As part of our series talking to ex Belvo boys in the League of Ireland, Jamie Moore spoke to Bohemians First-Team Coach Graham O'Hanlon.
Questions by Jamie Moore (JM) - Take me back to when you first joined Belvo, how did the move come about and what are your memories of the club?
Answer from Graham O’Hanlon (GOH): I first joined Belvedere in 1995 when I was 17. I had spent the previous five seasons with Stella Maris the majority of that was with Jimmy Jackson as my manager. Unfortunately Jimmy left after the U17 season and I had been aware that Phil Manly had tried to sign me a good few times in previous seasons. With Jimmy leaving Stella I felt it was time for a fresh start and Belvedere were always a club that I admired. Although I actually only got to play one season with them I thoroughly enjoyed it. Phil Manly and John Moore were the managers when I joined and both were very good to me. They really cared about their players and looked after them and while the season passed and was quickly forgotten I still have great relations with both Phil and John, and really enjoy catching up with them when we meet.
JM: What other players that we might know did you play with?
GOH: I only spent the one season as a player with Belvedere but as I said they were always on the radar and were always challenging for trophies. I always remember games between Stella and Belvo having a real edge and being extremely competitive. I always remember the side-lines would be heaving with people at those games! When I played with Stella and Jimmy was the manager we had an exceptionally strong group with players like Alan Mannix, Glen Crowe, Ross Darcy, Sean Maher – at one stage we had eight or nine internationals on the team so it was very strong team and we won the All Ireland together beating a Crumlin team on the way that had won three All Irelands in a row.
The Belvedere teams always had really good players and played great football, I particularly remember playing against Stephen Murphy in midfield, with Graham Cassin playing as well. Unfortunately with Belvedere my one season there wasn’t too successful I think we were beaten in two cup semi-finals and after challenging for the league for a long time we faded away a little. I was disappointed to not win anything in my last season as a schoolboy but like I said the relations I have and the connection with Belvo will last a lot longer.
JM: You were also an underage international as a schoolboy, tell me about that?
GOH: I played on the U15 and U16 international teams and was in the Youth Squads as well. We had a very talented team with players already mentioned and others like Ian Harte and Ally Mahon in the squad. Joe McGrath (latterly my manager at Bohemians) was the manager with Maurice Price as the coach. Maurice was a great character and a fearsome character. I think all the lads were secretly terrified of him, I know I was! But he was a great coach and a really nice person as well. I still remember some of his sessions now and some conversations I had with him about coaching as I was always interested in why we were doing certain things in training and I actually remember him saying I would make a good coach, I don’t know whether that was because he didn’t really rate me as a player!
JM: Tell me about your football career after Belvo?
After I left Belvo I joined Bray Wanderers and pretty much went straight into their first team at 18 – we ended up getting relegated that year as we didn’t have a particularly strong team, but I was playing all the time and gained invaluable experience and learned what it took to play in the Premier Division. I mostly played in central midfield and playing against players like Paul Doolin and Eddie Gormley etc, I learned pretty quickly that the standard was very high! I also played a good few games at centre half and right back which was probably a feature of my career, because I could play in different positions I got shunted around a lot, I could have been playing very well in midfield but because of an injury or suspension I was put in at centre half and maybe I only had an ok game and suddenly you would be out of the team – sometimes it pays only to be able to play in one position that’s all I can say!
After Bray I joined Bohemians under Joe McGrath and stayed there for two years, with Roddy Collins coming in for the second year. Things went very well under Roddy in his first year at Bohs and I was in the team the whole time. In the second year, I tore my knee cartilage early in the season and then came back and played five games and tore it again in the same knee. I ended up being out for a year after that and probably wasn’t ever really the same and my knee became an on-going problem. Bohs were looking to go full time in Roddy’s second season but I was in college at the time and after recently having a bad injury I wasn’t willing to go full time so I decided to focus on my education and to play football part time. As it turns out it was a good decision and I needed a further three operations on the same knee and retired at 28! However, I had a business degree, a Masters in Finance and was a qualified accountant so I was glad that I had stuck to my education – and to be honest the ability to be able to study and absorb information is a good attribute to have when you go into coaching.
JM: Lets move on to the coaching, you first came in to get some experience with John Moore and Jimmy Jackson at Belvo, what was that like?
GOD: Well after I retired I was obviously interested in staying involved in football and coaching was something I had in the back of my mind. I started my UEFA B badge and got in touch with Jimmy Jackson who is the Director of Football at Belvo and asked if there were any teams I could get some experience with. Jimmy very kindly offered me the opportunity to work with the Belvo U15 which he and John Moore were managing. It was slightly nerve wracking at the start but everyone was very friendly. I remember a couple of sessions or drills which I did at the start didn’t quite go according to plan but I learned more from them than from the ones which went well and worked hard to correct my mistakes.
There were some very good players on that team, Pierce Sweeney (now at Reading); Kealan Dillon (Athlone); Sean Kavanagh (Fulham); Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn) and I really enjoyed working with them. They won the All Ireland at the end of the season which was a great way for some of the lads to finish their playing career at Belvo before heading over to England.
JM: People always talk about 'The Belvo Way', the club, and the football that Belvo play, what would you say 'The Belvo Way' is if I asked you to define it?
GOH: A focus on firstly good coaching through which the development of players follows. A strong focus on ensuring players are disciplined and train correctly which all helps to develop good habits in the players not just for football but for life. There is also a very strong focus on trying to get the best players playing together on each team to help their development and to be competitive. I think the success Belvo has had and is continuing to have in the All Ireland Cups for example, is testament to that and any parents sending their child down to Belvo know they will playing with good players and they will be developed in the correct manner.
JM: After a year coaching at Belvo you moved on to work with the Bohs U20s, tell me about that?
GOH: Jimmy had some conversations with Pat Fenlon about me and recommended me to work with the Bohemians reserve or ‘A’ League team as it was at the time, along with the Bohemians U20 team. There were a lot of young Belvedere players coming into the ‘A’ team that season with some really good players like Kevin Feely, Gary Burke, Stephen Traynor, Roberto Lopes, Keith Buckley, and Christopher Forrester all of whom went on to play for Bohemians in the Premier Division, and for the U20’s we had young lads through from Belvo like Paddy Seery, Conor O’Brien, Dan Mahon, Michael Barker, Philip McCabe and in our last U19 season we had Jake Hyland who is now in the first team squad along with Philly McCabe.
When I first worked as a coach with the reserve and U20 teams it was a good mix because the reserve team obviously had a lot of experienced players along with some really good young players, and the U20 team was full of good young players with great potential. Eddie Wallace and Larry Corbally were in charge of the teams at the time and they were brilliant to work with as I think they saw the benefit of someone who was young and enthusiastic being able to work with the younger players and bring them through to the first team. I learnt an awful lot with Larry and Eddie and I will always be grateful to them for giving me the opportunity and trusting me to work with the players.
I really enjoyed my time with the reserve and U20 teams as it let me gain valuable experience - we got a large number of players through to the Bohemians first team and currently have Roberto Lopes, Stephen Traynor, Keith Buckley, Philip McCabe and Jake Hyland as part of our first team squad – that is before we add in older players who played for Belvo such as Derek Pender etc.
The last season of the reserve league saw Owen Heary and myself work together for the first time, Owen was keen to get into management and Pat Fenlon appointed him reserve team manager and I became his assistant. We have always worked very well together and I like to try and give an alternative view on things to Owen rather than just agreeing with his views, which I think he appreciates more than somebody just agreeing with him.
JM: After a couple of years with the U20s and A team, you became Assistant Manager and then Manager of the U19s, before First Team Manager Aaron Callaghan was sacked and you became Assistant Manager of the First Team?
GOH: When Aaron came in as First Team Manger he appointed Owen as Assistant Manager and as he was completing his UEFA A Licence he kept managing the U19 side. In his second year as Assistant Manager he was obviously a lot busier with the first team and I became U19 manager. As things turned out, Aaron left Bohs in July 2013 and Owen was appointed Caretaker Manager and he asked me to be his Assistant – that obviously meant I had to leave the U19’s before the start of the season which I was slightly disappointed about as I felt we had assembled a strong squad and I was looking forward to working with them.
However, I realised the chance to work with the first team was too good an opportunity to turn down.
When Owen took over as Manager we had only 14 points from 20 games, we were bottom of the table four points below the team that were second bottom and we hadn’t won in 11 games – so it was a challenging set of circumstances to come in under. Owen was suspended from the dressing room and the dug-out for the first two goals due to being sent off when he was still playing before Aaron left. So I was in charge for the first two games where we beat Bray 3-1 and we also secured a good draw at home to Drogheda.
When you only have 13 games left in a season and you are bottom of the table by four points every game you play is absolutely vital. There were also some very obvious deficiencies in the squad which we worked hard to improve upon in particular we worked a lot of defending and defensive shape and this was vital to us staying up. In the end we just about avoided the play-off position and we were relieved as it gave us the time to put our own stamp on the squad and to get in the players we wanted during the off-season.
JM: Once Owen Heary got on the Pro Licence earlier this year, he was named First Team Manager, how did you find your first off season in pro football as a coach in terms of planning and player recruitment and the continued re-building of Bohs?
GOH: I think that as anyone who is involved in the league as part of the staff of a Premier Club will tell you, you’re never really on a break as such. Even when the season is on you are constantly looking at other teams and players you feel might improve your own team and as soon as the season ends you are into an intense process of trying to hold onto the players you want to keep while trying to secure the ones you want from other clubs. As most players are only on one season contracts the off-season tends to be very busy as you are meeting existing players and potential recruits to try and get your squad together. This year we were able to recruit relatively early and had the majority of our squad in place by the start of December.
JM: There are a good few ex Belvo players still at Bohs now, Roberto Lopes, Stephen Traynor, Dinny Corcoran, Jake Hyland, Dano Byrne, Keith Buckley, Darragh Reynor and Philly McCabe plus yourself. Tell me a bit about that and working with so many ex Belvo lads? What does that say about Belvo that so many former players are at Bohs, and playing in the league in general, with many more playing abroad?
GOH: In addition to the off-season work we do at senior level there is also a lot of work done during the season and in the off-season on scouting and recruiting schoolboy players for the U19 team. This is something me and Owen are very focused on as young players are the lifeblood of the club. If you get good young players in early, treat them well, give them good coaching and take an interest in their development they can progress very well and end up as part of your first team squad. I have been lucky enough to have been involved with lads like Pico, Traynor, Buckp, Dano Byrne, Jake Hyland, Philly McCabe and Lee Whelan who have all come through the reserve, U20 or U19 teams and it’s great to now to be working with them as part of the first team squad. You hope that given that they have come up through the ranks at Bohs that they develop a good affinity for the club and want to stay and further their career here. I think Bohs is a great club for any young talented player to come to at the moment because given the financial constraints in place they will get their opportunity to play Premier Division football regardless of their age if they are good enough.
We are lucky that we have an awful lot of Belvedere alumni on the books at Bohs and across the league actually. That is testament to the quality of coaching the players receive from a young age at Belvo and they play a vital role in the development of football in Ireland. Any players we have from Belvedere are always technically good players and they also have a good work ethic and discipline about how they look after themselves and how they behave which is also vital.
JM: Yourself, Johnny McDonnell, Trevor Croly, Martin Russell, Stephen Kenny, Tony Cousins and Jamie Moore are all working in the league as coaches and managers, not a bad percentage of the overall number of managers/coaches in the league?
GOH: Belvedere is very well represented in the league on the coaching side and again I think that comes down to the ethos of the club, which very much focuses on the development of players through good coaching. I know Jimmy Jackson does an awful lot of work making sure the correct people with the requisite skills are in place over the schoolboy teams and players are being taught the right things and are being encouraged to play football. Coming up through this structure, it’s natural that players start to be interested in the coaching aspect of the game as they get older. I speak to Jimmy regularly and he and Belvo have been a great benefit to my career in coaching so far and I owe a lot of my development to them.
JM: Bohs have had decent start to the season, how would you sum up start to season and what are the hopes for Bohs?
GOH: The season overall has started reasonably enough, we had a good start but have been slightly inconsistent. There are a number of areas we are working hard to rectify in training and hopefully we can improve on our recent performances particularly our retention of possession and this will lead to better and more consistent results.
JM: You have just finished your UEFA A Licence, how was that?
GOH: Yeah I just completed and passed my A Licence at the start of March so I was relieved to complete that as it is a long process and takes up a lot of time as the course began in March 2013 so it’s a good 12 month process with a lot of work to do in-between the study blocks. It was a very enjoyable course and we had a lot of League of Ireland players on it like Stephen Rice and Ger O’Brien while other participant’s included Colin Hawkins and Paul Osam so it was a really good experienced group to be completing the course with.
JM: Finally, what are your own hopes for your career in the future?
GOH: Well as my career progress the next logical step would be for me to complete the UEFA Pro Licence, however I am very happy at present working at Bohemians under Owen and essentially continuing to learn and develop as a coach.
If you missed our piece on Shamrock Rovers' David O'Connor, read it here http://www.belvederefc.com/features/league-of-ireland-files-david-oconnor-shamrock-rovers.1489.html