Mark Copeland – From the dojo to the sideline

Despite playing soccer with the McCartan boys, the GAA was something that never registered with former Down coach Mark Copeland. At 18 though, that all changed.

MARK Copeland will arrive at Healy Park in Omagh tomorrow night and whatever the outcome for his Aghyaran side against Aghaloo, he will reflect on where his GAA journey has taken him.

Unlike most managers in this year’s Tyrone Intermediate Championship, the GAA wasn’t the be-all and end-all in his childhood. In fact, it barely even registered for the Down man.

A sports lecturer in Southern Regional College in Newry, he only started playing the sport aged 18. Now at 36, he has quite the CV built up including managing and coaching at inter-county level.

A keen student, he has furthered his BSc Hons Degree in Sport Studies by graduating again from Ulster University in 2018 with a Masters Degree in Sports Coaching. Many other qualifications have been added along the way.

An Ulster GAA tutor, sports analyst, nutrition expert and personal trainer, he has tried to combine as many aspects as possible in order to be the best manager that he can be. Of course he realises that certificates can only get you so far and that there is much more to management, like personality, intuition and good decision-making, but he wants to be as prepared as possible.

It’s feels a long way from a childhood free of any knowledge of Peter Canavan, Mick Lyons and Charlie Redmond.

I grew up on the outskirts of a village called Donacloney. It was also home at that time to the McCartan family who owned the Laganside Bar.

A few of my sisters would have worked in the bar but I had no idea who the family were and never even knew what the GAA was.

We didn’t play it at primary school (St. Colman’s, Dromore) so I had no introduction or knowledge of the sport.

I grew up fishing and hunting with my dad, who would have played cricket and soccer for the village, so there was definitely no GAA there.”

He may not have known an O’Neill’s size five from a kicking tee, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t being exposed to GAA royalty – even if he didn’t realise it at the time.

There were times when I would have went to the bar with my mum or dad to pick up my sisters who might have been working or finishing a Saturday afternoon shift.

They would have told me to go and play with the two boys in the house around the same age as me.

These two boys turned out to be Eoin and Daniel McCartan, and I actually ended up coaching the latter when I was with Burren in 2016.

There was still no sign of GAA at this time. If I met the boys at the bar it was always down to the soccer pitch, which was down the lane beside the bar.

There was no toe-tapping, soloing or high catches. I was always told to be goalkeeper and the two boys had penalty competitions against each other.

Little did I know these two boys would go on and represent Down or that others in the house at that time were being crowned All-Ireland champions in 1991 and ‘94.

Everyone talks about remembering 91 and 94. Not me, I still didn’t know what the GAA was or how it would, over two decades later, be such an integral part of my life.”

It was in St Patrick’s College in Banbridge where Copeland first managed to get familiar with football.

My first real link to GAA came in high school where I watched my first matches and training sessions as a spectator. I really only went to get out of class as 90 percent of the boys in my classes would have been involved.

I made it through first to fifth year without being involved in the teams but I did participate in the athletics teams and got on quite well at most of the running events, which seemed to suit me.”

Football and athletics were very much down the list though to another sport though, karate.

At this time in high school I was representing Dromore and Northern Ireland at karate, a sport I was involved in for over 15 years,” Copeland said.

I was getting to travel locally and internationally to compete in Provincial, All-Ireland, European and World Championships. This is where my focus was and I never had any intentions of looking at any other sports bar running, which I used as fitness for my karate.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I was properly introduced to GAA. There was an off-season in karate around January or February time before the local competitions would kick in again around March with the bigger events coming later in the year.

One of my teammates had a friend who played for Clann na Banna and would have attended some of our sparring sessions as extra training. He also had brother who played for Tullylish and said that their pre-season would be kicking off and it would be great training for me during our off-season as it usually involved heavy running and endurance work.

I decided to go to Clann na Banna training because of the familiarity with the pitches right beside my high school and a number of class mates were still playing.”

Despite originally being something to tide him over while the martial arts season took a break, the GAA started to take a hold on Copeland.

The pre-season running of Castlewellan Lake and muddy pitches seemed easy to him given his athletic ability.

When the balls came out, he knew that he was miles behind in terms of skills but the camaraderie was seeping into his veins.

When pre-season finished and the challenge matches began, I became a spectator and supporter of Clann na Banna.

I also took in my first inter-county games in the McKenna Cup and National Leagues, travelling to games with other players to support Down.

Karate was my main sport, but I was beginning to grow an appetite for the GAA. The sense of ‘team’ stood out most as when competing in karate, once you were out on the mats you were all alone.

Within the GAA you cross the white line with 14 others and everyone is dependent on each other to get results. I was drawn to this.

Months passed and I would go watch Friday night games and drop into training sessions to take part with the Clann when it didn’t interfere with karate. I even togged out for some reserve games when I could and enjoyed the social aspect of this as there would have been one or two pints taken after games.

The same measures were put in place the following season. I knew when pre-season was going to be so I prepared better for the football side of things and had practiced and trained alone during the winter.

Pre-season had more running but I was still managing to be pretty good at any aspects that involved running. The balls were introduced into the field sessions and although not perfect, there was certainly an improvement.

I was fortunate that I had good pace and endurance so it fitted in well to the demands of the sport and the more I trained and got coached, the more I began to enjoy all aspects of it. I even managed a full season with the reserves and somehow collected the Reserve Player of the Year award.”

That may seem a modest achievement for some, but for a person that only picked up the sport a few years beforehand, it was a huge accomplishment.

It would be in coaching and management where Copeland would really flourish though.

During this time I was beginning university to complete a degree in Sport Studies and this led to my initial introduction to coaching where you would have to complete peer-coaching sessions as part of some practical modules,” he said.

I had been coaching some of the younger students in my karate classes so was very comfortable in the coaching setting and was really developing an appetite to do more coaching.

I enrolled in a number of governing body coaching awards offered by the university to complete, one of which was the GAA Foundation Coaching Award.

I then used this qualification to apply to be a coach during the Down Cul Camps. I was hooked. I was still competing at international level in karate but knew I needed to see where I could take my new passion for coaching and the GAA.”

Having helped out with the SRC GAA team, his first big break came in 2011 when he joined up with the Down ladies.

Years of work would cumulate in All-Ireland Intermediate triumph in 2014 when the Mourne county defeated Fermanagh 6-16 to 1-10 at Croke Park.

Copeland had replaced Myles Cahill as manager mid-season and his stress levels would have been sky-high as Sligo missed a great goal chance to dump them out in the quarter-final before they needed extra-time to see off Leitrim in the semi-final.

The final was a different story though as they had 21 points to spare on a glorious day at Headquarters.

Success continued to roll in as he was a coach under Jim McCorry when Kilcoo claimed the 2013 and ’14 Down Championships.

When McCorry was handed the Down job the following season, he had no hesitation in adding Copeland to a backroom team that also included John Morgan and Ciaran Sloan.

McCorry’s controversial exit after just one year meant that Copeland had to look for pastures new and after coaching with Burren and Ulster University, he spent some time in America where he coached the Monaghan New York side. Despite a great run to the final, they were beaten by a Donegal side that contained the likes of Odhran MacNiallais and Leo McLoone.

He returned home and after spells with Down outfit Rostrevor and Louth side Cooley, Copeland now finds himself ticking off another box as he prepares for his first game in the helter-skelter Tyrone Championship.

It’s been a good fit thus far with the St Davog’s winning four of their five league games heading into the contest, but as everyone knows, the Tyrone Club Championships are famous for throwing up surprises.

Whatever happens, Copeland will drive home content that his coaching journey, his GAA journey, continues to take memorable twists and turns.

All this for a sport that he hardly knew for much of his life. Another addict snared.

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