Paddy Purcell, Owen McCarthy, Eoin O’Brien and Stephen Austin. Photograph: Joe Buckley

THEY SOLDIERED alongside each other on the field for seven years, they are in constant communication and their ability to finish each other’s sentences could see Paddy Purcell and Eoin O’Brien labelled as the unofficial married couple of Newmarket Celtic.

Following the conclusion of last season where Newmarket came up agonisingly short in their bid to retain Premier Division and Clare Cup titles, Mark O’Malley brought an end to his tenure which included him and Donal Magee guiding the club to win back to back league and cup titles.

Their departure and the juncture the team had reached meant that the appointment key officers in the club like Chairman Jody Halpin, secretary Grainne Hayes and PRO Liam Murphy would make was going to have a lasting effect.

To fill the void, they turned to someone who has been described as one of the club’s greatest signings, former League of Ireland great, Paddy Purcell. This prompted the former Limerick FC to call time on his playing career. The decision to become manager was one he took weeks to mull over but he was swayed at the prospect of treating it as a transition and continuing to blood new players.

Paddy admitted, “I was definitely ready to hang up the boots, you always want to play as long as you can but I was at the stage where I was ready to hang up the boots and give something else a go. I also thought this would be a good transition from playing as opposed to stopping dead and not being involved, I’ve been involved in playing men’s football for twenty seven years, to go from doing that to not being involved was something I thought would not be the right thing to do. Talking to a few lads and Claire at home, taking the position was viewed as a good idea”.

Adding Eoin O’Brien to his setup and securing the return of the highly-rated Stephen Austin as coach was top of his agenda. “When you’re doing anything like this you need people who are committed, who you can rely on and trust, having played with football for years and knowing him from back with Limerick and those circles, he would be first on your team sheet so if you have someone of that calibre on your team sheet of course he is going to be one of the lads you would want around you from a management perspective. At the start of the season, Eoin’s role was planned to be more temporary because he hoped to be back from injury, it wasn’t planned to be a full-time thing, for me it was brilliant to have that support even though it was on a temporary basis”.

O’Brien did have doubts about joining a management where he would be dealing with so many of his close friends and up until months prior, his teammates. “It was a hard one to square, I played the first three months of last season, I had a little bit of pain but thought no more of it, I’d been very lucky for fifteen years not to have a serious injury but this was different, we talked with the physio at the tail end of last year about trying to get back but it wasn’t happening, mentally it was very tough. By September, it was easier to put it in the back of my head and focus on my role as a coach to see how you can actually help, I’ve really enjoyed the transition. My background is I’ve done a lot of on-pitch coaching in GAA and rugby before so it wasn’t a massive transition but this was being involved in a team where my peers were still playing”.

Paddy Purcell, Eoin O’Brien and Stephen Austin on the sideline in Tom Steele Park. Photograph: Natasha Barton

An Irish and PE teacher at St Munchin’s College, Eoin is hopeful of a potential return to the playing field, he first made his debut for the A team in 2006 and has been a central player for both Newmarket Celtic and the Newmarket-on-Fergus senior hurlers in that time. “I’ve been back doing a very little bit of running and activation with the physio over the last two to three weeks, we’ll assess the situation in August or September, I’d love to get back for next season but it is a long shot at the moment”.

Any doubts were quickly allayed as his closest friends proved to be the one setting standards and didn’t warrant criticism. “I’m very lucky in that my peers and the guys around me are the best trainers on the team, they are the guys that set the best standards, I’m talking about David O’Grady, Eoin Hayes and David McCarthy who you don’t have to give a bollocking to, it’s been good from the perspective that they have just treated me like a coach and an extension of Steve and Paddy, it’s been far easier than I’ve expected from that sense”.

Roles in the management have developed organically, Paddy explained. Organising training sessions falls to Steve and Eoin, the trio take care of player management, tactics and formation. “We’ve a lot of debates, it’s like how Eoin and myself would have played over the years, you are debating things for the right reasons, you don’t have to be coy about what you say, you put your cards on the table and that’s the way we’ve tried to approach it all season, there’s no right or wrong answer, ‘I have this thought what do ye think lads’, it’s been a myriad of calls, Teams meetings, WhatsApp messages, it’s been consistent throughout the season where we’ve been bouncing things off each other non-stop. Eoin is very good from a planning perspective, looking ahead and thinking of the next number of weeks and games, we do a lot of work on that in the background to figure out how we are shaping up, squad and player management, we have defined roles but we don’t, we operate fluidly as a group, it’s not dictatorial from anybody, it’s collective but Eoin might say differently,” manager Purcell said.

Every set of eyes is important, Eoin noted. “At the end of the day it is amateur football, we’re trying to balance work, family and stuff, a lot of my background managerially is with kids in school and you can’t get it wrong, they are there all the time but with adults you’re floating more plates in the air with work, relationships and things that crop up, you multiply that by thirty players with 25, 26 or 27 players at training every night, the key is to be flexible, to use your experience, use your judgement and say this guy needs a night off, it takes three or four bodies to keep an eye on all the bodies”.

Speaking to The Clare Echo in the front of the Inn at Dromoland, the duo admit their communication levels are far greater now than when they were teammates. “As Claire (Paddy’s wife) would say, we’re practically married at this stage and Steve is an extension to that too because the messages going on left, right and centre are so consistent. We’re definitely in way more contact, I know more about Eoin now than I did ever before after playing with him for six or seven seasons”.

Between the two of them, they boast an impressive set of contacts in the junior game which has been vital in securing information on opposing teams. “Homework is really important, it is the bedrock for the games we’ve played and how we’ve progressed,” Paddy admitted. Assisting them at various stages in compiling the homework has been former Oscar Traynor boss, Liam Murphy who is currently the club’s PRO.

Eoin added, “Even though 500 or 600 teams enter the FAI and over 100 enter the Munster Junior Cup, it is still the same names that crop up the whole time as you can see from ourselves, Fairview, St Michael’s and Regional, it is great to be back at the top table in junior football, with your experience you build up contacts, there’s favours, there’s good guys in Limerick and Kerry that you know who will give you small bits of information in isolation about a winger or a centre half, that is the one percent needed and you can see with games being so tight that you need every tool available”.

Eoin O’Brien and Paddy Purcell. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Referring to their own playing careers informs much of their thinking when it comes to management. “A lot of the time the principles are the same, you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, you’re not looking at Guardiola, Klopp or inverted full-backs, from an organisational sense getting the basics done Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday goes an awful long way, advancing in these competitions and getting your basics right is probably the most important thing,” Eoin outlined.

Setting a baseline of expectation that must be met has been crucial, Director of European Transportation with Stryker Paddy flagged. “From a managerial perspective, I’ve always tried to take bits and pieces from all the managers I’ve had, there’s no one perfect process or perfect manager, I’ve seen little bits from each of them that I go that is a very interesting way of dealing with a situation, applying or coaching something, that is how I’ve tried to develop as a person but equally in management whether it be work or sport related, they are both interchangeable in my mind”.

Eoin adds, “As a coach you’d try to flip it and say I’m not long finished playing or I’m not playing at the moment but what would I think of this as a player, you’re constantly training to think of what’s in their heads, the fact that we’re both finished playing very recently makes it a bit easier, hasn’t it?”.

“Everything we do we’re going how will lads feel about that or react, we’re not letting go of the standards. The level of accountability has always been there, we’ve had some tough conversations with people involved and where we’re looking for the standards which have maybe dropped a small bit but again trying to keep it as a player related as possible. The dynamic of the group is quite interesting, we’ve young players, lads in the middle area and lads who have been around the block for a long time so we’re trying to get the balance right. You hear people talk about Gen Y, Gen Z and the Boomers, we’ve all that and I’m more of a dinosaur at this stage, you’ve all the characters to be considerate of but we’re lucky that within the group the players do a lot of minding of each other, there’s a good dynamic and no real cliques between all the lads,” Paddy responds.

Again this prompts O’Brien to praise the experienced players like Shane Cusack, Eoin Hayes and David O’Grady for leading the way in this sector. “We’ve been lucky that they’ve been doing our job for us. I think the influx of young lads and I think this goes unnoticed a lot, normally in the last couple of years we’ve had one guy come up, we might have had Callum McNamara come up by themselves and it is very difficult for them to socially fit in but this time there’s four or five guys at 18, 19 or 20 and it’s much easier for them to integrate, the older lads have no choice but to try and relate to them because there’s strength in numbers of those guys coming in, that has been a key thing this year”.

Planning and setting expectations were the main focus for Purcell when he stepped into the manager’s role. It was a stance fully endorsed by O’Brien, “Goal setting is a word that is thrown around but it can actually hurt you in an amateur setting, believe it or not even though we’re in a fantastic position at the moment, we never spoke about winning the Munster Junior or winning the FAI, all we spoke about trying to get through August unbeaten, getting through September unbeaten, then October, then November, ticking it off incrementally, that is brilliant for young players and what I’ve seen happen junior or amateur teams in sport is they get knocked out of one competition and then your season starts to unravel, it can be very difficult for management and coaches when fingers start pointing at different people and legislating blame, we’ve taken it month by month and tried to put our goals in the short-term”.

To date they have clearly outlined what is expected of players if they want to achieve in terms of the commitment and effort required but the pair insist they are “as hungry as ever to have success” to back this up. Paddy commented, “we’ve achieved a lot of the peripheral softer goals of setting standards but absolutely we are razor sharp focused on trying to bring home some trophy success”. How they are finishing games is a positive indicator as Eoin refers to their late winning goals in the semi-finals by Eoin Hayes and Gearoid O’Brien.

Siobhan Frost, Grainne Hayes and Eoin O’Brien. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Getting a jolt from Avenue last season has been very important to reigniting Newmarket’s challenge, Eoin admitted. “Any rivalry is so important, look at Leinster and Munster, Man Utd and Liverpool, when it is at its most intense that is when the standards are driven, if you take your eye off the ball for a couple of months then you drop points if there’s nobody there to capitalise what’s going to happen the following year. Last year, even though we were very close at the end, it definitely caused all of us from a playing perspective to say it would be great to get it back this year”.

Standards have been lifted across the board including the addition of video analysis which Eoin takes a lead role on, the material he has obtained such as passing comments from the crowd, management and players serves as “good blackmail material”. The most interesting comment he has heard is not one he is prepared to share, “I can’t possibly due to GDPR concerns and the fact that I watch back all the games on mute I don’t know, I’ll check back for you”.

In his seventeen years involved with the A team, there has never been as much excitement surrounding the team as there is now, Eoin acknowledged. “None of that takes place or happens if you get knocked out in September or October, we’re constantly reminding lads for future years that it doesn’t just happen that you are zoomed into the last sixteen, the last eight or the semi-finals, going forward your preparation and pre-season in July and August has to be equally good, I think it is just brilliant that our young lads have got a taste of that, the publicity and the people being interested, that will be enough to inspire them and drive them to keep their standards for the rest of their careers, it’s not something we got when coming on the scene, we had to work a bit harder, it was 2014 before we made any progress, in 2012 and 2013 with the Oscar Traynor, once we got a taste of that and how achievable it is to see we’re just as good as the sides in Dublin, the sides in Limerick, it goes a long way in terms of actual advancement and progression throughout your career, not just your year”.

2015 saw Purcell join Newmarket Celtic after the end of his League of Ireland career. Like his move into management, it wasn’t planned but it has certainly been worthwhile. “Outside of Limerick FC, Newmarket is the longest serving club I’ve been with, it is deeply engrained in my heart, I’ve absolute passion for the club, the players and the community, my kids play with the club, Claire is involved with coaching in the club, I would do anything for the club that is how deeply entrenched it is in me. We’ve had some great years, I’d no anticipation of going back playing junior football after I finished in the League of Ireland, I’m glad I changed my mind and made a decision to join Newmarket-on-Fergus, it has been a great number of years, far beyond what I anticipated, I’m enjoying it and feeling very connected to the club”.

History between both St Michael’s and Newmarket Celtic is similar, Eoin pointed out. “We class them club wise and personnel wise as very similar to ourselves, there’s a great degree of respect between us, I’d know a good few of their guys and lads from the surrounding area. Looking back this week in more nostalgia than prep of all the battles we had, it’s so close between us, three games have gone to penalties. The rivalry hasn’t been as intense in the last few years but come Saturday we’ll get a serious reminder of how close those games were and how similar the teams are. In terms of match-ups, we’re still doing our prep.. We’ll do our usual, we’ll go through the strengths and weaknesses of their goalkeeper, their back four, what they are like in the middle and their attacking threats”.

“As a club they’ve had great success over the years, we have huge admiration for them, they are a massive team with a lot of experience. The battles that have gone before are gone, I’m looking at this on its own merit and for what it is, that’s the way we will be looking at and preparing for it, that’s all we can do because so many lads who were involved before either aren’t involved or they’re doing different things in their sporting career so there is only so much you can glean from that, it wouldn’t be a reference point for us preparation wise. It’s two new teams,” Paddy said while praising their tradition and recent battles.

Newmarket Celtic manager Paddy Purcell has a word with captain Eoin Hayes. Photograph: Natasha Barton

Influencing players on their future journey in football brings pride to Purcell. “I’m also glad that we can influence them from a management perspective and try guide them as best we can in the journey of men’s football and hopefully see them have a competitive career at this level and beyond. If we can get players to excel beyond that is also part of our goal, it is not just about us and our success, it is about the success of players and setting them up for whatever they want to do in the game, if we can develop players and move them on like Callum McNamara in Galway Utd, that is rewarding as anything to see players flourish at a bigger and better stage”.

How Callum McNamara has maintained a link with the club just like Treaty Utd’s Lee Devitt is referenced by O’Brien, “it goes bigger than just a stepping stone because that connection is something you just don’t get with other clubs”. Purcell adds, “That connection and longevity, we would have said at the start of the season we’re here to support players with what they want to do, that is as important as our success on the field and trophies, if you can see players progress on and still have that connection to the club, it’s invaluable for years to come. No one specific player comes to mind for me, Eoin is there anyone you would like to have played with or look forward to getting back playing with”?

They’ve succeeded on the field as players, so far Purcell and O’Brien are winning when it comes to management with the benefits clear to see, all that’s missing is some silverware to top it off and what better than a first FAI Junior Cup title for the club to do just that.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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