*Stephen Austin embraces Darragh Leahy. Photograph: Joe Buckley

NEWMARKET CELTIC cannot be content with just winning an FAI Junior Cup, their coach has stressed.

For the first time since their foundation in 1955, Celtic claimed the national title defeating St Michael’s following a penalty shootout a fortnight ago. They endeavour to back this up in the Munster Junior Cup final against Limerick side, Regional Utd in Jackman Park on Saturday.

His father Red was one of the four founders of Newtown FC, while sitting in his house with the FAI Junior Cup in his lap the necessity to Newmarket was hammered home. “I hadn’t paid attention to the details of the Cup, Fairview won it three times in the 1990s, there was a little gap and they won three in a row in the early 2000s, I text Davy Wall to ask him, he came in for the second three in a row, it is amazing stuff, six FAIs in the space of over a decade, Newmarket can’t just sit on their laurels, they have to drive on and try it again next year, get everything in place to ensure the standards are even higher or else what is the point”.

It’s his second stint with the club, he first got involved in 2017 when Liam Murphy and Davy Ryan were over the side. “They came back that season taking over from Mike O’Malley, Davy gave me a call and said they were looking for a new approach and new voices. I was doubting it, thinking coming from schoolboys straight into one of the top teams in Clare but I did it and it was the best decision I made at the time, it was brilliant. I did two seasons, the first we got to an FAI semi-final, won the league and cup in Clare, I knew we had a great bunch of lads which made me come back this time”.

Photograph: Joe Buckley

Steve’s own playing career saw him represent Newtown from U8s to Youths level. “I had kids and all the rest so I started following the young lad around to his games, then I got the bug to get back into the game. Davy Wall in Shannon Hibs was coaching my young lad, he said one day out of the blue could I jump in and give a hand, again the best decision I made because I got the bug and off I went”.

Currently working his way through the coaching badges, he is up to the UEFA C licence but feels hours on the pitch are more beneficial than certificates. “Conor Nestor who is coaching in Cambodia at the moment, he was one of the FAI Tutors, I remember the first coaching course I did he said ‘take your time, get the hours on the pitch, that is where you learn the game and learn about your players’, there’s a lot of lads who can go chasing the badges but they are not learning the game, I did it that way and I’m taking my time, I’m in no rush and there’s no need for me to go to UEFA A licence”.

From starting his coaching journey with Shannon Hibs, he got involved with the Clare Emerging Talent Programme after Denis Hynes approached him. The two seasons with Newmarket followed before began working with Treaty Utd’s U17 team alongside Trevor Lavell, one of the first teams established in the Limerick club’s academy, he was over the Treaty U15s with Chris Collopy who he felt was “arguably the best coach in the country”. Time with Treaty was beginning to take its toll, “I was spending four nights a week inside in UL, I felt the burn out coming and it’s important as a coach to look after yourself, if you feel that coming you don’t want to do it”.

While watching Newmarket Celtic lose their status as Premier Division to Avenue Utd in Roslevan, a fire was reignited for Steve. “The Newmarket season was coming to an end and I was at the game against Avenue Utd in Roslevan, I was up on the bank with my best mate Daniel Cregan and I said I’d love to come back, the rumours were floating around then and a couple of people in the village wanted to know if I was interested because they knew I was gone from Treaty, because of the last time and the bond I made with the players and the village itself, my missus at home was saying ‘Steve you have to’, it was calling me in a way, it was another brilliant decision”. He added, “A lot of the lads became good mates from the first time, to see how hurt they were and I was just annoyed with the whole thing, I was upset, I thought if I could come back in a little way to help then I had to”.

Speaking to The Clare Echo at Treacy’s Oakwood Arms Hotel, Austin recalls that it was the same spot that he met Paddy Purcell to first discuss getting involved with Newmarket. “Paddy is really open-minded and for a good manager in any level of the game, you have to have that, he’s really open to my ideas and what I wanted to do. We sat down, we came up with a game model, the principles of play came off that, I was leading that, the four stages of the game, attacking, transition to defence, defending, transition to attacking, we have that pinned on the wall in the dressing room with topics underneath each heading, Paddy let me off and he is brilliant that way. I look to somebody like Guardiola and that style of football, attacking, possession-based but someone like Klopp and the way he is all high energy, I try to mix all that stuff and I’ve learned from loads of people down the years, it would be high energy”.

He may study the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola to a level to test the patience of his wife Lynda. Breaking down their objectives of world-class managers to a junior soccer team is a form of translation. “It’s funny enough, a lot of the terms in football now lads might not have even heard them, you might think all these boys are grown men and they know what you’re talking about but you have to coach some of the stuff you think they would know. The players are taking everything in, they are asking questions, at the end of the session they’d be saying ‘Steve just five more minutes’, it’s like having U10s which is a compliment to me in itself. One of the biggest things for me away from the tactics and the Xs and Os is the environment and building relationships, for any good coach or manager at any level that is one of the secrets when players feel that you care about them and trust them to do what you want.

“Young Ethan Fitzgerald was one of the players we signed for Treaty U17s, I’d be really close with him, he was asking ‘how do you think I done on Saturday’, there was little moments when he’d come out from defence into midfield and someone would come to press him but he’d do a shuffle and keep going, he said ‘Steve I’d have never had the confidence to do that’ because lads would normally be shouting ‘get rid of it’ but me, Paddy and Eoin have trusted the players all year and you can see it in the way they are playing”.

That growth is one of the most rewarding aspects of their campaign, Austin said. “Building relationships has been a massive thing, the three of us after matches would contact players individually, Eoin O’Brien is brilliant with the video stuff he’d send clips here and there, it really adds to a player’s game and if they are getting that feedback off the management they know that the management care and want the player to get better. We’ve a big squad so it was hard to get round the 25 of them but Paddy has been brilliant at managing that side of it, lads want to play but when the environment is that good there is no moaning about game time, everyone is rooting for each other, that sense of togetherness is one of the things that pushed us onto FAI”.

Incorporating a fun element to training sessions is essential, the coach stressed. “To go win these big tournaments the standards need to be sky high, the players have to walk into setups where everything is set up and they walk in and everything is ready to go so straight away they walk in and everyone is ready to work, not taking away the fact that fun has to be an element of it whether you’re an U10 or Eoin Hayes, they have to come out of work or a bad day at home and be bouncing in that gate. We haven’t had a session with less than twenty players all season, for me it can be a headache planning the session with such numbers but it is brilliant at the same time”.

Flexibility to adapt has been a trait of Newmarket’s all season, it was never as clear by the use of a new formation for the first time in their FAI Junior Cup final win. “We’re confident in the boys and we trust them, they’re not going ‘oh the lads are changing’, they know what we are expecting and we’ve individual little messages in the system, I think in the St Michael’s game because of the threats and quality they have it was about being structurally and defensively sound, anyone that said to me in the last few weeks that our back four have been outstanding. David O’Grady is playing junior soccer for fifteen years and this is his best season, everyone is saying that, Ethan Fitz is flourishing, we all know how good Harvey is, Conor McDaid is a name that hasn’t popped up much this season but for me every coach wants a Conor McDaid, he is a brilliant lad, he asks question and is a high energy player, he is a super lad at only 21 or 22”.

Unlike his first stint with Newmarket, he feels there is a fearlessness now within the squad. “There’s a lot of young lads, five or six youths have came up, me, Paddy and Eoin are like-minded football people, it’s fresh, I tried to create a similar environment the last time I was there, people have said the squad the last time was better on paper. I always go back to the Pike semi-final, maybe there was a bit of fear in us whereas this team don’t care who we’re playing or the amount of caps they have, Darragh doesn’t care if he is playing against Liverpool tomorrow, that is brilliant and refreshing, Harvey has been at high levels with Sheffield, Ethan at League of Ireland, it’s been amazing”.

“We’re sitting here, the names Darragh and Hayzo have come up but someone like Aaron Rudd, we started off playing with three in the back and the wing-back roles in those systems are the hardest at any level and the most important in that system, he is running from one corner flag to the other for ninety minutes. When we played Regional in the FAI, their left winger didn’t know what was going on, every time he got the ball to his feet Ruddy to take it off him, every time Rudd had the ball the left winger had to tear after him. Jack Kelly goes about his business quietly, he was outstanding. We’ve the big names then like David McCarthy who is a pleasure to coach, for me he has been the best footballer in Clare for the past ten years, Dean Hegarty got the bad injury and we’re all gutted for him, he’s been a smashing lad, lovely fella and lovely footballer but he’s had massive moments for us.

“One of the biggest moments of the season was Dermot Gannon up in Raheny, he comes on to save a penalty, if he doesn’t save that then none of us get to where we are now, he would start on nearly any team in the country but he is up against Shane Cusack who is probably the best keeper in the country, there’s been loads of different moments from different players which have added to it. We’ve lads like Cathal Hayes, technically he is one of the best players in Newmarket, he is a Rolls Royce of a player, I love watching him playing, Alan Kelly another lad, we’re blessed with a lot of good footballers. Then you’ve the young lads like Martin McCarthy, he is like a carbon copy of Davy, when he gets experience he will be flying it, Davy Lennon is another lovely player and lovely lad. We’re going on about lovely players but they are brilliant lads, they have no egos or attitudes, you can’t be walking around junior soccer with an ego, any good coach will tell you and far better coaches than me will tell you ‘lose the ego, the whole thing is about the players’. You are there to serve the players, you get the pats on the back and the plaudits but it doesn’t mean anything”.

While the memories of walking down the Ennis Rd in Newmarket-on-Fergus bring a smile to his face, Celtic must collect as many trophies as they can this season. “The FAI was brilliant but we have to park it, we want to be greedy and go get the Premier Division and the Munster Junior Cup, Regional are a very good side, they pushed us the whole way in the FAI, they are a really good footballing team, my type of team, I love the way they play, I know a couple of their players, they have a good manager in Sean Russell so it will be another massive test but Jackman Park has been good to us so far, fingers crossed”.

He added, “The sign is up on the fence of the pitch saying FAI Junior Champions, some fella walked past and I don’t even know him but he said ‘Steve that Munster Junior sign needs to be beside it’. We have to go be greedy and get everything, especially the League. If you’re operating at these standards and this level, you have to take everything in front of you”.

A typical training week sees Tuesday focused on fast intense possession based drills, “every single session I do starts with a bit of craic, the warm up could be really fun but their heartrate is going up, they think they’re having a laugh but it is part of the warm-up, all of that creates the togetherness but every session is different, it is repetition without repetition, I know I am going to get the same thing out of them. We’ll do high intensity stuff and position games, it is all high quality and high intensity, all the basics and little details”.

Whereas Thursday is more tactical, he explained, “start off with the warm-up but everything I would do would be having eleven v eleven and work backward with scenarios in them and what we want to do, everything relates to the game on Sunday. It’s not just me coming in having watched clips on YouTube, there has to be a why to what you’re doing, there’s a lot of good coaches who can read something on the internet but there has to be a why and the players need to know why they are doing it, they have to trust why we’re all doing this. Eoin Hayes will know if I’m coming in and just rambling off something from the internet, I feel really respected within there and that they think I know what I’m talking about, I could be blagging you too but I’ve an FAI medal now so who cares”.

Charting the journey, the player development is among the highpoints for the Shannon native. “I’m best mates with Darragh’s uncle Dan, I’ve known him since he was a young fella, Joe Buckley has a photo of me and Darragh in tears, building those relationships and because of what we’ve done we’ll be mates forever, I will take a load of pride in that. When I’m sitting at home reading what David McCarthy said in his interview, it means a lot to me, I’d much rather someone say that than someone say ‘Steve’s session the other night was unreal, anyone can learn it is the people’s side that means a lot to me”.

Held in the highest esteem by his players, Steve admitted that he is “getting too old” for long travelling stints associated with the League of Ireland. “I think Paddy, Eoin or myself, I’ve worked with lads that are good coaches and with UEFA A licences but they are not anything different to what we’re doing this year, this has been as professional as anything. I’ve no interest in going into the league of Ireland”.

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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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