When Carrigaline United were named Club of the Year at the FAI’s Festival of Football in Kilkenny last Friday night, chairman Willie Walsh was, he admits, “emotionally ambushed” and, as a result, “stuck for words”.
If so, that was out of character, for Walsh speaks with eloquence about the County Cork club and what it was he likes to think the FAI were recognising in bestowing the national accolade: not just success on the pitch but achievements in governance, coach education, player development, and social inclusion.
“It was an incredible achievement and we were ecstatic but it’s not about me or any of us who were up there, it’s essentially about the club and Carrigaline itself,” says Walsh. “We really see ourselves as a community-based club. We’re probably the closest model to the GAA as we can get.
“Football for all has always been our philosophy since we started the club, from before the FAI even began using the phrase. Because what we believe is that every child who wants to has the right to play football.”
Ironically, Carrigaline United were in the headlines for very different reasons earlier this year when a teenage player lost a court case against the club for post-traumatic stress having alleged he’d been unfairly dropped from his team. Walsh admits that the high profile case represented “a challenge” but, with Carrigaline cleared of any wrongdoing, it was one from which the club emerged with its reputation intact.
Summing up the ethos of the club, he says: “It’s always about the child. The principle is always: how do you help the children become the best version of themselves? That’s the whole object of the exercise. As adults, we’ve had our day and our opportunity and it’s for us now to give back our talents to somebody else.
“One of the hazards is that when the child is potentially very good sometimes the parents can be quite awkward around all of that. They can sometimes love their kids too much. It’s trying to balance that, really, by making sure that the character is developed as much as the potential.
“The thing is, I’ve no experience of fear working but I’ve loads of experience of love working. That doesn’t mean that we all go around hugging each other but it means that we all show respect to each other.”
Carrigaline is a busy club comprising three adult teams, seven youth teams, 30 underage boys and seven underage girls sides, as well as an academy, including a Football For All Section, catering for 450 children every Saturday from September to June. Space is limited — the club has one Astroturf pitch and access to two grass pitches — so further development of their facilities is one of the goals they hope to achieve by their golden anniversary in 2022.
Carrigaline can also claim some part in the success of Cork City this season, with Shane Griffin the most prominent of the club’s graduates to turn out for the league leaders. (The traffic has been both ways, incidentally: former City striker Denis Behan currently manages the Carrigaline Munster Senior League team). And when, in less happy times for football on Leeside, City flirted with extinction seven years ago, Carrigaline were there to lend a helping hand.
“They were at rock bottom, really, and we made the pitches available to them to train on,” Walsh confirms. “We all go through different parts of life. Sometimes you’re down and sometimes you’re up and if we can be there for each other, that’s all that matters.”
It all fits with Willie Walsh’s vision of the club as “a human entity rather than a corporate entity,” leading the chairman of Ireland’s club of the year 2017 to conclude: “For us, it’s important that people are happy to live in Carrigaline, happy to work in Carrigaline and happy to play in Carrigaline.”
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