With a string of headline signings from Premier clubs, First Division Shelbourne have captured the attention in the League of Ireland‘s close season but, according to chairman Joe Casey: “It‘s not about great wages, but the opportunities we offer them to get into careers after football, through our Shelbourne Opportunity Network.”

Many footballers, Casey pointed out, are so focused on playing that they reach their 20s admitting they have “never had a real job, and it‘s only then they realise that football careers don‘t last. That‘s why our network appeals to them”.

He added: “We have put good people in good positions – David O‘Connor is our CEO and Dave Henderson is Head of Football Operations – and we‘re trying to create an environment that will have them playing attractive football and contribute to their development outside that also.

“Our partnership with DCU, which is supported from the top down in the college, is the key to us giving the players the chance to go to college while playing football.”

As a graduate of UCD‘s soccer scholarship programme, O‘Connor said: “Providing career opportunities appeals to me and I notice from the perspective of the players we have signed that it appeals to them as much as what we are doing on the pitch. They have all bought into the idea that we‘re looking after our players.”

Shelbourne also have a first-class women‘s club and O‘Connor said that the influence of the network (SON) is felt right through the club‘s academy, boys and girls. “It‘s a culture where players are more than a commodity, and one that sets us apart from other clubs,” he claimed.

“Our focus is to offer every player as many opportunities as we possibly can. We have strong links with the corporate world and we are very focused on the non-football as well as the football side of the players‘ lives.”

Head coach and manager Ian Morris, who spent 12 years in English football, believes it “will benefit Irish football, with players looking at this route instead of just looking at England at 15, as I did. I wish I had had the same opportunity when I was at that age, and the climate is changing now regarding how many go over. It‘s more difficult, and the number of players making it is shrinking.

“Players come back disillusioned. We have players like that, but we recognise our duty of care to them. There should be a network of people to help players when they come back, and that‘s what we‘re doing. It‘s not just pie in the sky – it‘s real. We will put players in front of people who will guide them in the right way.”

SON is a mentor system “that advises players on careers in different areas,” explained Casey.

“We have a wide range of mentors, who give the benefit of their experience and also open their networks to the players. And we‘ll be adding more.”

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The current list of mentors includes former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty, who is a leader in elite human performance; former Shannon rugby player Paddy Kenny, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon and member of Shels‘ medical team; Denise Charlton, strategic management consultant; Lisa Ainsworth, business leader and advisor; Phil Carling, sports marketing and sponsorship specialist; Mickey O‘Rourke, sports media businessman; Niall McGrath, entrepreneur and marketing expert; Róisín Thomas, TV and media industry; Frank Keane, chartered accountant; and Andrew Doyle, corporate lawyer.

If that list is impressive, then so is the management team, headed by a young CEO, O‘Connor (27), and a young manager, Morris (31), both grateful for the opportunities they are getting so early in their careers.

“I wouldn‘t have got the experience I‘ve had in the last 10 months in any other job,” said O‘Connor, “and I‘m being guided by very helpful people, learning as I go. The role is very varied, the skill-set required is vast. The image of the club has started to shift in a positive way, and the more we can do the better our image will be, and the more buy-in we‘ll get from the corporate world.”

Morris always had his eye on coaching. “When I was at Leeds, we had five managers in three years, so I had a lot of managers, but I always learned something, whether good or bad, from each of them. From the age of 18 I was always taking notes, and they are proving very useful to me now.

“There are different players and characters that you have to manage. For instance, I had messages at five to 12 last night, and when I woke up this morning I had more. It‘s 24/7, and you have to be planning four to five days, even six weeks, in advance. It‘s not just about turning up for training and going to a match.”

When I suggested that, after his excellent season with Bohemians last year, he was hardly out of the picture for team selection, he replied: “I haven‘t retired, but I have signed better players. I have to make sure they get the best out of the management team, and that‘s where I am.”

Morris also pointed out that a manager has “to be able to answer ‘why‘ when you make a decision and stand over it. Not everyone might agree with it.”

With such bright management, and players eager to learn, things are certainly looking up for Shelbourne.

Shels’ premier signings

Aidan Friel (Finn Harps)

Ian Morris (Bohemians)

Luke Byrne (Shamrock Rovers)

Dan Byrne (Bohemians)

Conan Byrne (St Pat‘s)

Oscar Brennan (Bohemians)

Ryan Brennan (St Pat‘s)

Darragh Noone (Bray)

Ciarán Kilduff (Jacksonville)

Sunday Indo Sport

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