Connacht schools football: Charlie Harrison leading Summerhill’s resurgence
Sligo school have competed in four of the last six provincial senior ‘A’ finals
Charlie Harrison believes the progress of Summerhill College and the Sligo underage teams will translate into the county’s senior team. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
For the first time ever this year two Sligo schools contested a senior ‘A’ colleges final. Last year a Sligo minor team won the Connacht league for the first time in over 30 years, and reached a first championship final since 1998. It’s a promising time for football in the Yeats County and “it’s not happening by accident”.
At the centre of this resurgence has been All Star Charlie Harrison. Having worked for four years as Sligo’s GAA development officer he oversaw Summerhill College’s first Connacht senior A championship final appearance in 25 years in 2010 and the progression of last year’s minor team from an Under-14 development squad. Harrison understands the symbiotic nature of the two competitions.
“We absolutely want to win in Sligo, but it’s not all about winning now,” explained the 32-year-old defender. “It’s about development and that would be the philosophy now in the county. We try and watch that turnover of players and get as many players as possible to keep playing the game at the highest level that they can. So once they go to Summerhill and St Attracta’s we’re making sure that they play ‘A’ which is very important for us as a county - and hopefully that’ll translate into minor and then crucially senior teams.”
Earlier this week Summerhill put together back-to-back league triumphs after beating St Attracta’s of Tubbercurry, in that maiden all-Sligo final. It’s been a steady progression for the province’s third most successful school - not long before Harrison’s involvement they had somehow dropped down to the B ranks.
“With Summerhill it was difficult because they haven’t won a senior title since ‘85 and the soccer was so big. They’d won numerous All-Irelands in soccer while I was actually a student there. But it’s kind of turned a little bit where Gaelic became, well not the priority sport but it was at least level with soccer.
“But we just took a whole different approach that hadn’t been taken in Sligo before. We did a lot of research, from other counties. The likes of Dublin and up north especially. That success doesn’t come by accident - you have to invest time. And you can’t be worrying about winning, and the end of the day that’s what we wanted to do, but we wanted to develop the player and the person.”
Summerhill, Harrison’s former school, have now competed in four of the last six provincial championship finals, while St Attracta’s were runners-up in the 2014 championship themselves.
“I would have worked with the Summerhill teams and we were always trying to say ‘Here, listen lads there’s a great tradition in this school going way back’. And that would be something that I’d have wanted to emphasise and we wanted to get Summerhill back to where it belonged because for years there we weren’t even competing in the ‘A’ championship. But I suppose in the last 10 years it’s been all ‘A’ again and that’s down to the coaching and games work that’s going on in Sligo, and down to the teachers as well. There’s a huge amount of effort that goes in there, and that was maybe one of the biggest turning points - that the school really backed it.”
Last year the Sligo minor team reached the Connacht final, losing out in a replay to Galway, having already captured the league title. Harrison has recently taken up a new role working out of Croke Park as national Cúl Camps coordinator, but his work in changing the underage structures in the county continues.
“The difference came when we took over, when that minor team were Under-14. Liam Óg Gormley and myself. Liam Óg is the games manager in Sligo - we decided to try and pick a manager that would take them over as a group at Under-14 and then stay with them through Under-15, Under-16, Under-17 and then hope that they’d take them then as the minor manger. So it was hoped that they’d invest a lot of time and effort into the group.
“David Cummins is the current Sligo minor manager, he followed that same template and was with that team the whole way up too. It’s not by accident that these teams are becoming strong. There’s expertise behind them. This year they’ve Sean Davey in, who is an ex-Sligo player and that was a strategy as well.
“We didn’t really go in with the kind of a mindset of creating a style, we kind of wanted to see what we had at our disposal and then work to the best of their ability. We had development at the forefront of our minds through the whole stage. We were the first Sligo team that had two squads entered into competitions like the Ted Webb and stuff like that. That’s nearly 60 players you’d have involved where the years previous to that you’d only have 30, so we were trying to keep as many of the lads on board. The not so good player at 13 might be the excellent player at minor or even after that.”
Central to the improvement of the county underage teams has been the dual work that Harrison has put into the Sligo schools, work which goes hand in hand with the county team he says.
“We definitely had in our minds to win a minor title, but we wanted to bring a lot of different things. So we got to know them very well and I suppose Aidan Rooney (last year’s minor manager) got to know the players very well because he immersed himself in that role for what five or six years.
“We wanted to bring in a whole lifestyle approach into it as well. So we were very conscious of the lads’ studies we wanted to make sure that all aspects of their lives like relationships and their family and their school life was good, rather than just worrying about them turning up at the pitch on a training day or a match day.
“We were very conscious of schools - we wanted Summerhill and St Attracta’s competing at the very highest level and it was handy at the time because I was involved with Summerhill. So I knew what the lads were at during the week, we didn’t want to overload them. The training was conducive to each other, so we weren’t going off two different plans, there was just one plan.”
Summerhill trail only St Jarlath’s of Tuam and St Mary’s of Galway in the Connacht senior roll of honour with seven titles. This year the latter are competing in the senior 'B' championship, a sign of the yo-yoing culture of the Connacht championship.
St Colman’s, Claremorris manager Vinnie Walsh is one of many who feels that despite the progress of school’s football in the province of late, if the 14 year wait since St Jarlath's last won the Hogan Cup is to come to an end - other counties will need to follow Sligo’s structure of county boards and schools working in sync “to make goals for 'A' schools”.
Walsh wants “to get 10 teams up into 'A' football with no moving up and down through the grades unless the school is really struggling in the top grade.” Rather than the current situation where a majority of schools rotate through the grades based on their capacity to win silverware.
Harrison can understand the temptation for schools to drop a division when their squad mightn’t be as strong as in previous years, but he places a greater emphasis on competing at 'A' level than perhaps winning at the lower tiers.
“Naturally you have lads leaving every year - and it’s hard to know what you will have the next year. But I think it’s imperative that if we want to compete at that minor level, then our two biggest schools in the county need - whether they can win it or not it’s important that they are competing. You’ve less time on the ball, and it’s up at that championship pace and you get used to playing at that level. Whereas the 'B' level you’ve more time on the ball and it's such a big step up then after school’s football.”