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Mayo GAA Academy a work in progress


Academy a work in progress

The Mayo GAA Senior Academy hasn’t gone away you know

MIke Finnerty

EIGHTEEN months after being launched the Mayo GAA Senior Football Development Academy ‘has definitely had to adapt’ but is proving to be both ‘successful’ and ‘challenging’ according to one of its coaches.
The aim of the project when it was launched in October 2013 was to provide a ‘progression path’ for young Mayo footballers between the ages of 19 and 23 to graduate from the county Minor squad to the U-21 set-up and through to the county Senior panel.
The Academy set out to achieve this goal by working regularly with the hand-picked players in the areas of specialised football coaching, strength and conditioning, nutrition, education, psychology and networking.
Billy McNicholas, who also works as Mayo GAA’s Games Manager, has been one of the driving forces behind the Academy since its inception.
Former Mayo footballer, Michael Gavin, and well-known strength and conditioning expert, Martin McIntyre, have also become key ‘mentors’ in the Academy while Noel Connelly also played a prominent part in the first twelve months of the programme before being appointed joint manager of the Mayo senior team.
County under 21 manager, Niall Heffernan, has also taken a ‘hands-on’ role.
There are currently 38 players enlisted in the Senior Academy programme, half of them having graduated from last year’s Mayo Minor squad.
“The Academy has definitely had to adapt since the launch because of the limited contact time with the players,” Billy McNicholas explained to The Mayo News.
“That’s been one of the biggest challenges. At the moment we’re looking at coming together 12 to 14 times per year, whenever we get our hands on the lads really.
“It’s very different to the underage Academy squads because it’s so difficult to get access to the players due to their various college, county and club commitments. And the lads’ clubs will always come first.
“One of the most important aspects of the Academy is it means that these players are in the system, they’re being monitored. In the past, once they had finished up playing minor they were gone,” he added.
“Niall Heffernan was very hands-on over the last two years and really bought into it. That ‘buy in’ from the U-21 manager was great. It really allowed the lads in the Academy to see that there was something to aim for, the promise of games and getting into an under 21 squad.
Niall saw the value in what was being done and really drove it on.”
As well as skills assessment and monitored strength and conditioning programmes, the Academy players have also attended a number of career open days and taken part in a cookery class run by Seán Julian of Treanlaur Catering, while Mayo senior coach, Donie Buckley, will also be taking a training field session with the group later this summer.
Billy McNicholas believes that the fruits of the labour are starting to be seen now.
“The most tangible improvements are obviously the physical conditioning of the players and their skills which are being tested and assessed regularly. We would have worked off the same testing programes that were being used by the Mayo senior team,” he explained.
“There’s also a big emphasis on their lifestyles, how they conduct themselves, their diet, nutrition etc. Last year we had the guys in for a cookery class with Seán Julian, just to show them how to prepare proper meals, especially when they start living away from home, and we also had a talk from the Mayo senior team dietician. In terms of games and actual match practice together, we play the Mayo minor team from time to time.
“With Noel Connelly now part of the Mayo senior management, it meant that this year was the first time we got the senior and under 21 managers and Academy coaches all sitting down at the one table together. That was a very positive development,” he added.
“Noel’s message to the lads was very clear: they have to work hard at every aspect of their game, and have the desire to succeed.”
The definition of that word, ‘success’, in relation to the Mayo GAA Senior Academy is something that observers have been wondering about since its inception.
Billy McNicholas and the other mentors/coaches have been clear on their objectives from their first meeting with the Academy footballers.
“Success, for me, would be if we can get a number of the group up to the standard required to play at the very top level. Plus, if we can start winning Connacht under 21 championship titles again, That’s a must. And ‘success’ would also be if we can improve all of the lads as individuals, on and off the field.
“The reality is that a small number of the Academy group will go on to play senior inter-county championship football for Mayo,” he continued.
“What I’ve been preaching is that we really have to focus on the elite ten or twelve footballers. Anything that’s done in an Academy structure prepares a player for the next level.
“Every element of an Academy is a building block. This particular one, the senior Academy, is aimed at producing ten or twelve guys that can go on to bolster a Mayo senior panel. It’s up to us to arm them with the tools they need.”

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