LEADING THE WAY Martin McNally pictured with participants in the European Youth Cycle Olympics camp, which was held at Lough Lannagh, Castlebar last weekend. Martin was the camp organiser. Pic: Frank Dolan
ADJUDICATING awards schemes can be a perilous occupation, and invariably, no matter how well the merits of the winner are explained, there will always be someone who feels the award should be given to a different person. However, when the Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council, Cllr Tereasa McGuire, announced her inaugural list of award winners a few weeks ago, there was not one dissenter over the choices. John Mulloy was recognised for his work in bringing art to the community and Michael McGing’s role in helping the under-privileged through his association with the St Vincent de Paul was honoured, while for Martin McNally, his tireless work in coaching young rugby players and cyclists for the past 30 years was finally given the recognition it deserved. Martin was also the recipient of the overall award, an honour that took him totally by surprise and one which also humbled him.
“I couldn’t believe it and I was shocked. It was a huge honour for me but, to be honest, I felt the recognition was also for all those other people like me who work voluntarily in sport. In my own mind, I was collecting it for them as much as I was collecting it for myself,’’ he said.
Martin never set out to be a coach; it just sort of happened. A rugby-playing career was brought to a premature end with a knee injury and he just stumbled into coaching. He helped set up the first ever Under-15 team in the town and in 1974 he coached them to the Connacht Cup. “On the same day the junior team won the cup so it was a great double for the club,’’ he recalls.
As he reflects on his years coaching rugby, the names just trip off the tongue. Between 1980 and 1985 the club won everything it could win at underage level in the province when an exceptionally talented group of young players emerged. “Fellows like Kevin Cusack, Peter Calvey, Ger Duffy, ‘Mouser’ Malone, they were brilliant players and we won the lot. Then over the years we had guys like Danny O’Toole, Pat Staunton, Eddie Walsh, John Paul Walsh, James Gill and Paul Jennings who were all superb footballers and still are, which is the great thing,’’ he said.
Cycling, probably inspired by the great Mickey Palmer, was always the other constant in his life. He can remember going for spins with John Walsh, Joe Walsh, Ray and Michael Kennedy and Pat Grady. Over the years, Westport Cycling Club has evolved into the Covey Wheelers and Martin plays a pivotal role in coaching the young racers in the club. The sight of a group of cyclists gathering outside his home on the Quay Road is one of the most common in Westport and has been for many yeas.
Now, cycling is dominating and rugby is taking a back seat. “I still do the medical bag at games but I just don’t have the time to coach a team anymore. The cycling season will start next month and for six months we’ll be going flat out to events all over the country,’’ he said.
He has a vision for sport that stretches way beyond coaching young rugby players or cyclists. A couple of years ago, along with the members of the Covey Wheelers club, he prepared a document for distribution among second level schools that highlighted the benefits of healthy eating and healthy exercise. It was at the height of the obesity debate and the dramatic fall-off in exercise among young people, and the club felt that it had a role to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, it never really took off but there is a determination still there to revisit the project and get the entire thing up and running.
Last week, Martin was a guest at the civic reception accorded to Westport RFC by the local Town Council. While there he talked to John Cox about the huge amount of sporting talent that exists in the area and the voluntary input that underpins it all. He told John about a man he has come to know in Belgium where Sean Kelly used to live and where Martin visits every year for a summer cycling school. This man acts as the guide for the week for the Irish visitors, but his real job is a representative for sporting associations on the local council, or whatever a county council is called in Belgium.
“Here in Ireland we talk a lot about taking sport seriously but we don’t really when it comes down to it. If we want our cyclists to race on a proper track, we have to leave the country and the nearest place is Newport in Wales. In Belgium, this man is elected by the public to be a voice for sport where the real decisions are taken and that is why those countries are so far ahead of us in terms of facilities and attitudes to sport. Can you imagine, if the sporting public got behind a candidate or candidates in local elections here to get someone elected? He or she would walk in, no doubt about it. That’s the direction we have to go in if we’re going to be serious about our sport, otherwise we’ll continue to plod along and the odd exceptional athlete will come along and paper over all the cracks that exist,’’ he said.
He’s still ambitious – but they are not personal goals he has in sight. He thinks young Sean Carolan from Fahy is an exceptionally talented young cyclist and he believes that he has what it takes to represent his country at the European Youth Olympics later this year. He also wants the Covey Wheelers to attract more racers to their ranks. “We have plenty of people who want to tour and go for spins, and that’s fine, but I’d like to see more racing. I suppose my big ambition would be for the club to expand and for its members to fulfil their potential. There’s nothing more satisfying for someone involved in coaching than when they see their protégé get to the level that they are capable of getting to. That makes it all worthwhile.’’