Frankie Wilson on Drumaness, county days with Antrim and looking after Northern Ireland's new breed
Centenary Shield: England v Northern Ireland (tonight, 7pm)
THERE were probably better times to have got in touch with Frankie Wilson than around half six on Wednesday evening.
When the phone answers, he’s on his way to Drumaness to take training ahead of the club’s Down Division Three clash with Clann na Banna tonight.
It’s Drumaness’s first league game of the season, but their manager won’t be there. Instead Wilson will be stood on the sideline of Redditch United’s Trico Stadium, about 30 miles south of Birmingham.
The 48-year-old is in charge of the Northern Ireland U18 side preparing to take on England in the Centenary Shield, aiming for a third straight win following 1-0 victories over Scotland and Wales last month.
Wilson – who is head of PE at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock in Belfast - has known about the fixture clash for a while and planned accordingly. When there is so much going on in life, preparation is essential.
Wednesday, by his own admission, was “mental”.
After school he took year nine Gaelic football training ahead of next week’s Corn Colmcille quarter-final date with St Patrick’s High School, Downpatrick before a quick dash home.
There, the car was loaded with all the kit, boots and essential equipment for the Northern Ireland team before it was out again, bound for Drumaness. Training over, Wilson drove straight down to the Stena Line for 9pm, in time to board the Belfast to Liverpool sailing at 10.30pm.
“I bet Michael O’Neill’s not doing this,” he laughs.
The boat docked in the early hours before a two-and-a-half hour drive to Redditch, followed by a lunchtime meeting with the team, who flew into Birmingham yesterday morning.
Tired just reading this? Imagine living it.
Wilson, though, wouldn’t have it any other way. Sport is, and always has been, his life.
Soccer was his first love, and a long playing career took him on a tour of Irish League clubs, with stops at Cliftonville, Carrick, Ballyclare, Omagh Town and Bangor along the way.
The GAA bug, which would eventually lead to him pulling on the Antrim jersey at senior level, caught a little later.
“I started playing Gaelic for Derriaghy as my dad was the chairman, but the club folded due to a lack of players and funds. We didn’t want to amalgamate with Eire Og as we would have lost our identity.
“Myself and two cousins from the same Derriaghy U16 team, Colm and Paul McCabe, went on to play senior county football. All three of us ended up playing with Lamh Dhearg.
“But it certainly wasn’t trendy to play Gaelic in Dunmurry, Finaghy or Malone during the Eighties, not like it is now with St Brigid’s. Nowadays Gaelic is all the rage with the Bravo Tango Niners.”
A talented wing forward with a lethal left foot, it wasn’t long before Wilson began to catch the eye and he was first drafted into the Antrim panel in 1992. But his ‘double-jobbing’ on the sporting front didn’t always find favour among his inter-county managers.
“I always wanted to play but the managers didn’t always want me. Some of them didn’t want you playing soccer too.
“John Morrison, God rest him, didn’t want me. Aidan Thornbury didn’t want me. PJ [O’Hare] loved me, PJ was brilliant. And big Brian White, no problem at all. The late Ray McDonnell too, absolutely brilliant.
“It’s a different landscape now, but in the early Nineties we were competing fairly well and maybe getting beat by a point here or there in Ulster. That was at a time when Down, Derry and Donegal were winning All-Irelands.
“We got to an All-Ireland B final against Wicklow in ’92 and lost by a point, but we should’ve won. That hurt us. If we’d won that, we’d have kicked on.”
Despite the lack of success with the Saffrons, it is a time Wilson looks back upon with great fondness. Indeed, he still turns out for the county’s masters side, and hopes to line out against old foes Down next week, while he also features for the Northern Ireland masters when his busy schedule allows.
Wilson’s managerial career - across both codes - has brought him far and wide, and continues to throw up new, exciting and occasionally daunting challenges.
Take Drumaness as an example. For a city boy finding himself in rural county Down, it has been something of a culture shock.
“We came in last year and got to the quarter-final of championship. We got tanked by Bredagh – all ex-pupils of mine.
“There’s a big difference between a city club and a country club. When I look at the kids I’m training at under 14 and you’ve maybe nine or 10 knocking their pan in, but you go to Bredagh and there’s maybe 120.
“That’s the difference, but I couldn’t fault anybody at this club, They’re the best of lads at this club, they really are. We even have a very famous player in another ex-pupil of mine, Chris Hazzard.
“Chris is the local MP, but he’s also our keeper… well, he’s very busy obviously with work. He does more work on the training pitch than he does at Stormont anyway.”
Wilson will be receiving regular updates from Clann na Banna’s Cottage Park tonight, courtesy of assistant and Drumaness stalwart Collie Flynn, but his main focus will be on edging ever closer to securing the Centenary Shield.
Unfortunately Northern Ireland will be without Josh Largo-Ellis as the talented Fermanagh teenager instead lines out for St Michael’s, Enniskillen at Croke Park on Saturday when they go for Hogan Cup glory.
Wilson understands better than most, having found himself attempting to serve two masters on many occasions.
Plus, in the likes of captain Paddy Burns – “as good a leader as I’ve ever worked with at that age” – and attacking midfielder Ryan Carmichael, there is no shortage of talent remaining.
“It’s a brilliant level, you’re working with the best players in Northern Ireland and they’re willing to jump through hoops for you.
“Like Josh, Ruairi O’Hare missed the win over Wales because the Red High were in the MacLarnon final, but he’s back in the fold.
“This is a great experience for all these lads. In the last three or four years, you see the players who have come through our hands and gone on to bigger and better things - the likes of Mark Sykes, Paul Smyth, Brad Lyons, Gavin Whyte… the first cap they ever got was with the U18s, so it’s a great stepping stone and a great opportunity to show what they can do.”