By Damian Dolan
London GAA must continue to be “creative” in its approach to prevent its 15-18 year-olds being lost to the GAA forever, says departing CDA Lloyd Colfer.
From Camross in Co Wexford, Colfer signs off on 8 March to take up a similar position with Wexford GAA after six and a half years as London CDA.
His remit will be the same as in London, to “get as many young people as possible playing Gaelic Games as possible”, although the landscape will no doubt the rather different.
The 15-18 age group has historically been problematic – a lack of games from U15 upwards leads to many drifting away from the Gaelic Games. Lost to other sports and distractions.
But steps are being taken to address this and ensure London continues to build on the success of its schools programmes, and the work being done in its clubs up to U14 level.
“There’s no easy answer – London GAA needs to be creative,” Colfer told the Irish World.
“We have fantastic structure in place between U6 up to U14, and when the kids go away to Féile we have huge numbers playing. They get lots of games.”
A child playing at U13 could expect between 15-20 games. At U15 and U17, that number could drop to as low as three or five, says Colfer.
To further tackle this, 2019 will see a London GAA U15 11-a-side Development League, to supplement the county league and championship. Games to take place every Saturday over a four-week period.
Last month also saw the launch of ‘Super Games Centre’ – a ‘show up and play’ model – to provide games in February and March at Greenford for boys aged 14-17.
For Colfer, it’s all about providing games to keep the 15-18 age group “engaged” and in the GAA, and through to adult level.
Parnells and St Kiernan’s have already signalled their intent to enter teams at junior level, to give their homegrown youngsters more matches.
“If you can get them through to adulthood, then by and large they’ll keep on playing,” added Colfer, who says “massive strides” have been made in this area.
Not least, by the growing number of homegrown players in the London senior team, led by captain Liam Gavaghan, and Killian and Philip Butler. Welcome role models for the next generation to follow. For Colfer, it’s been “very satisfying” to see.
“These lads went through the system, and kids can ask “if they can do it, why can’t I?’,” said Colfer, who played for London between 2012-15, and won a senior title with Kingdom Kerry Gaels in 2013.
“Often when you see London play now, their best players are its homegrown players. It means an awful to them. They’re representing their home county and the London Irish community.
“To see some of them go on and play for the county team is brilliant.
“There’s plenty more where they came from. It’s not inconceivable that in a few years homegrown players could make up 50 per cent of the panel.
“The amount of homegrown players representing their clubs is also brilliant. Round Towers, TCG, St Clarets, St Kiernans, Tara – they’ve all put a huge amount of time, effort and resources into this, and they’re producing fantastic footballers.”
It’s not blind optimism. Club player registrations in 2018 were the highest they’ve ever been, at just over 1700 children, while last year’s ABC was the biggest in its seven-year history, with more participants and games than ever before.
There was also Féile success for both North and South London, and double All-Britain success for the county’s U15 and U17 teams.
“London GAA is in rude health. It’s just a matter of continuing that good work over the next few years,” said Colfer, who credits the success to the “hard work going on in the clubs”.
He added: “Any development officer is only as good as the people they work with – it’s the people out at the clubs on a Friday evening and a Sunday morning who are doing the fantastic groundwork.”
Arriving in London in 2011, Colfer started off coach coaching GAA in primary schools part-time, before taking over as CDA from Mark Gottsche in September 2012, just one day before the first-ever All-Britain Competition.
Originally scheduled for July, only to be rewashed out, it was re-fixed for September.
“I interviewed on the Friday and then started the next day, with 750 kids down in Greenford, from 60 clubs across Britain,” recalled Colfer.
He’s been involved in the ABC ever since and has seen the annual celebration of underage GAA in Britain go from a one-day tournament solely for GAA clubs to a four-day event encompassing primary and secondary schools, Go Games, girls and boys Gaelic football, and hurling and camogie.
In 2018, there were over 350 games with more than 2200 players taking part.
“The growth has been extensive and it’s been fantastic to be part of it. Ladies football has grown to 350 and hurling to 150 kids – last year we had our first U13 All-Britain hurling final. Before that it was just Go Games,” said Colfer.
The quality on display at the ABC now “wouldn’t be out of place in Kerry, Mayo or Dublin”, he says.
The schools coaching programme – already up and running when Colfer was appointed CDA – continues to thrive.
Nearly 100 teams took part in London’s five Primary School Tournaments last year – the Year 4/5/6 Tournaments, the International Primary Schools Tournament in April and the All-Britain Primary Schools Tournament in July.
After School Clubs and Lunch Time Leagues has further solidified its presence in some schools.
Funnelling those kids into their local GAA clubs continues to be the challenge. Something Colfer says they’re continuing to work “very hard” on.
Colfer has also been encouraged by the increasing number of non-Irish children playing GAA, while 300-400 people have passed through London GAA’s coaching courses over the last few years. That’s produced a positive “knock on effect” on the quality of coaching at club level.
Strides continue to be made and the future does in deed look bright.