s answer to piggy-in-the-middle – before the heavens open briefly. The guys from Animo Television have already seen all kinds of weather on their trips west – rain, snow and fog. The players have more than the weather to contend with. Asked by one of the crew if he’s all right, a grimacing Brian Cunningham is honest enough to admit: “Not really!” But the the 20 press-ups which the losing side must do after each session of ‘backs and forwards’ are carried out without much grumbling.
There are laughs when it’s suggested the goalkeeper should do 40 press-ups (“he lost both times!”), and a questionably ‘fisted’ point prompts sarcastic encouragement (“Great throw, Keith!”) But the intent is serious. Liam McHale, whose mentoring role means he’s allowed to advise the manager but not interact with the players directly, likes what he sees.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with the Kiltimagh lads and with Aoibhinn,” he commented afterwards as soup and bread rolls were dished out. “They’re a team that wants to go places. They lost the county final last year and I’m sure they’d be hoping to go one better this year. I think this is a good way to have them out training at this time of the year. It’s a good attraction for them, and I’m sure they’re looking forward to the game on Saturday.”
‘Celebrity Bainisteoir’ has been granted the ‘You’re A Star’ slot at on RTÉ One at 6.30pm on Sunday nights, and the first of eight shows will go out on March 23. Gerald Kean, Glenda Gilson, Nell McCafferty, Jon Kenny, Mary O’Rourke and TV presenter Baz Ashmawy are joining Ní Shúilleabháin and Yates in the spotlight, and the Carnacon woman has enjoyed the experience so far.
“The lads are great, very dedicated and very disciplined. Generally, I wouldn’t be a fan of reality television, but it’s community-based and about GAA games, so I liked the idea of it. Today was a good training session so I’ll just keep the fingers crossed now and have a positive attitude. We’re hoping to get good support here on Saturday.”
CELEBRITY BAINISTEOIR COMPETITION
KILTIMAGH v TAGHMON CAMROSS (WEXFORD)
SATURDAY, MARCH 1 AT 1PM
GILMARTIN PARK, KILTIMAGH
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