Every club needs a person who’s prepared to roll up his sleeves, get dirty, and takes on whatever has to be done without worrying about who gets the credit.
They’re the volunteers who are the very lifeblood of sports clubs across the country. They don’t seek recognition and often they simply don’t get wider recognition.
Meet Charlie Shiels who has been a manager with Ballyraine FC, who ply their trade in the Letterkenny and Districts Schoolboys League, since the early 1980s.
From the start of the Letterkenny and District Schoolboys League in 1976, players residing in the Ballyraine area played with Ballyraine/Oldtown, before Ballyraine FC was formally affiliated to the league in 1979.
Shiels himself has done most jobs for Ballyraine since he was first ‘nabbed’ to help out back in 1983 as he left eldest son Damien down to training.
At a recent club function in the Arena 7 complex, Charlie finally got some tangible reward for his efforts over the intervening 34 years when he received an appreciation award.
A native of Baltoney, Gortahork, Charlie played most of his football in the middle of the park for Glenea United before switching to Glen Rovers and then Drumoghill in the twilight of his career.
It was a time when Fanad United ruled the roost while others like Gweedore Celtic and Letterkenny Rovers were also exceptionally strong outfits.
“Fanad were a great team at that point and, overall, the standard of football in the county was very good. I know we all tend to look at these things through rose-tinted glasses but there really were some great all-round teams about back then,” he said.
Married to Mary, the couple have four boys Damien, Kieran, Terence and John – all of whom live and work locally – and six grandchildren.
A retired school-teacher, Charlie started his working career in Carrowmore, Culdaff. He then took up a post in Drumoghill National School where he spent the next 38 years (the last 15 as principal) before retiring in 2011.
The couple live in Whitethorn Park and Charlie has always been a Ballyraine man. He has held most posts within the club while Mary washes the team strip but he is too modest to crow about his achievements.
“You do it for the love of the game. It’s nice to be acknowledged, but I’ve had so much enjoyment over many years. You don’t even think about trophies,” he explains.
Charlie is talking about personal trophies, of which he now has one on the mantelpiece. But he enjoys the club trophies and has thoroughly enjoyed each and every season he’s been involved with the club.
“The late Mickey Toner was the manager that first day I arrived down with Damien and he asked me to give him a hand and I’ve been helping out ever since,” he laughed.
The following year he was given charge of the club’s U10 team which included players like Boyd Robinson, Jason McDaid, Mark Ponsonby, Conor Crossan and Stephen Sweeney.
It wasn’t too long before he was asked to team up with fellow Ballyraine manager Andy O’Boyle to take charge of Letterkenny and District squads, two or three of whom reached the semi-final stages of National competitions.
“I’ve nothing but great memories of good lads who were willing to work hard and who loved football. There might have been the odd cross word but that was just to keep them right. All in all it’s been a pleasure,” he said.
In 2002, Charlie was part of the management team who took the Donegal Schoolboys to the final of the Kennedy Cup.
Lee Boyle, Mark Forker, Patrick Bonner, Christy Connaghan, Mark McGowan, Paul Thornton, and Packie Mailey were all part of that squad who lost out to DDSL in the final.
“They were all fantastic players. Other stand out players down the years included Stephen O’Donnell, Timmy Burke, Rory Kavanagh and Sean Houston,” he recalled.
“Some years we finished bottom of the league but we always, always kept going,” he added.
Today, Charlie looks on with pride as some of his former players are now back at the club with their own children.
“Brian Sweeney, Gareth McNern, Conor Crossan and my own son Kieran are all involved with the club. There’s good young managers coming through which is great to see,” he said.
Today though things are very different to the eighties. Long gone are the days when the entire team piled into the back of George Sweeney’s delivery van to travel to games.
“I can remember when we only had the one ball and we had to look after it. Whenever it got punctured it was taken into Con Boyce’s the following day to get mended ahead of the next game. The players took their own shorts and socks while Mary used to wash the jerseys,” he smiled.
It was also a time when players had to line-out for clubs in the area in which they lived but that too has changed.
“An SFAI ruling came in ten years ago or so which enabled players to sign for whatever club they wished. To me, at least, it wasn’t a positive step as many of the better players nowadays are encouraged to join certain clubs. Boundaries don’t matter any more,” he sighed.
That said, Ballyraine continue to attract the local youth and have 167 players on their books ahead of the new season which gets underway next month. Matches are now played at Letterkenny Community Centre, with St Conal’s and the Ballyraine field at the back of Ballyraine Park previous home venues.
“The league used to be very local so we packed them into one or two cars to get to matches but now we have to go as far as Keadue so it’s not practicable – or safe – to do so,” he said.
Among those on the sidelines with Charlie and underage Ballyraine teams down through the years were Andy O’Boyle, John Doherty and Sean Grant together with Mickey Toner, Vincent Murphy and Ciaran Corry who, unfortunately, have all since passed away.
Charlie is also the local SFAI representative which necessitates a trip to Dublin four or five times a year but he’s more at home standing on the sidelines with his Ballyraine team.
“These young lads are always in your mind and you’re always anxious to see how they’re get on in later life. They allowed us to be part of their life growing up. Many of them are now married and have children and you want to see them doing well in life,” he said.
Eleven of the St Eunan’s team who contested the 2015 Donegal Senior Football Championship were ‘Ballyraine’ boys.
“I’m so proud of each and every one of them. They were all talented soccer players too,” he said.
Charlie is not even thinking about stepping back and he is already looking forward to the 2017 season. You wouldn’t expect anything less from this passionate soccer man.
“Sure what else would I be at. On a more serious note though I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who was involved in organising the recent function. It was a great night and both Andy (O’Boyle) and myself are truly humbled. As I said earlier, Ballyraine Football Club is in very good hands going forward.”
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