DERRY GAA: The 'Ard work paying off for St. Mary's

Growing underage numbers at St. Mary's, Ardmore have given reason for optimism in a difficult period for the Derry club
Growing underage numbers at St. Mary's, Ardmore have given reason for optimism in a difficult period for the Derry club

Never write off Ardmore.

It’s a lesson I learned almost a decade ago, 2010 to be precise, in O’Neill’s Park.

St Mary's Ardmore have seen a sharp rise in underage numbers over the past five years.

St Mary's Ardmore have seen a sharp rise in underage numbers over the past five years.

The St. Mary’s were considered cannon fodder for Noel McFeely’s undefeated Limavady Wolfhounds team who tore through Derry’s Junior Division that year. The Championship looked a formality, certainly in my eyes, with my semi-final report already half written in my head before starting the short journey to Claudy.

Except Ardmore don’t do surrender and by the time both myself and the Wolfhounds realised it, Ardmore were well on their way to the biggest championship upset in the county that year thanks to a 1-09 to 1-08 victory.

They went on to lift the Joe Brolly Cup too with another against the odds victory over Doire Trasna, adding another title in 2013, victories which sit in marked contrast to the current plight of the club’s senior team.

In a week that has seen the sad loss of Ogra Colmcille; dwindling numbers, emigration and economic deprivation remain key factors threatening clubs - especially rural clubs - up and down the country and Ardmore have suffered more than most.

Still, there’s no sign of surrender as Chairman, senior manager and (still) player, William McLaughlin revealed reason for some long overdue optimism in the form of the club’s blossoming underage set-up.

“When you look at Ogra, that has to be a wake-up call to us,” explained McLaughlin, an Ardmore clubman for almost every one of his 42 years during which time he has filled every role possible for St. Mary’s.

“Had someone asked two or three years ago which club in Derry was most likely to fold, most people would have pointed the finger at Ardmore. In fact I’ve been approached three or four times in the recent past by people claiming to have heard Ardmore had folded but that just makes me more determined to keep the club going.”

Drastic times have called for drastic measures and it is some members of that 2010 team who are still upsetting odds by ensuring the Ardmore senior team continue to field.

“I have graced the field four or five times myself this season and I’m not even the oldest,” adds McLaughlin who combines running his family’s Pre-cast Concrete business with his various club duties.

“Gerard Storey has played every match at 44. Al McLaughlin is 38 and he’s still our main forward. Kevin Robinson has played and he’s in his 40s. My brother, Peter, should be back for the Championship this week and he’s almost 40, James Cruickshank is another. We would have a fairly good Over 35s team!”

McLaughlin has seen most things during his time with the club, the good and the bad, but he’s in little doubt that the current climate, in which the club is operating without an Under 14, 16 or minor team, is the most difficult period Ardmore has ever faced but he has noticed change.

“Over the past two or three years, it’s been heart warming to see parents getting involved in the club again, parents who are maybe not from a GAA background. They are staying with their children, getting involved with the coaching and if they can’t coach, they’ll clean changing rooms, make tea or help at meetings. That is a big, big plus.

“Before, there were times when we were being used as a baby-sitting service with kids being dropped off and then picked up an hour later but that’s changing and it’s crucial it does.

“When we started back in the 80s, Ardmore were never the best team, and we took a few heavy beatings, but there was always good numbers. The guys were learning their trade back then but this past three or four years, this has been the hardest struggle I’ve ever seen at the club though our silver lining is the underage system which has picked up superbly again. That keeps you going.”

Step forward Club Coaching/Children’s Officer, Annette McCarron. Another dyed in the wool Ardmore native (her dad, Joe Quinn, was Club Secretary for more then 20 years), Annette has been a crucial cog in kick-starting the club’s underage programme which is beginning to bear fruit and which holds its future in its hands.

Annette has established crucial links with the club’s only feeder school, Glendermott Primary, established indoor winter training programmes and made the club, and the school, a fixture once again at the various ‘Go Games’ and blitzes around north Derry.

The former Ardmore Ladies players also helped establish the club’s own Cul Camp which the club fundraise for in order to offset the cost for kids, It’s a camp which last year saw 83 kids enrolled and is on course for more excellent numbers on its August 19th start date this year.

“Ten years ago we tried to get parents more involved through a programme called ‘Gaelic Start’,” reveals Annette whose two sons, Brenan and Daithi, are both in the underage programmes.

“It didn’t work and the secret to any club is to get parents involved. They are your club community.

“However, about five years ago, we saw a massive change in terms of youth numbers in Ardmore and with it came a new batch of parents who seemed interested in the club. I opened up opportunities for around 15 parents each year to do their fundamental coaching course because if you give parents the confidence to coach, they stay at the club and contribute. It got new parents involved and was a massive turning point.”

And with new blood galvanising the club, Annette believes things have turned a corner for Ardmore.

“It was crucial to capitalise on those increased numbers and now we have about 99% of Glendermott Primary School coming to the club,” continues Annette, “Compared to other clubs, we have only one small feeder school. It’s a fantastic school but it means our numbers are limited compared to other clubs so we have to maximise what we get from it.

“This is our third year running our own Cul Camp and that was a big one. The first year it attracted about 60 but last year there were 83 children registered, numbers which compare to any club.

“My main priority is putting the club at the heart of the community and it has been hard work. I’m coaching underage for 10 or 12 years but you can now see the hard work paying off.”

The improving numbers could see Ardmore re-introduce their Under 14 team for the 2021 season as they seek to bridge the gap from Under 12 to senior, a gap which has seen young Ardmore players forced to play with, among others, Doire Trasna and Slaughtmanus over recent years.

“The next year or two is going to be make or break for the seniors. In recent years there has been too much of a gap to the seniors. I’m hoping we can change that. We are able to take 20 under 8 players to blitzes at the minute and if we can keep those numbers are they come through the club we can bridge that gap.”

So with Annette ensuring the green shoots of recovery have been sown, it makes it even more imperative that her chairman ensures there is a senior team for the future players of Ardmore to graduate into.

“We currently have a good core of senior players like Richie McGrotty, Anthony Hargan, Christopher Gormley, Cahir O’Kane, Leonard Quinn - boys like that,” adds McLaughlin who also revealed the club is starting Ulster GAA’s Club Maith accreditation programme.

“I’d say if we can keep the thing going another four years we should be flushed with numbers again and the future can be bright.”

Remember, never write off Ardmore.