Maybe it was the sunshine. Maybe it was the children's cheers as FAI chief executive John Delaney calmly slotted a penalty past the chain-laden Cathaoirleach. Maybe it was the enthusiasm of the soccer devotees gathered at Tullacmongan 3G pitch last Wednesday evening for the official announcement that Monaghan man Thomas Heffernan had been appointed as the Soccer Development Officer for County Cavan. Whatever the reason, the Celt realised he was getting carried away with himself as he asked Thomas – only appointed three weeks earlier - if he ever saw a time when soccer would become the biggest sport in this GAA obsessed county.
The ambitious Heffernan didn't shy away from the question.
“I'd love soccer to be the biggest sport in Cavan,” he says with a huge smile, “of course I would. Will it be short term? No.
“But the goal is always to increase participation. If you can keep doing that on a short term basis, then long term your numbers are really going to grow. In terms of overtaking GAA? I don't know if that can be done, but certainly my goal short term is to increase participation and see where it leads to.”
Thomas Heffernan has been working with the FAI's Education and Training Board programme in Clondalkin for the last 10 years when this opportunity arose and he decided: “This was something I really wanted to do.”
As a development officer he carries a measure of authority having enjoyed a semi-professional career. Thomas played at right back with Dungannon Swifts for “five great years”, winning the North's Division 1 and he relished testing himself in the Premier Division.
“When we got promoted our first game was away to Glentoran at the Oval in front of just shy of 10,000 people,” he recalled, “then Cliftonville, Crusaders, the Linfields – it's fantastic that type of experience.”
He then played a season for his home team of Monaghan United before taking up his post with the FAI.
Thomas has a UEFA A badge, and the next highest coaching grade is the Pro Licence, which managers at Airtricity Premier Division would have.
“That for me is something I'm not interested in right now, maybe down the line.”
Understandably he's eager to concentrate on his new job.
“For me coming into a county like Cavan which is predominantly GAA I think it's more about increasing participation if I can – boys of course, but primarily girls.”
He explains that only one Cavan club has teams for girls; Cavan Shamrocks have three girls' teams, who play in the North Eastern Counties League.
“They are doing very very well in that, so it goes to show there are really good girls playing in Cavan.”
To this end he's planning to work alongside his Monaghan counterpart, John Crudden to organise five and seven-a-side blitzes for girls, or organise training events for girls through the existing soccer clubs.
Thomas had been in the job for just three weeks, and he expects given the scale of the job ahead of him that it will take six months to get up to full throttle.
“The job is so vast – it talks in so many players, teams, clubs. There's a lot of organisation and putting structures in place, so in terms of having any goals – my goal right now is to learn as much as I can about the job.”
He's eager to meet and greet and build up contacts and identify what programmes are needed.
“I need to ensure that anything I do, I do it in the right area at the right time with the right target group.”
Thomas acknowledges that there are soccer black-spots within the county, such as the west. However he says there is currently a group attempting to establish a club in the area.
“I can obviously go in and provide support for them,” says Thomas, noting that the demand should come from the area.
“If there is a team who are looking to start in an area, I have the support of the County Council in my position, they will be a great link for me. I will certainly try to give all the support I can when there is a team setting up, and whatever area that's in, there's going to be people there to support me then.”
There was a lot of goodwill shown to Thomas at Wednesday's event. Each of the local clubs had representatives attend to welcome Thomas to the county.
Eddie Conaty, Chairman of Ballyhaise Celtic said their club's looking forward to the impact of Thomas can make on the game locally. He says that they worked with previous Northeast regional development officers John Crudden and Tom Mohan, now manager of the Republic's U19 team.
“This will offer a more local point of contact and give opportunities for players, both boys and girls to develop their talents and showcase it at a Cavan Monaghan level, and maybe later on at a regional level.”
Eddie is happy with the way the sport is thriving in County Cavan.
“I've been involved in local soccer for the past 20 years and I think it's going great. There's teams from under 11 up to under 18 and there's three divisions of men's football, and plenty of opportunity for people to play any level, and I think it's growing all the time – if it .”
Flanked on either side by two games of football, FAI's John Delaney was eager to show support for Thomas and to thank the council for coming on board and providing half of the funding for the development role.
“We met the County manager Tommy Ryan and director of Services Eoin Doyle, and they were very supportive and brought it to the council and the Cathoirleach Fergal Curtin is here today, so I'm delighted about that.
“The County Council has set the objectives for Tommy which are greater participation and in particular to get more girls involved – that will be a really big part of his role. We have great participation in Cavan already but there's scope for even more,” said Mr Delaney.
Do you see more clubs or more participation within existing clubs?
“There are six school boys clubs and 11 clubs in Cavan, and you'd like to see more clubs and more participation, and with that women's football as a particular area [for growth].
“It might surprise people that in the primary five-a-sides we had 900 kids from Cavan playing in our national competition, but they're numbers to grow.
The elite level of football in the county currently is the Cavan Monaghan Partnership U17 and U19 teams who compete in the Airtricty national leagues. They have also applied to enter an U15 team. Mr Delaney believes the partnership is catering well for our top players.
“It allows kids to aspire to play at that level. The whole idea here is greater participation, and then the best play against the best.
Is it a realistic route for a young player to achieve a professional contract?
“We scout our own players at the U17 national league level, and U19 national league level, at the regional centres and the elite centres – we're scouting all the time ourselves, to ensure the best players are coming through and that we're seeing who's developing well and the best ability.”
Again he said that Thomas will play a key role in promoting elite players.
“He will do a great job, not only in achieving higher participation, but identifying players and he'll bring them to the attention of our international managers, and our course our own scouts at league level and regional level.
“So hopefully this appointment will produce more players playing – both boys and girls – and also produce better players from the area who will go on to represent their country.”