Best Sports Club in Ireland runner-up: Killarney Celtic Football for All
When it was founded, in 2013, the Kerry club had just six players. Now it has about 50, and it has changed the lives of children with intellectual, physical and sensory difficulties
Little Miss Messi: Fiana Bradley, Peter O’Donoghue and Conor Warren. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
Killarney Celtic Football for All: Leanne and Eva Woods at the club. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
When the judges sat down to choose the winner of the Irish Times Best Sports Club in Ireland competition, one club kept popping up. Killarney Celtic Football for All didn’t win outright, but it has clinched the runner-up prize.
The club is just three years old, but its excellent organisation, effect on the community and obvious need for funding was enough to sway the judges to award it the second prize of €1,000, provided by the National Dairy Council, which has sponsored the competition.
The club caters for children with intellectual, physical or sensory difficulties. Players’ disabilities range from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome, autism, fragile X syndrome, dyspraxia, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory integration processing disorder and hypermobility syndrome.
There were just six players when it was founded, by Jane O’Donoghue and Amelia Tucker, in 2013, but today, on my visit to Celtic Park on the outskirts of Killarney, there are about 50 players of varying ages and ability. Parents looking on from outside the clubhouse say that soccer is the simplest game for their children, given their needs. To accentuate the development of skills, they don’t even keep score – a rule they share with elite underage teams in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.
Many of the players find life with their peers challenging yet feel at home on a football pitch with the right coaching. Here they are free and full of enjoyment – and sometimes capable of things thought beyond them. One player, on the autism spectrum, spoke his first words at the age of seven after taking part in club activities.
The coaches divide the players into three groups. The Smurfs – those with the most acute difficulties – are taken into a five-a-side Astroturf area by Claire, a parent of an older player. Helping her are Denise, another parent, and Olive, a special-needs assistant from a local school, along with Karen, Lauren and Amy – older siblings of players. They focus on co-ordination, balance, body strength and group play. With one coach for every four players, the Hoops group focuses on passing, defending, shooting and ball control. It looks fairly similar to most underage teams of that age, although one or two periodically do their own thing.
The FC group contains the most able players, and they concentrate on the rules and positions of soccer and train in social integration. One, nine-year-old Fiana Bradley, is known as the club’s Little Miss Messi. On my visit she cracks in several strikes that would be the envy of any player her age. Yet she has severe learning difficulties and finds it impossible to fulfil her potential outside a Football for All setting.
The one downside of being a Football for All (or FFA) club within a larger organisation is competition for sponsors with the mainstream Killarney Celtic Club, which has the same name but a separate budget.
Like most of their mainstream counterparts, Killarney FFA receives no FAI funding, although it did receive a starter pack of bibs and footballs. Its budget is just four figures – a meagre amount given its intensive coaching, indoor training, need for sensory equipment and long bus journeys to other FFA clubs, which are few and far between. Going on the team bus is crucial to the players’ views of themselves as footballers. “The bus is a big thing for them all right,” O’Donoghue says, laughing. The prize is likely to be put towards buying sensory equipment for the Smurfs team.
Although they have taken part in blitzes in Munster and in Dublin, and have twice played at Turners Cross (most recently during Cork City’s match with Dundalk), their main achievement is seeing the differences in the lives of their members. Playing with the club means that the players can now take part in lunchtime soccer matches at school. As a former sportswriter, I’ve seen my share of clubs in all codes, but none was a preparation for the humbling experience of a Killarney Celtic Football for All training session.
The Irish Times Best Sports Club in Ireland competition is sponsored by the National Dairy Council