History - Youth Hurling

Bredagh Youth Hurling

By Danny Hughes, November 2011

Whilst Senior hurling languished, youth hurling was about to be born at Bredagh. It was Spring in2002 when I was approached by Jerome Quinn who had come up with a novel concept of a hurling academy for the youth of Bredagh to follow on from a similar programme which was running for the footballers. I was not involved in the Bredagh Club at the time, having retired four years earlier but my 2 sons, Donal and Cormac, were members.

Jerome’s enthusiasm won me over. He quickly secured funding, equipment was purchased and the word went out that the great game of hurling was once again being offered to the youth of Bredagh. Training sessions ran on Saturday mornings for a period of about 6 weeks in May and June with attendances in the region of 18 over an age range between 10 - 13. Coaching was provided by Ciaran White, Aidan McKegney, Mark Hughes and myself. I was surprised at the skill shown by many of the boys but then discovered that some were receiving coaching from Tony Dougan, a teacher at the local St Michaels Primary School. Tony later became a coach with Bredagh and his son Emmet played for the Club until U16.

The idea of the project was that it was a one-off but I had seen enough in those few early weeks to know there was real talent and appetite for the game within the Club. I asked if we could hold onto the gear and recommence training at a later stage. This was agreed and training sessions were organised later that Summer with some older kids from U14 football wanting to get in on the action and Conalll Donnelly despite limited hurling knowledge providing invaluable assistance in helping out with the coaching of the older boys.

By the end of August we needed a game. I contacted my home Club Ballycran. We travelled down the Ards Peninsula on a fine Summer evening to play the boys in black and amber. The final Score escapes  me now but that is not important as this was an historic day as Bredagh had competed in their first underage hurling match. From that day on the seed was sown and there was no turning back. However back then I did not imagine how hurling in Bredagh would grow to such at extent that now, some 9 years later, we are catering for every age group from U6 to Senior with such a high degree of professionalism shown by administrators and coaches.

By 2003 we had set our sights on competition for our U12s and U14s and whilst we were still a long way off the Ards teams we were able to hold our own with the mainland clubs. Incredibly, we went on to win Divisionision2 and the B Championship at both levels.  Those were heady days and our first ever trophy was collected at Liatroim when the U14s beat Newry Shamrocks by a point after extra time in the Down Féile B Shield.  They then went on to lift the B Championship with a great win in the final over Ballela at Downpatrick.  Not to be outdone the U12s shocked the hurling world when they beat a fancied Liatroim in the Championship semi and went on to take the title against Warrenpoint at a wet Castlewellan.

The year 2004 is best remembered for the Féile that got away. We were competing in the B section of the Down Féile at Portaferry and had won our way through to the final against a Liatroim team whom we had beaten easily in the league a couple of weeks earlier. Everything was going to plan and we were looking forward to our trip to Offaly in June for the National Féile when suddenly Liatroim banged in two late goals to win by a point. There was major disappointment but before we left Portaferry that day we made a pact that we would return the following year and take the title, which we did. It was 2005 when Bredagh made a breakthrough at Féile, winning the B section in Down and progressing to the National finals in Cork where we were hosted by the Mayfield club in Cork city, a club with whom we have maintained strong links. By that time the U14s were under the management of Aidan McKegney, Gerry Woods and myself. The Cork experience for players, mentors and supporters was immense. By now the whole hurling side of the Club was expanding with a flood of new coaches and the setting up of squads at U10 and U16. Eamon Mulvenna was by now even looking ahead at the prospect of a Senior team. I thought it would never work, but then what do I know?

All of this experience meant that many within the Club, the County and indeed further afield were suddenly viewing Bredagh as a real emerging force in juvenile hurling. In 2006 we were fielding at all underage levels up to Minor and were competing favourably with the non Ards teams. In 2006 Bredagh won a second Féile success at B level in Down and the boys headed south to Laois to compete in Divisionision4 of the National Féile. A year later Bredagh moved up to the A section of the County Féile. This was a sign of progress as we were now competing with the Ards teams; Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry and although we did not win that was exactly where we wanted to be. We knew that with the right structures in place and with a steely determination we would one day reach the high standards set by the boys from the Ards.

Moving on through the latter half of the Noughties the U14, U16, and Minor hurlers of Bredagh continued on a regular basis to collect League and Championship trophies at B level. The big breakthrough came in 2010 when Bredagh sent shockwaves through the Ards hurling fraternity by winning the A County Féile a feat that had not been achieved by a non Ards team in over 40 years.

The potential in this special squad of young hurlers was identified by Aidan Smyth, Ultan Power and Michael McGourty at U10 level and when they had prógressed through to U14 a management team of Eamon Mullvenna, Eugene Irwin, and Michael McGourty was empowered with the task of taking the boys to a B title in Down and have a lash at the National Division 4. Senior hurlers Paddy Byrne and Paul Kelly were drafted in to assist in the preparations. However when it was realised that the B winners would not be travelling South we quickly opted to compete in the A section and took the title with an historic win over Portaferry in the final at Castlewellan.

The boys headed to Clare more in hope than expectation to compete in Divisionision2 of the National Féile but incredibly won their way through to the final.  Although they lost the final to strong Raherny team from Westmeath on a hot Sunday afternoon at Cusack Park, Ennis, they had really put Bredagh on the hurling map. Later in the season they annexed the U14 A Championship beating Ballygalget in the final by an amazing 7-15 to 0-7.

The U16s have in the last few years had league and championship wins over Ards teams as well as top Belfast teams and an A title may not be too far off. As for the Minors they recorded a memorable win in the A Championship quarter final this year against Ballygalget when they pulled away in extra time of the replay in what was a real thriller. In the semi final they lost out to Carryduff, another Club making great strides on the hurling front despite only having introduced the game in recent years.

We have high hopes for many of the boys in our underage squads to develop in the next few years and bolster not only the Bredagh Senior team but also the Down County team. Indeed eleven of the 2010 Féile squad currently participate on Down Development squads; Mark Patterson, Sean McGourty, Daniel Devlin, Conor Francis, Conor Costello, Damian Hanrahan, Kaelan Power, Stephen Young (u15); Niall Smyth, Sean Blaney and Ronan Quinn (U14). Others juvenile who have represent Down include; Aidan Donaghy, Ronan Smyth and Enda McGonigle (U16); and Niall Irwin, Danny Robinson, Conrad Quinn and Lorcan McMullan (Minor).

If you add the current 9 Senior and u21 Down and South Down representatives of Cormac and Donal Hughes, Eóghan and Niall Donnelly, Conalll Mulholland, Paul Kelly, Paddy Byrne, Ian Galway and Emmet Trainor along with established Senior players developed through our youth system such as Ryan Curran, Mark Devlin and Michael Whyte, it’s not inconceivable that Bredagh will field a future Senior team who have all represented Down at some stage in their hurling career.

Perhaps more importantly for the future of hurling in Bredagh is the ongoing development of U12, U10, U8 and u6 squads. The numbers at U10 and U12 are on the increase and these teams compete in the ‘Go Games’ blitzes and matches organised by the County, Ulster Council and individual clubs. Bredagh representatives, in particular Eugene Irwin, have been instrumental in the introduction and promotion of hurling in local primary schools; St Michael’s, St Bernard’s and Holy Rosary. It is hoped that the game will continue and flourish in such an environment.  When Autumn turns to Winter each year and Cherryvale closes its gates, the young hurlers of Bredagh move to indoor facilities to continue their development. Come January/February, teams at U10 and U12 are entered in the North Antrim Indoor Leagues and there has been success here most recently in 2010 when Bredagh won U10 and U12 titles on finals day in Ballymena. The U10s are also the current holders of the prestigious Tommy Best Cup which is hosted annually by the St John’s club in Belfast.

Due to popular demand hurling for U6s was introduced and suddenly Cherryvale on Saturday afternoons has become a sight to behold as upwards on 150 young Bredagh hurlers descend on the place to be put through their paces. The raw material is plentiful and it is up to the coaches to teach the skills and instil in the kids a love for the great game. There is outstanding talent within the younger age groups in the range U6 – U12 and these youngsters are now competing week in, week out, with not only the strongest teams in Down but in Ulster and beyond and fear none.  This augers well for the future of the game within the Club moving forward.