A night with the Hoops: An insight into the Shamrock Rovers Academy

Shamrock Rovers Under-17 Head Coach Keith Coffey (right) with his assistant Terry Gleeson (left pic) as Shamrock Rovers players (right pics) train at their Roadstone base

Shamrock Rovers Under-17 Head Coach Keith Coffey (right) with his assistant Terry Gleeson (left pic) as Shamrock Rovers players (right pics) train at their Roadstone base Credit: Robert Goggins (left) and Keith Coffey (top and bottom right)

Christine Allen reports from Roadstone

It’s five to six on a balmy April evening and the Roadstone Group Sports Complex (RGSC) is a hive of activity.

Car doors slam and studs click clack on concrete as streams of boys race in their Shamrock Rovers Academy tracksuits to the awaiting coaches, who greet them with a high-five.

Situated just off the N7 at Kingswood Cross, RGSC was founded in 1968 for the employees of the nearby Roadstone quarry and hosts several sporting sections, including pitch and putt, darts, snooker and badminton.

Tonight, however, soccer rules.

“Chris?” I spin around and see Keith Coffey, Head Coach of the Shamrock Rovers Women Under 17s squad.

As we slap hands in greeting, I feel like I am reuniting with an old friend and not on assignment, which speaks to Coffey’s warm and personable character.

“Have you been here before?” He asks, holding open the door. I answer in the affirmative - as a teenager, with my Dad, playing snooker.

“They’re starting that snooker club back up you know…!” He dangles, and I have a sudden vision of the secondary school teacher battling in my corner as I make my return to the baize…

Schools not out

‘We strive to improve daily, every action, reaction or task, big or small, we give absolutely everything, we consistently give our all’

I follow Coffey through the double-sided doors of the RGSC and take two sharp right turns into a classroom, where an Ashfield College poster and several Shamrock Rovers players' profiles decorate the white walls.

At the front of the room, a tactical whiteboard is fixed, peppered with blue and red sentries.

“This is our Transition Year classroom and video analysis room,” Coffey begins, “This allows players to be full-time footballers for their transition year. Jason Carey, our Head of Women’s football, teaches PE. He was just in here earlier with the boys.”

This is not the first time Coffey will mention Carey, whom I meet several times throughout the evening. More on Carey later.

Noticing my gaze drift to a piece of silverware that shines to the left of the whiteboard, Coffey discloses that it belongs to the Under 19s women's side, who, coached by Wayne Ashbrook and Barry Scullion, went on a 20-game unbeaten run in their 2023 campaign.

Like the bookshelf stacked with footballer’s autobiographies and the player profiles that line the walls, the Under 19s League trophy serves as a visual reminder of the standards that Academy players should aspire to achieve and retain.

No object in this room is without purpose.

“That’s the wheel,” Coffey explains, citing a multi-colored object that has caught my attention.  “It's a forfeit if the players forget anything. Foam rollers for prehab. Their copies for school. It’s stuff like ‘sing a song’ or ‘collect the gear at the end of training.’”

Hogwarts Castle may have the ‘Room of Requirement’, but Shamrock Rovers have created their very own room of ‘Accountability.’ It’s a kind of magic.

Indoor Gym

Living the dream

Echoes of exertion and the squeak of sole on polished wood escape as Coffey pushes the swing door to the indoor gym open.

Inside, an LED clock polices the wall, its numbers casting a burnt orange glare across the black dumbbells that stand beneath.

A single Shamrock Rovers crest brands the varnished wood beneath each squat rack and jump boxes line the matted floor.

Tucked behind a square partition in the wall, Kayla Maguire, a vital player in Coffey’s backline, undergoes an assessment with Chris, Rovers' in-house physio.

She will shortly receive the news that she is unfit to play in the Dublin derby against Shelbourne on Saturday - and will tonight look to Coffey for guidance, perspective and reassurance.

A divider to our left separates the indoor pitch from the gym, where Coffey’s squad plays at a “high intensity” on Tuesday nights, utilising a size one football to hone their touch on the ball.

“We call it ‘Technical Tuesdays’ and Thursdays are ‘Tactical Thursdays,’’ he explains, “My girls are in this gym once a week [on Tuesdays] and then they’re in the outdoor gym for their other day. Sinead and Rob look after the gym sessions. Do you want to speak with them now?”

Strength and Conditioning

An aura of vitality and energy exudes from Rob Keogh.

The qualified personal trainer, who works as a secondary school PE teacher in Killinarden Community School, devises not only the session content for Coffey and Gleeson’s squad but their pre-season preparation and warm-ups.

“Our role is to prepare the girls for their games at the weekend purely from a physical standpoint,” Keogh outlines, when we cross paths later that evening. “If you start to break down what exactly is involved in a ninety-minute match for the girls, they have to be able to run for ninety minutes…turn, sprint, jump and land from those jumps efficiently. Lower body strength would be a huge focus in the gym.”

Assisting Keogh is Sinead Murray, who joined the Rovers Academy on placement in late 2023 as part of her course in Sports Science and Exercise Physiology at TUS Athlone.

Murray delivers Keogh's  “technical” S&C program, and her bond with the girls is evident.

“We’re working towards power and explosiveness,” She tells me, observing the girl’s movements with a keen eye at the outdoor gym.  “Using a med ball for biometrics, keeping the strength work high, engaging in speed work.”

Murray then politely excuses herself to correct the upper body position of a player who grips a free weight.

The Under 17s are in safe hands.

The Dressing Room

If I only know a player at a surface level, I can only be a surface-level coach to them

The crunch of gravel provides the backdrop to any conversations held to the South of the Roadstone complex.

It is no exception when Coffey and I go for a short walk to the home dressing room.

“This is my favourite room in the whole place,” he announces as we enter the compact outbuilding, his voice echoing around the vacant benches that encircle the prefab.

The Rovers crest provides an apt centrepiece to the room, urging those who enter to aim for the two proverbial stars that sit atop its shield.

“There’s no jerseys ever allowed to cover the Rovers crest,” Coffey states, “The girls know how important representing the club is…that’s something Terry [Gleeson] brought in which I thought was brilliant.”

Gleeson, Coffey’s Assistant Coach, has a wealth of experience in football, both on the sidelines and the turf.

Playing in the League of Ireland for Dublin City in his early 20’s, the Crumlin native won the First Division title with Dublin City as a player in 2003 and the League and Cup Double with Peamount Under 15s/16s as their coach.

I will later witness Gleeson's natural coaching ability on the training pitch, but for now, I absorb the atmosphere of the dressing room, where there’s an unmistakable sense that not too long ago, hopes, dreams and nervous excitement occupied this space.

“On a matchday, the girls leave their gear in, then they go for a walk,” Coffey continues, jumping on a lone chair and pulling down a projector blind. “We’ll hang the jerseys and the player posters up, I'll set up my laptop here on the projector and they'll be given the team sheet and I’ll go through the match pack I sent out to them on a Friday.”

I survey the room once more and notice a double whiteboard, a faint black outline of a Saturday morning strategy long since executed barely visible on its surface.

“That’s only new - we used to only have one,” Coffey tells me, taking up his position at its centre. “If I want to set up a pressing structure on one, and play from the back on the other, we can just jump between the two…I can flip it quickly.

“You can have a matchpack, and [an understanding of] this is how they’re going to play, but then they could turn up and play 4-4-2. The girls now have three or four systems that they can slip into because we’ve been able to just add layer upon layer of information on top of the foundations.”

It is clear from speaking to the Lucan native that comprehensive preparation and the ability to adapt and overcome at the blow of a whistle is a mandatory requirement in this role.

I will later learn that for Coffey, it’s a case of the things that hurt instruct.

The ‘folder’ of knowledge

As Coffey’s squad completes the tail end of their S&C session, we take advantage of his brief respite to talk football in one of the booths of the RGSC bar.

Coffey’s watch dangles loosely on his wrist as he openly recalls his “biggest learning curve” since taking on the role as Head Coach with the Under 17s.

“I worked on playing pressing with the girls for three weeks,” He confides, referring to his first away game in charge against Galway United, an uncharacteristic heaviness in his voice.

“Every single goal kick, they lamped it over our heads… we were beaten 5-2.”

Coffey shifts closer to the table, and I know I’m about to hear something significant.

“Then, as I’m walking back to the dressing room, there's a folder on the ground so I pick it up. It was like twenty pages on how to beat us and I went ‘Right, I get it now.’ For me, that’s why preparation is huge - and it’s not like I don’t enjoy doing the prep either.”

Right on cue, Coffey pulls a folder from his duffle bag and fans through the pages of a scout report.

Prepared by Ben Smithers, the level of detail astounds me.

“I have one of these for every single game we play, so for every one of our opposition I know exactly how they’re kicking out, how the goalkeepers warmed up, who played in what position, what the weather was like, a player by player breakdown, set plays, goals scored...”

“Now I’d never give all of this to the girls,” He clarifies, perhaps picking up on my brain freeze. “I have a summarised Powerpoint on Shels for the girls tonight.”

I ask Coffey for his permission to record the classroom session, which by his watch, will start in five minutes.

He agrees, with the proviso that I don’t publish any of the tactical details.

Proper order.

Classroom work

WIN - What’s Important Now?

Chair legs screech as the players bustle into the classroom, their animated chatter reminding this keen reporter that these girls are not just footballers - they’re also teenagers.

The flick of a light switch blankets the room in darkness, and a still image of a football match comes to life on the projector blind.

“Everybody all good?”

The secondary school teacher's voice is enquiring yet commanding and the murmur of chatter fades.

Aware of the team chatter around the plague of injuries that have hit the group, both Coffey and Gleeson have decided to switch the player's focus from the uncontrollable to the here and now - and that means, to each other.

“You are some of the best players in the country,” Coffey states plainly, his face lit in silhouette. “And look, I know we’re hurt - I’ll admit that. But if you’re telling me that with your quality, attitude and determination you can't go and beat this Shels side, you’re wrong - and I’ll tell that to anyone.”

Unlike many coaches, Coffey sees no need to keep his cards close to his chest when it comes to team selection.

“When I go through exactly who we have this weekend I’ll keep you all in the loop,” he informs the group. “It's not a murder mystery.”

Coffey then cycles the squad through eight tactical clips from open play, each one meticulously extracted from past footage against Shelbourne.

Satisfied that the team understands what is expected, Coffey turns back to the board and begins to write the 13 names available for selection. (In a further twist, that list would reduce to twelve, with Anna Butler deemed unfit to play.)

“Don’t slag my handwriting now,” he warns playfully, hearing the girl's bemusement at his slanted scrawls.

After a minute of back-and-forth banter, a hush once more descends over the group.

It’s a wave of undivided attention that Coffey does not need to command - every girl wants to win this game.

It’s the climb

If you’re not having fun, tell us!

Navigating puddles that have formed like craters from the previous night's deluge, Coffey and I follow the players to their designated Astro pitch.

On our short journey, we pass a mural that depicts the senior women’s skipper, Áine O’Gorman, along with former Hoops captain Ronan Finn and Irish international goal minder, Gavin Bazunu.

“That’s our boot room,” Coffey advises, nodding in their direction. “It was opened a couple of months ago so players can exchange old boots for newer ones.”

We then pass a physio’s out posting, where Coffey relays that both home and away players can avail of treatment on game day.

To our right, a tall railing partitions the Academy grounds from a housing estate in an early phase of construction.

Affixed along its surface at regular intervals are sponsorship placards that read ‘Champions’ atop the relevant year.

Given Shamrock Rovers success, there are many.

Coffey then pauses at what appears to be a mural, the screech of a whistle doing little to interrupt our silent study.

(I will later learn that this marks the official opening of the Shamrock Rovers floodlit FIFA Pro All Weather Pitch at the Academy.)

“Officially opened on the 25th of March 2017…” Coffey recites.

I read the remainder of the inscription, which signifies that former CEO of the FAI John Delaney, and former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone, were in attendance to cut the emerald ribbon.

Before we continue on to the expansive set of  Astro pitches which are now in sight, I read the stones' opening engraving.

Pride in our past, faith in our future


Part 1

I’m not going to teach Irish History on a Tuesday and WWII on a Thursday

As Coffey and I reach the turf where the players are now encircled (practising their first touch with Gleeson), I’m struck by the lack of visual separation between coaches, teams and their training sessions.

The description of a ‘collaborative environment’ springs to mind, long before Coffey informs me that both the Under 17s and 19s engage in dual training whenever a tactical gap in requirements needs plugging.

As the yellow and pink bibs are doled out, Coffey ensures that I am kept up to speed with what is happening.

“A big thing for me here in this session is setting the opposition players up to the way I think Shels are going to play,” he explains, leaning his hands atop the lip of a miniature whiteboard that has appeared as if from the ether. “If the girls just go out there and press whatever way they want, that’s not ‘game realistic’ for our girls to play against. If they’re not set up in the way I need them to play then the girls aren’t going to get the learnings from tonight.”

As the players begin to play out from the back, Coffey makes subtle yet crucial adjustments in between pauses of their play.


Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Carey to my far right.

I can’t help but note (and respect) the fact that the UEFA A licence holder, who holds an MSC in Performance Coaching, chooses to observe from the opposite side of the railings.

To me, Carey’s presence communicates silently to both Coffey, Gleeson and the players that he is there to support, encourage and advise if asked - but not to interfere.

No easy feat - but the sign of a true leader.

Part 2

Did you have your Weetabix for breakfast Lauryn?

Watching the Under 17s play both from set positions and in a lively 5-a-side contest, it’s fair to say that I’m a little taken aback.

Having researched Coffey and Gleeson’s squad before attending the Roadstone, I take up position on the sideline with a surface-level knowledge of the team’s past performances (aware that their goal tally often leans into the double digits.)

Yet witnessing how the girls work - both individually and as a unit?

Nothing could have prepared me for that.

Della Cowper Gray, whose strength and ball control shines through as she battles up top.

Sorcha Melia, whose tenacity, driving runs and eye for goal remind me of a young Kyra Carusa.

Kaitlyn Delahunty, a commanding presence at the back - a cool head when needed.

Mia Murtagh, a receptive player, whose robust tackles dispossess the most skillful in the squad.

And last, but by no means least, the blink and you’ll miss it flurry of skill that is unleashed by Lauryn McCabe, who at one point sends Gleeson into a fit of laughter, so audacious (and successful) are her feints.


As the LED floodlights blink to black, the players trundle back to the clubhouse.

Coffey and I fall behind at the rear, speaking about our passion for a game that makes us both feel oh so alive.

As we near the back entrance to the main building, we run into the fresh-faced JP Owens, who operates in the role of Assistant Coach to the U19 Rovers Women’s National League side.

Ensuring that the teenager (who has run on ahead) is out of earshot, Coffey leans in conspiratorially to reveal that the highly regarded Academy Coach celebrates his 18th birthday this weekend, and invites me to join in with the surprise salutations.

As we enter the RGSC bar, players from across both the U17s and U19s spring from behind the taps with a birthday cake, surprising Owen with a jovial rendition of the song that invokes public mortification in us all.

Candles extinguished, Owens shakes my hand as I reluctantly take my leave.

“The best part about working at Rovers is the family-like environment,” he tells me, visibly moved.