APART from their 18th century country house, 40-acre country park, and walled-in children’s playground, north Derry club Claudy John Mitchel’s are just like any other club.
Okay, they’re not really, but they do share many of the problems that other clubs have, such as relegation battles, player drop out, and emigration, it just so happens they also own one of the most attractive tourist spots in the Oak Leaf county.
One of the reason’s for their unique situations is, that when it comes to finances, and property, they have got it sussed. If Championships were won by fund-raising, and seeking out grants, then Claudy would be multiple winners.
Not only that, but they also boast proper cross-community club credentials. The GAA media may have been excited when Peter Robinson attended a match recently, but that’s old hat in Claudy. In their town all sections of the community are involved and catered for.
Tom O’Kane is the current chairman. He is in his third year in charge of the club, and despite being from Tyrone, he is a loyal John Mitchel’s man as he has taught in the area for almost 40 years. Tom is also a founder member of Glenelly GAC in Plumbridge.
When O’Kane first arrived, he was amazed at the club’s facilities, but he soon discovered that here was a club that were not happy to rest on their laurels.
He praised his predecessor for his penchant for forward-planning.
“The work we are carrying out now is the restoration of Cumber house and the building of the 3G pitch, is the vision of Vincent McCloskey, our former Chairman.”
Cumber house is an 18th century house, and one of the most famous locations in Claudy. It used for social activities and meetings, but is badly in need of repair.
The 3G pitch was laid last year and already it is a success as it has been used by soccer sides such as Derry City, Claudy Rovers, Claudy United and Dungiven Celtic. John Brennan’s Oak Leafers have also availed of the facility as well as Steelstown GAC, Doire Trasna and Glenelly GAC.
The restoration of Cumber house and the construction of the 3G pitch were the visions of McCloskey, but in order for them to happen, they needed funding and that is where Claudy’s members extraordinary talent for fund-raising came to the fore.
For the restoration, it was deemed that nearly £1 million was needed, because the house has a preservation order upon and is regarded as a building of great historical significance. So far, they have raised £814,000 towards that sum. Over half of that came from a Heritage fund, and £150,000 was awarded by the City of Culture organisation. The rest came from other sources.
It seems like a lot of effort and expense for a building that has no obvious connection to the GAA, but O’Kane explained its importance.
“It has been the centrepiece of our club since we bought it 40 years ago,” O’Kane said. “It is of historical importance for the area, and it is a beautiful building.”
The 3G pitch has a more practical purpose, as they not only use it to train on, but it is also a useful revenue source, as all the money they raise from it can go back into the club. The £800,000 facility is paid for with £120,000 towards changing rooms from club funds.
They have some talented members who know where and how to get the big grants.
Indeed, O’Kane said the club’s greatest strength was the collective talents of its committee, especially our Development Officer, Emmett McCloskey.
“There is a good broad base of people that make up a strong committee, who are terrific. We all come together for our love of Gaelic games. We don’t always agree, but we can agree to disagree and get things done.”
According to O’Kane, the club never have a problem raising money from businesses in the town either.
“Local businesses all get the opportunity in turn to sponsor the club teams,” he said.
Claudy is situated not far from the main Derry to Belfast road, what O’Kane calls a dormitory town, in that it is a good base for those who want to work in the city, but live in the country. Their health and well-being officer, Garth Martin, is from Fermanagh, and the secretary, Eugene O’Neill is from Down.
“There wasn’t much housing in Claudy 15-20 years ago, but then there was the boom, there was a lot more houses built. A lot of families came here.”
It is tempting to suggest that lifelong club members care more than those who might be labelled blow-ins, although anyone who has been involved with the association will know that that is a fallacy. Claudy certainly prove that such is their dedication to administration and coaching.
At underage level, the structures in place, and the people who are involved have delivered success. For example they won the u-14 B league last year. Conal Donaghy is owed a debt of gratitude for his work as the youth officer of the club, and Gavin McLaughlin has now taken on this role.
“A number of years ago we started to put in a big effort because we realised our children were not being properly catered for. We made sure that we had the right people in place,” O’Kane said.
“It is the same approach that we use when we select officers on the committee.”
Essentially, they take a professional attitude and apply that to running an amateur organisation.
Unfortunately, the club have not achieved the success that they would like on the field. There most recent achievement of note was an Intermediate championship win in 2005, yet they know that they can do better.
“We played Coleraine in the Intermediate championship in 2005 and beat them, beat them well in fact. A few years later they get promoted and then go on to win the senior championship, but we’re still where we were.”
“Player drop off is a big issue. Most players drop off between 20-22. Some come back to help out at underage level. We have done a lot of work to help make that happen, like have social nights for past players. As a result of our social initiatives, we were invited to meet the President.”
Getting old players to come back into the club does not solve the problem of a lack of current success though.
To illustrate how serious a problem it is, the club, on occasion, were forced to fly players back from Scotland so they could field competitive teams in league and championship.
Emigration is a problem too. Gavin Donaghy, the former county star, is currently travelling in Australia, though his brother Martin is at home, and still turning out for the club.
The suggestion that soccer is a problem was denied by O’Kane, who said that while some of their players fielded for local teams like Claudy Rovers, it wasn’t regarded as a distraction.
Nor could the troubled history of Claudy be blamed as a factor. The North Derry town has had many problems over the years.
“That’s all in the past. We don’t have any problems now. We are a cross-community club. At the opening of our 3G pitch the Parish Priest, Fr David O’Kane, and the Reverend David Slater blessed the facility. Both sides of the community use our 3G pitch now.
What is odd about Claudy is that the problems that outsiders would expect them to have, are not troubling the John Mitchel’s side at all. They don’t see soccer as a threat as they are by far the largest sporting organisation in the area.
However, their biggest concern is on the field. For O’Kane, he sees it as a constant struggle to make the players, and some members believe that they can be better, that they can compete at the highest level. Yet he is still positive about Claudy’s future, both on and off the field
“The future of this club is bright. We are looking forward to the future.
“A big priority for us this year is the development of ladies football, and this year we will be fielding u-14 and u-16 teams in that code.
“We are looking forward to getting more people involved, the re-opening of Cumber house, and the organisation of the club’s 125th celebrations next year. Hopefully we will make it to the senior ranks in the not too distant future.”