A NEW DREAM RISES FROM THE ASHES
Rathnew AFC have recovered after the devastating fire at Shamrock Park
RATHNEW AFC was a sleeping giant, but now they are hoping to turn their darkest moment into the brightest of futures.
On Saturday, June 8, 2013, a fire decimated their clubhouse in Shamrock Park, leaving just the indoor astroturf pitch in its wake. On the eve of the fire’s 10 month anniversary, the Wicklow People visited the rejuvenated Shamrock Park, which has gone from shell to football cathedral in that short time.
The recipe for this transformation? Hard work, volunteers and an extra-large serving of the Rathnew spirit.
Chairman Barry Mernagh (BM), joint schoolboy secretary Ian Kelly (IK), football officer John Snell (JS) and secretary John Shea were all present and brimming with chat and ideas as we discussed the past, present and future of Rathnew AFC, amongst a whole host of other things. First on the agenda though was, inevitably, the rebuilding of the clubhouse.
BM: “There were loads of volunteers. Local volunteers out of the club that came up and gave a hand out. We only had to pay two or three tradesmen to do it. The rest was all voluntary. It was in the region of €30,000 I think.”
IK: “It should’ve been €60,000 or more - €100,000 – but there was a lot of favours called in.”
BM: “It was mostly local labour. James Snell and John Snell really looked after the whole running of it, Michael Sullivan gave us all the materials…if you start using names I’ll be here all day, it was just the whole community pulling together.”
But it was not just a minor facelift these volunteers overtook. It was a complete revamp.
BM: “It was derelict (after the fire). We hadn’t got one thing left on it, we had to pull it all back to the walls; new ceilings, new walls. We had no insurance so we had to fund it ourselves. We raised money, we did a few different sponsored things and the goodwill of the people; a couple of people came up and gave us a few grand here, a few grand there – none of them wanted their names mentioned, just business people from around.”
When something like this strikes, it can make or break a club. Did Rathnew ever feel like they were close to the latter?
IK: “It’s not the way we work around here. We dug in and that was it.”
BM: “From the night the fire happened – it was a Saturday night – I was down at a barbecue at home and I got a phone call so I ran up the road and when I got up here everybody was already here and there’s a lawnmower business beside us and everyone just ran and pulled everything
out; the whole village was there – pulling everything out. From that night on we knew that was the help we were going to have. As much as people give out about Rathnew, when anything happens they stick together.”
And the fire even managed to break down perceived barriers between Rathnew AFC and their neighbours.
BM: “The GAA club gave us a good dig-out. They let us use their dressing rooms and all for matches. People will try and say there’s a divide between the soccer and the Gaelic but there’s not, not in Rathnew. We’re all the one. It’s the Rathnew spirit. I can’t explain it, it’s just in us.”
And although that night nearly ruined the club, Snell now believes that it could have been a blessing in disguise. It forced the club to have a long, hard look at itself. And they were not impressed with the figure staring back at them in the mirror.
JS: “I think what was happening to a certain degree was that the club was stagnated. We had all the facilities but we were sat back on our laurels a little bit. We didn’t add to it. But there is a long-term plan here now; a three year project, a five year project. We want a full-sized all weather outdoor pitch. The same with the outdoor facilities for the kids, we want to bring the pitches up to a higher standard. There is a plan; it’s just implementing it now.
“The committee had become stale. Now, it’s all been freshened up and it’s about getting out there. It’s how you run it. It’s not about us. What’s done is done, its water under the bridge now. It’s time to move on.
“We want the club competing at the highest level we can and at every age group up along. That’s the long term plan. “
As well as that full sized outdoor all weather pitch, there are also plans for a running track based around the soccer and the G.A.A. pitch, a project expected to completed in 12 weeks. By then, the Rathnew trophy cabinet could be inundated with new silverware. The adult first, second and third teams are all battling it out on several fronts for honours. Mernagh is remaining coy though.
BM: “There’s no trophies won yet, that’s the way we look at it. We just have to keep going. At the moment, we’re putting all our focus into schoolboys, that’s why Ian and John have setup their own sub-committee for the schoolboys. We’re probably looking at five year’s time more than looking at what’s going on this year. It is great, the third team has only come in this year and they can still win four trophies. It’s great that the adult teams are going well but as John said, we’ve a plan. There’s a five year; three year plan there and it’s involving the 13 and 14-year-olds at the moment; that’s where we’re really putting the focus in. We’ll be hoping to step up our level of playing.”
IK: “We’re trying to get the kids playing at a level from the academy right through. We found that the coaching wasn’t up to standard. We felt the need to push more.”
This will see the coaches being coached. Former Bray Wanderers and St. Patrick’s Athletic star Gary Dempsey will be lending a hand, as will Irish Pro Keepers coach Ian Fowler. Rathnew want to adopt the Barcelona method of coaching - they want to have every single team and player coached in the exact same way; the Rathnew way.
JS: “Barry has nine Wicklow Cup medals, Robert Doyle has eight. No disrespect to either, but he could be coaching his team one way and he could be coaching his another. What we want to do is go back to basics. It’s not about him (gesturing to Barry), it’s about him (gesturing to Barry’s young son). If they all coach in the same way and it’s drilled into them from the academy at four years of age right through – by the time they’re 18, you can coach them. Because once you’re coaching them our way, it doesn’t matter if you’ve 20 medals or no medals, we’re all doing the same thing.” But what is the Rathnew way? BM: “The Rathnew way is playing football with an attitude that you’re never beaten. A will to win.”
JS: “There’s no shame in losing, not when you’re giving it your all. But there is shame if you’re not putting it in and the thing is, I honestly believe that it doesn’t come down to putting it in on match day, it’s putting it in before match day. You can be the best footballer in Ireland but if you’re not fit enough (it’s no good). “
Without the fire at the clubhouse, this conversation wouldn’t be happening. Nor would these changes. It lit a proverbial fire under their backside, if you’ll excuse the pun.
BM: “It’s not that it needed to happen, but since it’s happened, it’s made us a stronger club. We’ve turned it into a positive thing. We took for granted what we had.
“I think we’d taken our eyes off the ball big time (as a club). We probably had too much success from ’94 to 2002 or 2003. We won 10 Wicklow Cups, we won the treble, we won the quadruple, we won U-17s, we won Youths. I think we thought we just had to turn up (to win) and the effort stopped being put in. We went out and ended up with no Premier team one year, we had to play Division 1. We got back up to Premier and the following year the manager had to play just to finish out the season.
“There was no team again until two or three year ago when Robbie Irwin got the team back going and when I finished up playing the lads asked me to take it up so I have it now. I’ve tried my best to put everything I’ve learned from the G.A.A. and playing inter-county football and how professional it is, I’m trying to implement that into us now but it’s hard to do because they’ve never seen it.”
It’s impossible to ignore the enthusiasm at the table. Close your eyes and you might even think you’re surrounded by Dunphy, Giles et al. And although they are bursting with ideas, none of those plans would entertain the notion of the Wicklow giants deserting their home county.
JS: “We’re still the only Wicklow club to win the Leinster Junior Cup. But you can still win them trophies playing in the Wicklow League.”
BM: “We’re 100% committed to the Wicklow League and to try and make it stronger, from the U-8s up to senior. We just wish other clubs would come in and do the same. We’d be 100% committed to living within our means, we wouldn’t be going to Leinster and getting 20 lads from Dublin to play for us and having no football for our children. We’re here to serve the people of Rathnew.”
JS: “It’s not about filling that trophy cabinet. It’s about the children. I’ve seen poor teams from here winning the Wicklow Cup. You can come down the street here and most of the lads in the pub would’ve won a Wicklow Cup at some stage but there wasn’t a whole lot of satisfaction in the community compared to G.A.A. If you win a championship and you go down there, the street is black. You go to a Wicklow Cup final and you have who you have only.”
Another aspect of the G.A.A. they hope to emulate is the bridge between junior and adults teams, which is something Rathnew feel clubs in this county urgently need to address.
JS: “There was no connection between the schoolboys and the adult teams. And that’s not just Rathnew. It was right across the board. I think we all need to realise and get back to grassroots – schoolboy level – and build it from there. I think everyone needs to sit down in the one room at schoolboys level and it’s something that we’ve been trying to work on here with regards getting everyone into the same mindset.”
All these plans and ambitions could hold an exciting future for all associated with Rathnew AFC, but what do the some of the key members of the club envisage over the horizon?
BM: “We’d be hoping that our three adult teams can get a trophy each this year. We’d be hoping that our U-17s can win a cup because they’re holding it together, we can see a big future from the 13s down to the 8s. Really, they are the future. We’re not the future, we just come up here and try to get things ready for them in years to come and when we’re dead and gone, someone else will be doing it for the next generation of children. The future we want is to be the best club in Wicklow from schoolboys to adults. That’s our aim. We want to work with both leagues to try and achieve that.”
JS: “It all comes down to discipline. If lads can come up and use and abuse the premises and the facilities, go out and get sent off or disrespect managers or whatever, and they get away with that; they’re not going to have any respect for the club.
“If you don’t respect the club, you shouldn’t be in the club and that’s what we’re trying to address here. What the future is for us is that we want a club that everyone respects and we respect ourselves first and foremost.
“(The hope is that) other clubs would be envious of us but at the same token, they’d want to come and play us. It’s about moving the club forward altogether in unison and with respect. It all comes down to respect. We want to respect the Wicklow League and we want everyone in the Wicklow League to respect us.”
The indoor pitch at Shamrock Park.
John Shea, Barry and Drew Mernagh, Cllr John Snell, and Ian Kelly at the refurbished Shamrock Park in Rathnew.
Future club player, Harry Mernagh, in the completely refurbished clubhouse.