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Encouraging players to grow

Eight progressive years from local development centre

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A Wexford Development Centre group with Chesterfield F.C. Academy manager Neil Cluxton

A Wexford Development Centre group with Chesterfield F.C. Academy manager Neil Cluxton

A Wexford Development Centre group with Chesterfield F.C. Academy manager Neil Cluxton

For the past eight years, young footballers from the Model county have been given the opportunity to hone their skills, both here and across the Irish Sea, thanks to the tireless work of the Wexford Development Centre.

The seeds were sown for the centre, which was the brainchild of 'Tucker' O'Brien, who is well known in local soccer circles, and Leisuremax owner Aileen O'Connor, with camps at Bree United's pitch in 2012.

Athletics coach Jimmy O'Neill and Aaron O'Callaghan, head co-ordinator of sessions and planner for the 24-week programme, soon came on board, while Jim Maher of sponsors the Riverside Park Hotel was also involved.

They quickly forged a close association with Sheffield Wednesday, but when academy head coach John Williams moved from the Owls to Rotherham United two years ago, the Wexford Development Centre followed suit.

Williams reaffirmed his, and Rotherham's, commitment to the mutually beneficial partnership and is delighted to be able to continue to impart his knowledge to promising young Wexford players.

'It's a very successful collaboration between the club and the centre. It gives the children an opportunity to develop their football skills in a safe environment and also gives them important life skills,' he said.

'The Academy are very proud to have this partnership with the centre and the qualified staff that coach the children. The whole experience covers all player development areas. The visits the children make over to the club have been very successful with great experiences against other academies and some players having trials at the club. We monitor the centre and the children by regular coaching visits to the centre,' he said.

The participants get the opportunity to travel to England each year to play games at Rotherham Academy, while also enjoying sessions at Derby County and Chesterfield F.C., giving all age groups the chance to pit their wits against elite players.

Since the founding of the centre, a number of players have progressed to League of Ireland outfits and Wexford county sides, while three academy members have recently received full scholarships from Chesterfield F.C.

Chesterfield Academy manager Neil Cluxton, who has been doing sessions with the centre for the past six years, has rewarded Leigh Whelan and Kallan Murphy with scholarships, while another player, Ben Rossiter, is going over for a month in August, but is returning to Ireland to complete his secondary level education.

'Chesterfield Football Club are looking forward to Leigh and Kallan joining us for a season long football/education programme where they will combine full-time training with a sports qualification.

'They will represent the club at both Under-19 and 21 levels and will live in accommodation in the local area. Chesterfield Football Club are hoping that this is the commencement of a strong partnership, giving the Wexford boys an opportunity of a pathway into full-time football,' Cluxton said.

From humble beginnings, with 24 children in attendance, the project has blossomed in the intervening years and now 110 eager young players participate each season, necessitating a move to Shamrock Rovers pitch in Enniscorthy, where they have been based for the past four years.

The ethos of the Wexford centre is to develop young players and encourage improvement, both on and off the pitch, as they work with new coaches and perfect their craft by learning a wide range of skills.

Programme co-ordinator O'Callaghan emphasises the importance of working with young players to improve both the physical and mental aspects of their game. 'The art of developing effective training programmes for children lies in knowing the age appropriate training methodologies that can be introduced at each age group. All our coaches place an emphasis on the technical and mental development of the players, which over the years will allow them step by step to advance into the adult game.

'We use a guided discovery approach to our teaching, where we ask the players the questions to solve the problems they faced during training and matches and their feedback gives our coaches more understanding of how the players were thinking. We encourage players to practice the way they played and play the way they practiced.

'Our small-sided games approach has a purpose and a structure to allow the players make informed decisions on all their football actions. To know how to orientate themselves in space while being aware of other players in and around them. Their improvement over the years gives all the coaches great satisfaction and encouragement.'

A number of different managers and coaches visit the academy throughout the year to watch the players and help with their development, including Richard Hairyes and John Williams from Rotherham United, Cabinteely F.C. manager Pat Devlin, St. Patrick's Athletic goalkeeper Conor Kearns, Gary Webb from Derby County, Chesterfield F.C. Academy manager Neil Cluxton, Cherry Orchard Academy manager Aaron O'Callaghan, and Armagh-based Fiona Mooney, who is a final assessment away from achieving a UEFA 'A' licence.

All of those involved are clearly singing off of the same hymn sheet, putting the growth of individual players at the heart of their thinking, and goalkeeping coach Darren Mac Eochaidh stresses that point.

'A child in the WDC gets full focus, the programme is centred around the young players rather than anyone's ego. The performance development and player character remains the centre focus, even though the programme continues to gain outside interest both at home and across the Irish Sea.

'All coaches have a high level of player education, knowledge and experience within the game yet they remain fairly enclosed. This is because the emphasis and interest is in the child itself. Helping the player to reach their potential while opening up valuable opportunities that others simply just would not get,' he said.

Fiona Mooney said: 'The Rotherham/Wexford Development Centre is a progressive, player centred programme that I am proud to be associated with. The environment created around the players is clearly focused on supporting each individual to thrive in football. With each visit you can clearly see the results of the programme in the improvements in the players who are a pleasure to coach and eager to learn.'

Pat Devlin continued: 'The skills and sessions of the players and how this centre is run is unbelievable. It's all about the player and development.

'What Aileen and 'Tucker' are doing for soccer throughout Wexford is unbelievable. Kids are getting a great opportunity to be better skilled and getting guidance, which is something they will have for the rest of their lives,' he said.

The players have continued to keep active during the Covid-19 pandemic, practising their skills every day via live sessions on social media, which are delivered by Derby County's Gary Webb, under his company umbrella 'Goals Galore', with tutorial videos also on YouTube.

The participants have also had talks as part of a 'speaker series' including former Newcastle United and West Ham goalkeeper Shaka Hislop and ex-Manchester United, Chelsea and England star Paul Parker.

The Wexford Development Centre team is: 'Tucker' O'Brien (head coach/co-ordinator), Aileen O'Connor (head administrator/co-ordinator), Leighton Thomas (administrator), Aaron O'Callaghan (co-ordinator of programme), Jimmy O'Neill (fitness coach), and Darren Mac Eochaidh (head goalkeeping coach).

Online Editors