Colin O'Brien filling the gap year with learning experiences

From his home in Cork, Ireland U17 Head Coach Colin O’Brien is surveying a landscape bereft of football and empathising with all those suffering acute withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the game they love.
Colin O'Brien filling the gap year with learning experiences

22 October 2019; Republic of Ireland Under-17 head coach Colin O'Brien pictured at Turners Cross in Cork ahead of his side's three UEFA European Championship Qualifying Round games against Andorra on November 12, Montenegro on November 15, and Israel on November 18. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
22 October 2019; Republic of Ireland Under-17 head coach Colin O'Brien pictured at Turners Cross in Cork ahead of his side's three UEFA European Championship Qualifying Round games against Andorra on November 12, Montenegro on November 15, and Israel on November 18. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

“Firstly, I think it’s OK to feel lost, I’m certainly saying that to any players or coaches who are fed up.”

From his home in Cork, Ireland U17 Head Coach Colin O’Brien is surveying a landscape bereft of football and empathising with all those suffering acute withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the game they love.

“I think it’s a feeling we all have at the moment,” he continues. “But what I think is really encouraging, whether it’s the grassroots skills programme the FAI have set up or what so many clubs are doing at all levels of the game, is to see people being so proactive online. I know players must be really frustrated at the moment without the normal contact but there’s always an opportunity to develop self-discipline, whether it’s working on conditioning or skills or whatever task the coach gives them.”

But how can the coach continue to be coached at this most challenging of times? It’s precisely with a view to supporting the game’s teachers that the FAI Coaching Department is currently rolling out a series of weekly ‘webinars’ in which specialised topics are addressed by Coach Education Tutors and underage international managers Paul Osam, Tom Mohan, Tom O'Connor, Jim Crawford, Jason Donohoe and former Cork City man, O’Brien.

“Basically it’s just to be keep engaged with the coaching community,” Colin explains, “and it’s open to any coach at any level, whether it be people at grassroots or those involved in the UEFA courses. With normal contact gone, the idea is to help give them more insight and hopefully increase their appetite for when they do get back into the game.”

O’Brien’s contribution, which will be available through FAI TV on May 30th, will focus in large part on his squad’s preparations for last year’s U17 European Championship Finals, for which Ireland — completing a notable third appearance on the bounce in the elite tournament — had qualified as hosts.

“For myself and our staff it was our third time preparing for the finals so some of it will be looking at differences from the previous years, in particular giving some insights into being the host nation,” he says. “The previous years you would have had to come through the qualifying campaign so being hosts presented a different challenge. It’s a privileged position to be hosting a tournament so, of course, you take it and run with it but, at the same time, from a coaching perspective there’s the challenge of how to replicate competitive qualifying. Hopefully that will be something people will find interesting.

One of the key things we’ll also be looking at is how we transferred some of our training into the opening game, which is always a challenge for any coach at any level. Our time with the players is very precious so each training session would have a particular function and purpose. So we’ll give some visual examples of what we did in training and show where they were executed in the game itself.

Although Ireland went unbeaten in the finals, three successive 1-1 draws — against Greece, the Czech Republic and Belgium — weren’t enough to see them through to the knockout stage. But, according to Colin, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t another hugely valuable lesson in the higher education of players who, at that transitional age level, were experiencing competitive international tournament football for the first time.

“From the coaching perspective, the staff that would have been involved and the players who went through it, it’s all about preparing them for international football,” he says. “So while we didn’t get out of the group it was rewarding for us to see how the players had developed and what they had learned from when they first came in. That developmental process is always there in players who have the desire and ambition to become full-time players. Even when you hear senior, professional players speak, they’re always talking about improving.

“But at that U17 age group, in particular, they’re at a real key development stage. The aim of the game is to win, yes, but my outlook is always that the players’ development, on and off the pitch, goes hand in hand with that. For example, how players handle themselves when they don’t win a game is something you have to observe as well. Because this is a new pressure for them: U17s is the first age group where players can play for their country in European competitions and that’s a huge experience for them.”

All the more reason then to lament the fact that O’Brien’s current crop find themselves marooned in an enforced gap year. The U17 Euros season has effectively been wiped out, the corona virus pandemic having put paid to the elite qualifying round games Ireland were due to play in March, as well as to the finals themselves which had been set to kick off at the end of this month in Estonia.

“That U17 season is over basically,” O’Brien confirms, “and when international football starts back, the majority of that age group will have moved on. It is unfortunate for them but it was the correct decision.”

One silver lining is that UEFA had already made the decision last year to restructure the U19 European Championships, replacing the old qualifying format with a new two-year Nations League-style system, with four rounds of one-venue mini-tournaments, including promotion and relegation, leading to the 2022 finals in Slovakia. An important consequence for the current U17s is that players will begin the new competition while still in the U18 category, which means that for Andy Reid’s Irish U18s, the old schedule of friendlies and invitational appearances for that age-group will be replaced by their participation, in the first round, in a testing group with the Netherlands, Croatia and hosts Turkey, a mini-tournament which is currently planned for November.

“Basically it means that when the U18 season — which the current U17s go to next — kicks in, those games will be meaningful,” O’Brien points out.

So they’ll be playing for something when they restart. And I think that’s a good move.

For Colin O’Brien, who has himself been robbed of what would have been the chance to see if he could claim a remarkable four-in-row Euros qualifications as U17 coach, it’s all about the waiting game now.

“Right now we’re not due to start playing our qualifying games for the next Euros (in Cyprus, in 2021) until October and, like everyone else, we’re watching to see when restrictions will be lifted. Mass gatherings wouldn’t be a huge concern for us but there’s still the travel side and everything else. But the key things would be contact training and returning to play for clubs, so we’re watching that and seeing how things develop.

"The programme is in place and now we’re just waiting for whenever we get the green light.”

Meantime, the coaching ‘webinars’ continue between now and the end of August and will be posted on the FAI Coach Education Twitter page and the FAI TV YouTube page every Saturday.

The full schedule is as follows: Tom Mohan (May 16th), Tom O'Connor (23rd), Colin O’Brien (30th), Jim Crawford (June 6), Jason Donohue (13th), Female Coaching (20th), Performance Analysis (27th), Session Planning (July 4th), UEFA Coach Education (11th), Coach Education Pathway 2021-25 (18th), Ruud Dokter (25th), Football Fitness (August 1st), Goalkeeping (8th), Futsal (15th), Football For All (22nd) and Grassroots Part 11 (29th).

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