One night in Ballinakill: Behind the scenes at Wicklow training ahead of Kildare showdown

The Irish Times was given full access to Oisín McConville’s side, team meeting, video session, in the gym and on the pitch as they prepared for this weekend’s Leinster quarter-final against Kildare

Monday morning. Phone Oisín McConville. Congratulate him on Wicklow’s win over Westmeath, doing so in a sincere but slightly wheedling manner that makes him suspect, correctly, that you’re after something. Ask if he might possibly tolerate The Irish Times coming down to watch training in advance of the weekend’s game against Kildare.

“Funny, you’re the second person to ask me that,” he says. “I’m very popular all of a sudden.”

“Probably because there’s at least some chance you won’t say no,” you reply.

“That might be it all right,” he laughs. “Yeah, no bother at all. We won’t be doing much but you’re welcome to come. It’ll be good for them actually.”


“It will?”

“Yeah. A sign that the whole thing is stepping up a gear.”


The Wicklow Centre of Excellence is not the sort of spot you find by accident. It’s in Ballinakill, a few back-road miles this side of Rathdrum, a few more that side of Glenealy. It’s six pitches and a clubhouse perched on a hill and if you get a decent evening, there mightn’t be a more gorgeous place in Ireland to prepare for a game.

The cars start arriving at six o’clock. McConville can make it from Dundalk in about 2½ hours, depending on what mood the mid-afternoon M50 is in. He has performance coach Des Jennings in the car with him, the man who was Armagh’s sports psychologist when they won the All-Ireland in 2002. Along the way, they picked up Mark Doran, the Down man who was Colm Collins’s coach in Clare until last year and who also manages Slaughtneil in Derry.

If McConville is the brain and heart of the Wicklow set-up, Doran is the conscience. He will lead the session on the pitch later on but in the team meeting before and the huddle after, he’s the one who brings everything back to basics. You can almost see his nose twitching when he senses drift or fading engagement.

The session starts with a video meeting. The players are split into groups to talk about the Westmeath game and each group is asked for two things they did well and two things they need to learn from. McConville goes around the room. Good: kick-outs, getting back in numbers in the first half, clinical finishing in the second. Learning: not reacting when Westmeath dropped an extra man back for kick-outs, getting caught in possession too deep.

“Did it get a bit chaotic at times, lads?” McConville asks. “I know we made a lot of changes in a short space of time in the second half — was that disruptive? Did the messages get on okay?”

Gary Duffy, selector, runs the video section. Duffy is Wicklow to the bone. He played county at all levels, was co-manager in 2022 when Colin Kelly left mid-season and had a lot of these players at under-20. He goes through a series of clips for 20 minutes — some from the Westmeath game, some from last year’s Kildare defeat. Attack, defence, transition, kick-outs.

As he’s finishing up, Doran pounces. He’s standing off to the side and you can tell he wants a bit more from the group than for them to quietly take instruction. With the exception of Dean Healy and a couple of others, they’re a pretty young group. Mostly in their early 20s. They’re dutiful and humble and keen to learn. If anything, management wouldn’t mind a few more cranky pains-in-the-arse around the place.

“Boys, whenever we go man-to-man on their kick-out, what’s the number one thing in your head?” Doran asks. Someone offers an answer from the floor and he runs with it.

“A battle,” Doran says. “That’s all, lads. A battle. If they put five in their back line and we’re going man-to-man, and only four of ours make it a battle, well then we’re f**ked. No easy ball. One person switches off and they’re out past us. If they drop one more back than we’re expecting, you have to be able to solve that on the field.”

McConville stands up to talk. He only keeps them for three minutes, talking key messages for the week. Sunday was fantastic. Brilliant. Everyone should enjoy it. Even heard the kit man Eugene Dooley interviewing on the radio on the way down the road. Love that.

“But now we can move on,” he says. “And the big thing for the rest of this week is mindset. What do you want, lads? What do you want from your football career? What do you want from this week? What way do you want to feel when you come off the pitch next Sunday? I personally want you guys to feel, ‘I couldn’t have done any more.’

“Okay? Okay, let’s go.”


Wicklow aren’t quite the nobodies you think they are. The win over Westmeath made it the fourth time in the past five years that they’ve won their opening game in Leinster. The only other teams to match that record are Dublin, Kildare and Meath.

And yet, in some ways, they’re exactly who you think they are. Back-to-back victories have been impossible to come by. Wicklow were last in a provincial semi-final in 1995 — and they got a bye into the quarters that year. You have to go back to 1989 for the last time they had two wins in the Leinster Championship. They’ve only ever been in one final, in 1897.

This is McConville’s second campaign in charge. As far as results go, it hasn’t been a patch on the first one. In 2023, they got promoted from Division Four with just a single defeat. This time around, they got booted from Division Three with just a single victory. Yet he feels they’re in a much better place now than they were then.

“Even in terms of S&C [strength and conditioning], they’re so much stronger now than they were this time last year,” he says as the players bounce around the stations of a 20-minute gym session. “By the time we got to the Longford game [in the Tailteann Cup in May], we had 14 people sitting in the dugout who couldn’t tog out. Just the load, they couldn’t take it. They’re much more ready for it this year.”

And though results are important, he reckons they got far more out of this spring than they did out of 2023. For one thing, they got away together. McConville brought them up to the Carrickdale Hotel just outside Dundalk. He arranged for them to head out to a nightclub on the Saturday night but they were enjoying each other’s company so much in the hotel that they decided to stay where they were.

“The first thing I asked them when we came in last year was what did they think they needed. And they basically said, ‘We’re actually grand for everything. But can we have one weekend away?’ We couldn’t get it done in the league last year. But we did this time. It’s a big help.”


Around the centre of excellence, Owen Doyle is the boss. White-haired and wellied, he chases you away from the back of the goals. It’s for your own good. “You’ll ruin your shoes,” he says. “With all the rain, the muck there is about a foot deep. Anywhere you see rushes, you know not to walk. I’ll get the balls for them, don’t worry.”

Doran takes them for a 12-minute game. Two juvenile goals, about 40m apart. Up and back, up and back.

Every move starts with three players sprinting out in a line from behind the goals, breaking at speed, looking to score a goal. Next three go from the other side as soon as a shot is taken. Everything is fast until everything can’t be fast. On such heavy ground, they’re all panting by the end.

One last huddle. McConville praises them for a good, sharp session and stresses mindset as the message for the week. They’re just about to break up when Doran throws one last thing into the pot.

“Edge, lads. When we played Kildare in the challenge match before the league, we had no edge. If you have no edge in football, you have nothing. That’s the one thing to make sure of. When we play them on Sunday, right from the start, we have to have an edge.”


Jonny Carlin is a Wicklow footballer half by accident. He landed down from Donegal, having played football and hurling with his home club Red Hughs. He played League of Ireland with Athlone Town and Cabinteely. He was doing S&C coaching in Barndarrig and then he ended up playing for them and then he ended up winning a county intermediate with them. In the middle of it all, he missed a year with a cruciate injury. All of it added up to last Sunday being his first championship match.

“It was unbelievable,” he says. “Whenever everybody has you trampled into the ground and you win by one, it’s sweet. We had a disappointing league campaign, we didn’t play a shadow of what we can play.

“We got beat by six or seven against Westmeath but we knew that wasn’t us. We knew we weren’t going up there last week to get beat by four or five. In the back of our minds, we knew we were good enough to beat them.

“The league was good for us, even with the defeats. We got away and got to know each other a good bit. It’s my first year on the panel and I wouldn’t even really have known a lot of the boys. It was unreal. You would have liked to stay in Division Three, even by the skin of our teeth. But we knew we weren’t far away.”

Carlin is one of the last off the field. “One more, Owen,” he shouts, looking for Doyle to give him a final kick at the posts before he goes in. “No more, Jonny,” Doyle says, gathering the last of the balls into the bag. “Ah here, I can’t go on a miss, give me one more.”

He does. It splits the posts. They head for food.


In the clubhouse, there’s a stack of tinfoiled trays piled up. Lasagne and spuds, nothing fancy. They sit around in groups, taking the piss, seeing out the night. In the corner, a few of them rattle into a game of table tennis. They head off in dribs and drabs.

“When we started, a lot of them took their food and went straight to the car,” McConville says. “I was looking at it going, ‘What chance have we if they don’t even want to sit down and eat together?’ That’s changed. They enjoy each other. They all want to get better together.”

Shortly after 9pm, the car park empties. Another night down, another test up ahead. Kildare are next and nobody gives them a prayer.

Nobody ever does.