Early on a Sunday morning Ger McGrath arrives at Mervue United’s complex to get everything in order for Galway FA U12 training sessions.
It is a familiar sight on the all weather pitch, that at an unearthly hour McGrath will be busy preparing.
The games have commenced for the U12 group, who overcame Roscommon in their first fixture and now an Eamonn Deacy Park match beckons against Mayo on Sunday.
Significant work has been carried out. “What we did back in September/October time, we had assessments so we had maybe 100 or 120 in at different times from all the U12 clubs,” McGrath explains.
“An invitation went out for three players per club. We brought them all in, we assessed them, the coaches there along with myself - Seán McGlynn, Dave Silke, and Ben Talbot. At the time then the Galway United coaches were in too giving a help out for the assessment part which was good. It was another set of eyes looking at these players, getting their opinions. That helped in our selection.
“We decided talking to Seán McGlynn, who co-ordinates the league centres that we would pick 40-44 players. So we had 43 players in the league centre, out of that then we select our players. We'd go to matches then during the league or Connacht Cups to see the players.
“We are obviously going to miss out on players, some players will flourish playing for their own clubs, they might be nervous coming in for an assessment which is fine, they are only 11 or 12 years of age. They are all going to develop in different ways as they get older. We have worked with this squad since the end of October and we will work until the end of May with them.”
That so many clubs in the county are represented is a source of optimism. “We have 18 or 19 clubs represented in it, that is a good spread,” McGrath says.
“The one good thing from a Galway FA point is the level of talent that is spread out around the clubs. Before you might have one or two teams at U12 getting ahead in the league, but really there is a good spread. Sometimes when you go to matches there is not much between the teams. The level of competition at U12 is really good for the players and that is a benefit for us.
“Then when they come in on the Sunday mornings they are all at a good level, a decent level that they are matching each other.”
McGrath is encouraged about the manner in which the Galway FA and Galway United working together in the underage ranks. “The collaboration the Galway FA brought in a number of months ago, the benefit for us with the U12s and the lads involved when we were doing the assessments - we shared ideas on training sessions, things like that,” McGrath replies. “Probably from a Galway United point these players aren't going to be on their radar for two years going to the national leagues if the U14 age group stays where it is.
“This is the first few months of it, things are going to develop and going to change. We had two or three meetings all of the coaches together, throwing out different ideas. Again it will be up for the committee with the Galway FA or people involved at that level to look to see how you can improve it. If it is going to work what needs to happen, what needs to change, what do we keep doing that we are doing that is very good. If it was perfect everybody would be doing it and it will work out once it is developed and the communication is better between everybody.”
A controversial issue during the past few years has been the introduction of the national underage leagues at younger age grades.
“The state of underage football in Galway is strong, but there is an impact from the national league in it,” McGrath says.
“Clubs, managers, and coaches understand this is it, the U14 is there, then U15 and U17. I think the problem was with the national league at the start when it went U13, U15, U17 was the break for the players in between at U14. The other thing that probably affects clubs is the transfer windows aren't aligned.
“Players are leaving in January and February, but there is no chance if another plan wants to sign for your club that you can sign them or even in your own club. The transfer windows are fractured, they are all things that need to be improved from an FAI level.”
With the national underage leagues run in a calendar year season it means difficulties exist. “At the start when the underage League of Ireland started Mervue was the club affected the most,” McGrath says.
“If you look back at the last number of years the amount of players coming from some of the teams going to play national league it was a big number - seven, eight, nine players from teams. Then you have coming into this time of the year other sports are starting off, maybe the lads that are left are going to drift to another sport.”
The debate will certainly continue until some sort of a resolution can be found. After retiring from playing McGrath stepped into coaching, but has also been heavily involved as an administrator with Mervue, the Galway FA, and Connacht FA.
“As it goes along you get into it, you turn into a bit of a nerd for rules,” McGrath laughs. “You get interested, we were lucky as our teams were progressing in Irish Cups you are organising, you are talking to clubs all around the country. You are making contacts with people. It just came from that really, you enjoy the organising, seeing what is going on, being on top of it.
“Then you get to know everybody in the club, you are building relations with all of the coaches, the players, and the parents. All of a sudden when you are in the role of a chairman or secretary you become central to how the club is going to develop. You take that on. You wonder why you do it, but then think that somebody did it for me.”
Not forgetting that is key for McGrath. Looking out at Mervue United’s splendid playing facilities, McGrath vividly remembers growing up with a drive and desire to represent the club at adult level.
“We used to be watching the junior when we were playing U17 and minor,” he recalls.
“It was always a big thing then to play in the junior team if you could take the step up. The Connacht Senior League was there, that was massive, you wanted to get into the Senior League. Some of the players when we were growing up Alan Corcoran, Noel McDonnell, Rynal Browne, Damien Brennan, and Owen Shaughnessy, these were lads that are all still involved in the club doing great stuff.
“They were playing, they were quality, quality players. As it went on I got my chance to play in the Connnacht Senior League. We won four Senior Leagues in a row, we had a great squad of players.
“Then the Connacht Senior League folded and we came back into the junior premier division and won four in a row. It was great, we were young, we were flying fit, we were enjoying playing the game.
“There was never any problem getting anyone training. The bunch of players we had for that 10 years nearly are all close and still close.”
Friendships forged, medals and memories have been accumulated, but McGrath is ready, willing and able to give something back to the Mervue cause.
**Listen to the full interview with Mervue United’s Ger McGrath on this week’s ‘Cian on Sport’ podcast available on Soundcloud, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.