Football/Soccer

Shane Keegan learning and developing from different sporting codes

Shane Keegan talks coaching across a variety of sports. The Laois man will host a hurling coaching workshop in LOETB Centre of Excellence, Portlaoise tomorrow (11am to 5pm) with some of the top coaches in the game. For further details and bookings contact KeeganCoaching.ie 

MEET Shane Keegan. A man who knows every nook and cranny of the League of Ireland. Prolific podcaster. Football analyst. A staunch critic of scoreboard journalism. A lateral thinker. A supporter of lateral thinkers.

A big fan of Stephen Kenny, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Currently sowing the seeds of revolution among the youth of Treaty United FC.

He also bleeds Laois GAA and is just starting out as a Games Promotion Officer (GPO) with Portlaoise GAA.

The Leinster Council is rolling out the hugely successful Dublin coaching model where clubs part-fund a GPO and the Council pick up the rest of the tab.

Leinster clubs are experimenting with different GPO models – one, two, or three clubs can team up and the GPO spreads his/her 40-hours per week evenly across those they’re affiliated to.

Portlaoise have opted for the one-club GPO model with Keegan dedicated to raising standards at O’Moore Park.

Indeed, the famous old ground was the scene of yet another Antrim versus Laois bottom-of-the-table hurling clash last Sunday where Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s men came up with the stoppage-time goods to preserve their Division One status and send Antrim into a relegation play-off with either Offaly or Limerick later this month.

‘Cheddar’ is something of a reluctant legend down in the hurling heartlands of western Laois. After Eddie Brennan stepped away at the end of 2020, ‘Cheddar’ was handed the poisoned chalice of the Laois hurlers for the second time in his managerial career.

“‘Cheddar’ pulled us up by our boot straps over a period of time and put us in a position so that Eddie could drive it on and get the results that he did,” Keegan says, who managed his hometown club Rathdowney-Errill last season where county hurlers Ross King, Paddy Purcell and Jack Kelly play.

“For ‘Cheddar’ to come back and end up manager again, some people said he needed his head checked because it’s been tough, arguably tougher the second time around.”

Laois suffered 33-point and 17-point losses to Waterford and Kilkenny, respectively and weren’t fancied to turn Antrim over in last Sunday’s vital clash. But stoppage-time scores from PJ Scully and ‘Cha’ Dwyer saw them score a brilliant victory.

“Walking back into a training session on a Monday evening after getting beaten by 30-odd points by Waterford as ‘Cheddar’ had to do, and to be able to lift people and keep people together, that’s arguably harder than what John Kiely’s doing, you know. You need your obsessives.

Keegan has heaped praise on Laois hurling manager Seamus Plunkett

“The thing about ‘Cheddar’ is his sincerity. Nothing is ever said for show or to force a reaction. The players just know that he would go to the ends of the earth for them.

“And when the shit hits the fan, he keeps pulling the big results out… we needed that result against Antrim to maintain our Division One status. He’s just a phenomenal man.”

In 2011, Keegan sampled his first taste of League of Ireland management with Wexford Youth and guided them to the First Division title in 2015 at the age of just 28.

He enjoyed a spell with Galway United – where he helped resurrect Rory Hale’s career – and went from being Dundalk’s opposition analyst to the club’s manager during an unstable time at Oriel Park.

In 2018, Gaelic football kingpins Corofin invited him to take some coaching sessions. He's never been afraid to dabble in different sporting codes and feels there is so much to learn among them.

“Sure, management is management.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re managing a soccer team or a hurling team. I was 15 years in commercial advertisement. You’re a manager of your sales team, communication, dealing with people and keeping people on side and getting a reaction from people is 100 per cent universal.

“Also, all these games we’re involved in are becoming possession-based. A good decision-maker is a good decision-maker. It’s trying to create decision-makers, trying to create players who are able to think for themselves.

“I suppose the big thing in decision-making for me is being able to paint a picture for yourself. If I’m a corner-back and my full-back is going to pluck it out of the sky and I know he’s going to hand-pass it to me, and yet I watch him do all that and it’s only when I get the ball I start to look around and assess my options.

“If you know that ball is coming to you, start looking now so you know where everybody is; you’ve painted a picture for yourself and you want to be two steps ahead of everybody else before the ball comes to you.”

He adds: “What’s got big in soccer is ‘scanning’ – can you create scanners, players who can assess things before the ball is in their possession?”

“You definitely can coach it – and you can do it in any sport. Who’s the Xavi at the moment in hurling? It’s Cian Lynch.

“Cian Lynch can only do those things because he’s been scanning and assessing and he knows exactly where everybody is before the ball is in his hand.

“Quite often we refer to lazy hurlers and hard-working hurlers and whoever runs around at 90 miles an hour is a hard-working hurler and the lazy hurler doesn’t run around as much.

“There’s another way of looking at that. The lazy hurler is the one who’s not thinking, who is not assessing his surroundings, who is not scanning, whereas the busy hurler is doing all that. But he mightn’t have had to muscle to do that.”

For the last decade or more Keegan has attended the GAA’s national coaching conferences and gotten so much out of them.

He actually presented at one, pre-COVID, entitled: ‘Learning from elite soccer managers’ where he delved into the coaching philosophies of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Stephen Kenny.

“I know it’s a buzz phrase but I do genuinely believe in it - it’s about creating a culture of ‘psychological safety’ which basically means you’re in an environment where people try things without being terrified of the repercussions from their manager if that thing goes wrong.

“Stephen Kenny’s coaching style would very much be the case of, ‘I’m going to work hard with you on the field in terms of how we bring the ball to the final third. But once we get it to the final third…Ah, lads, go and do your own thing, you have the ability and imagination to make things happen.’

“Stephen is great at giving players freedom within structures if that makes sense.

“I was doing a presentation shortly after Liverpool had won the Champions League and the point I was making, if Klopp hadn’t created a psychologically safe environment there is no way on this earth a young man like Trent Alexander Arnold would have taken that corner [against Barcelona, Champions League] in the manner that he did. That’s because of the culture of psychological safety – it’s encouraged and lads aren’t terrified to try things.”

Keegan also believes that just because a player reaches a certain age it shouldn’t mean their learning stops or that they are averse to different coaching methods.

Ireland international Shane Duffy is a case in point. Despite an unsettled period at Celtic before moving back to Brighton, the central defender has proven he is capable of passing better out of defence.

“Things probably got worse for Duffy before they got better... Stephen genuinely does believe that a 27-year-old, who has been a professional footballer for 10 years, can be improved and can be made to be a better player.

“And because he communicates that in the right manner in those discussions with the players all of a sudden they are open to it, because most 27-year-old footballers do think they’re the finished product. But there are definitely similarities there between Stephen and ‘Cheddar’ in just the way they communicate and players buy into what they say.”

Earlier this week, the FAI gave Kenny a contract extension that takes him to the end of the 2024 European Championships, a couple of weeks away from the Republic of Ireland’s two home friendlies against Belgium (March 26) and Lithuania (March 29) before they can look ahead to this summer’s UEFA Nations League.

The fact that Kenny earned his reputation in the League of Ireland gives other local managers hope of plying their trade at a higher level.

“Stephen’s appointment was a huge boost for the League of Ireland because things hadn’t gone as well as we all would have liked when Brian [Kerr] got the job years back and people would have said: ‘Oh, sure it’s only the League of Ireland… It didn’t work out for Brian Kerr.’

“And yet it could so easily have gone much better for Brian, to be honest.

“The current side has definitely turned the corner under Stephen. That’s down to his strength of conviction.

“Stephen’s dedication to sticking to his identity has been tremendous. It would have been so easy to tear up the script and start all over again and play a different style and say: ‘We can’t do this; we can’t do that. We’re too idealistic…’

“But he’s stuck with it and it is working and moving in the right direction. With someone like Stephen being a potentially successful Ireland manager is just huge for League of Ireland managers.

“You’ve got young managers like Tim Clancy and Ruairi Higgins, Stephen O’Donnell, Stephen Bradley – if they’re able to be successful League of Ireland managers and they see a former League of Ireland manager as a successful international manager, now there’s a clear pathway there.”

As part of his role with Portlaoise GAA, Shane Keegan will host a hurling coaching workshop tomorrow at LOETB Centre of Excellence, Portlaoise (11am to 5pm), cost €50, featuring Derek McGrath, Christy O’Connor, Eamonn O’Shea, Kevin Murray, Willie Maher and Mickey McCullough. Each coach will present for 40 minutes on different aspects of the game. For further details and bookings contact KeeganCoaching.ie

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Football/Soccer