Kildare County may have got an unexpected invite to return to the League of Ireland Division 1 having been relegated last season. Here manager, Thomas 'Cooper' Donnelly talks to Ruth O'Brien of the challenges that lie ahead as he looks forward to competing with the 'big boys' in the League of Ireland
THIS Saturday Kildare County will kick start their League of Ireland Division 1 campaign with a home fixture against Finn Harps and Thomas 'Cooper' Donnelly will be in charge.
The Kildare town native took the reigns of the Thoroughbreds after their play-off defeat to Galway side Mervue United at the end of last season. He thought he was preparing his side for a season in the A Championship but the Station Road outfit got a last minute reprieve.
Due to Cobh Ramblers' financial woes County were awarded a First Division licence, which came as most welcome news but of course there's always a downside to every story.
County learned they were to play First Division football for the 2009 season just two weeks ago but by that stage any signings from Leinster Senior League clubs were forbidden. They had to be completed by 31 January and now Donnelly has to make do with his lot.
The situation though is not all bad, in fact Donnelly has assembled a squad of players who not only have the talent but will give above and beyond of what is asked of them and that's certainly something Kildare County were lacking last season.
"It's good to be in Division 1, I'd rather be in Division 1 than the 'A' Championship but we are at a slight disadvantage because all the other clubs knew they were going to get their licence while we were preparing for the 'A' Championship. When we found out we were in Division 1 it was 16 February and the only players I could attract were free agents or players that I had asked in for the 'A' Championship.
"There's some good players around with Leinster senior clubs but I couldn't ask them because they had to be signed before the deadline. So our hands were basically tied but the lads I have in are a good bunch of lads though," the new manager told the Leinster Leader this week.
Donnelly has assembled a squad consisting of players from local leagues and former County Under 21s, so young in fact that the average age of the squad is only 22. Gone are so called bigger profile players, instead the first team squad is packed with locals, locals who are proud to wear the jersey.
"With the way the economy is gone at the moment clubs are going to find it hard to pay out big money to players and the club is going down the local route. Kildare County always wanted to promote local players, I've been heavily involved with the Under 21s for the last four years and two years ago there was six or seven Under 21s on the senior team but last year it didn't happen as much until the July window when five or six lads were brought in. I've kept most of them lads on, there were staying even if we were in the 'A' Championship. So the fact that they have had half a season of League of Ireland experience will stand to them," explained Donnelly.
He added: "We will go out to compete and give it a crack. You obviously have to try and win but being realistic it's going to be very hard to compete with most of the clubs in the division. But I have told the lads if they go out on the pitch fit, committed, give 100 per cent and try and play good football and we will be either good enough or not good enough at the end of the day. That's all I can ask of them but it is a huge step up" addedd Donnelly.
"I know a lot of the local talent around, not just in the Kildare league, but in the surrounding counties as well and it will stand to me. I explained to them all that the fitness thing is huge because playing League of Ireland football is a lot tougher compared to what they are used to.
"But a lot of these players have played for me before be it for the Under 21s or the Oscar Traynor and they know the way I operate. I'm fairly strict on discipline and fitness and if they do what they are asked to do they will be competitive."
County will be forced to start and perhaps even finish the season without the influential centre half David O'Connell, who recently injured his cruciate ligament, which is a huge loss for the manager.
O'Connell was going to be the captain, perhaps the glue that kept the team together but instead another young player will get the opportunity to make a name for himself.
In essence Kildare County could become the breeding ground for future big name League of Ireland players and beyond. With the establishment of KAFCo, where the Kildare junior league and underage league working together, there are structures in place for the conveyor belt to keep on rolling.
"There's a new group called KAFCo, it's the Kildare junior league and the underage league working in conjunction with Kildare County and we're trying to make a pathway for local players to give them a chance to play League of Ireland football but at the same time we are going to try and be competitive in Division 1. If players out there are committed enough, if they are good enough and want to progress they will get an opportunity with Kildare County," said Thomas.
Commitment and talent are paramount if Kildare County are going to survive and avoid a repeat of the disastrous season that was last year. That combined with fitness is what could essentially mean the difference between a successful and disappointing season.
"The thing I noticed last year was no matter what lads you have or no matter what skill and money you have, if you're not fit you're no good. Last year's team was not fit. Whatever lads were on big money, I wasn't privy to that because I wasn't involved, weren't fit. I analysed all their games last year and if the games finished after 60 minutes Kildare County would have finished second or third. During the last 30 minutes of most games they were caught and that was down to fitness, they weren't able to compete," explained the boss.
Assisting him in his new role will be Sallins native Gerry Browne, a man who has been beside his side for a number of years now and the pair have worked well together. They will be hoping their partnership will bring success to Station Road too.
"He was my assistant for the last couple of years with the Under 21s. He's a good manager and a good man and he would have the same mentality as myself. He wants to give local lads a chance and he is the very same with regard to fitness and organisation, which are basic elements of football but a lot of teams don't get it right," commented the manager.
In an ideal world Donnelly would love to have the cash to splash out on players, would love to be gunning for the First Division title but he doesn't and he is certainly not whining about it.
"If you have money to pay players it's great. I'd love to have a huge budget to attract four or five top class players but I don't and I have to work with what I have. The club is being very astute and it's the right way because there's no point putting the club in to debt either. We don't want to be in the same situation as Cobh next year.
"We have a small budget but we won't have lads out of pocket playing but we don't have the huge money to compete with basically every other club in the same division. We can't compete with their budgets," he said.
Fellow First Division clubs such as Sporting Final and Shelbourne, are not lacking in the money department and will be on the hunt for the title and a coveted place in the Premier Division. So what are Donnelly aspirations for the 2009 season?
"If we are not involved in what we were involved in last year I think everyone at the club will be happy because we have no experienced players whatsoever. They are all local players coming from junior football," admitted the new boss.
"It's going to be tough and there's no point in saying anything else. Myself and the lads are looking forward to the challenge and it is going to be a challenge. You should never walk away from a challenge and I like a challenge," Donnelly added.
Managing a League of Ireland side, especially a First Division team, can be a thankless job but Thomas Donnelly doesn't care. He cares about the game, it's in his blood he says and indeed it is.
He was raised on a diet of football, thanks to his father, he became heavily involved in coaching and recently completed the UEFA B Licence coaching course.
"My father trained me in the back yard from the age of five, I played in school and then I went playing with Kildare Town. I played with the Defence Forces for eight or nine years, which was great because we played against French internationals.
"My father had a big influence on me because it runs though his blood as well. A lot of people that know me probably think I am more interested in football than anything. I was always interested in the coaching side, more so even than playing. I managed Artillery Rangers youths when I was 22, they were based in Kildare army barracks years ago. Then I went playing in Dublin and then Newbridge Town asked me to come and manage them when I was 26. I was player/manager with them and that year they got promoted and got to the cup final but then I packed in football for a year or two to concentrate on getting my badges.
"After that I was back playing in the Kildare League and they approached me to take over the youths and later I was asked to become Director of Football. Later I took over the Under 21s so basically I was doing Kildare League youths, Kildare League seniors and the Under 21s and it was great because there way a conveyor belt system. I just love it," he admitted.
Thomas Donnelly is relishing the chance to take the reigns at an League of Ireland club, relishing the chance to make Kildare County a better club and he dearly hopes he will get the support needed not only for his sake but for the players and the betterment of the club as a whole.
"I would love to see crowds there (in Station Road), the more that are there the better the atmosphere. What we would be hoping for is that people will come to the games because we are going down the local route. Supporters will be able to identify with the team. For Kildare County to survive we are going to need the support of the people. It's our local club and our local players so we need the local support.
"In one sense you want to be successful but that will be hard. I know people want to follow successful teams but at the same time when you're trying to develop the local players success will take time though," he warned.