DECEMBER 25? How about April 12? Clonoe’s health and wellbeing officer Louise Hughes says that the latter date will be like Christmas Day for the kids in this thriving east Tyrone club.
The gates will open on O’Rahilly Park on Monday as collective outdoors training in pods of 15 is permitted to resume after the third, even more glacially-paced than the previous two, lockdown comes to some sort of end after months of societal shutdown.
Hughes, who also coaches the minor ladies team, said: “I suppose it’s like Christmas for them – like they’re counting the sleeps until Santa comes. We know they’re very eager to see each other, and some of the kids haven’t seen each other in quite some time either because they go to different schools or their year groups aren’t back yet.
“It’s been a pretty isolating time for our children locally. That’s why we’ve been keen to get that interaction going. So we’ve provided a platform for them to keep them connected. It’s so important for their emotional health – showing that they’re important to the club as players or potential players, but also important to each other.”
Clonoe are a strong Division One outfit in Tyrone, and they’re doing well at underage level as well (their u-14 boys team won the Grade Three championship last year, while their u-16 girls team completed a league and championship double in 2019 for example). However, they still harbour the same fears of player drop-out as many other clubs. That said, the club is intrinsic to the local community and that point has been pressed home during the pandemic.
Hughes said: “Some degree of drop-out is always inevitable, particular in the mid-to-late teens when there’s a lot of external pressure from school work, socialising and other sports.
“We are a rural club and people are very loyal generally speaking, and it goes way beyond the actual game itself. There’s that connection with your community – I for example don’t play, I coach and I’m on the committee so it’s part of my identity.
“The club is part of who we are, and we’re in a pandemic you cling to things that provide you with health and security in your life, and our club does that.”
In terms of what Clonoe have actually done to keep their members active and engaged during the pandemic, it’s almost too lengthy to list. During the first wave, kids performed skills challenges in the sunshine, while they enlisted senior stars like Connor McAliskey and Sinead Hanna to demonstrate their skills while sending out messages of hope during turbulent times. The winter months have been a bit more complicated for obvious reasons, but they’ve availed of technology by necessity to keep club members ticking over in a variety of ways.
“Initially it was mostly about promoting a public health message as none of us had been in this position before. It placed a major sense of responsibility on us to do something.
“In between times, we had a relaxation of restrictions which was great and what our young people needed – that sense of reuniting as a community.
“Lo and behold we found ourselves in another lockdown, but at least we had an understanding of what worked well.
“The difference this time is that kids were limited in what they could do over the winter months, so we had to introduce a number of new initiatives.
“We weren’t a club that used technology much before the pandemic, but we’ve embraced it and our youth officer James Rafferty has been great, setting up different things for children were it wasn’t just the same old YouTube videos.
“The challenges have been unique to different age groups and families – for example, for the older groups like the u-16s and minors, they’ve been purposely made quite difficult.
“For example, we put our minor girls into mini-teams and had them either jog, walk or run the equivalent distance to Croke Park, just around Clonoe.
“It gave them the opportunity to work with girls they wouldn’t necessarily have been friends with, so it kept that camaraderie going. They communicated what they were doing each other, totted up their mileage and at the end there were prizes given out. It has helped because this particular lockdown has been tiresome and I don’t think anyone expected it to last this long.”
She continued: “It’s basically been about bringing things back to basics – one of the challenges has been 200 solos on your left and 200 on your right, and we won’t always get those opportunities as once the season starts everything is so full on.
“Our youth officer also redesigned our Go Games over winter, we had poster competitions where children helped design logos so they were partaking in the wider rebranding for our new Go Games when they return, and the local shop helped out as well. Things like that help keep that connection with our players and families as it’s a huge investment for them too.”