"Last season was out of this world" - Bohs U19 manager Craig Sexton

15th November 2023

Craig Sexton has experienced enough good times and bad times as a fan, player and coach at Bohemians to know his determination to help push the club on to the next level will only be realised through grounded hard work. Having taken over as Bohs U19

Craig Sexton has experienced enough good times and bad times as a fan, player and coach at Bohemians to know his determination to help push the club on to the next level will only be realised through grounded hard work. Having taken over as Bohs U19 manager last summer aged just 26, Sexton has already achieved a considerable amount in his breakthrough year in management. He led Bohs to a league and cup double last term, beating both Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic in their own patches in the respective finals, and has managed the club in Uefa competition to boot. It was quite a debut season in the dugout. But while trophies, medals and the celebrations that go with them are memorable, they are not what drives him. He knows he is just one part of a greater collective and in senior boss Keith Long, he has a mentor who is never one to rest on his laurels or past results. And with the Bohs-SKB Academy at U13, U15 and U17 constantly bringing new talent through, he knows his role is ‘bridging that gap’ between those teams and Long’s first team. Sexton, now 27, said: “Last season was out of this world. But the success for us at U19s isn’t measured by trophies. The success is the Danny Grants, the Ryan Graydons, the Cristian Magerusans, the Andy Lyonses, the Paddy Kirks – seeing them all go on to play and perform for Keith in the first team. “We sat down at the start of the season with the players and discussed what they want to achieve collectively and individually. The players want to do a double again, that’s their goal and that’s the mentality you want. “But our priority as coaches is to bring more players through to the first team. If we can get a few more through, Keith will be happy. Hopefully trophies can come as a by-product of that process. “You look at the two young full-backs, Andy and Paddy, starring in the first team now… they were league-winning captains of our U19s. They are two unbelievable players, two unbelievable people. “Take Danny Grant. Danny was fantastic for the U19s. He was playing Leinster Senior League for Bangor Celtic, not even their first team. We went to see him play, he was a young boy but you could see he had the raw tools and you could see you could work with him. Now he’s pushed on again for the first team. “That’s our job with the U19s. If you think it’s anything else, you’re in a poor place as a coach in this role. People think beating Pat’s and Rovers in the U19 finals is the pride that motivates you. That’s not it. The pride is seeing those boys make an impact in the first team.   “I got a bigger kick last season out of the 3-1 win against St Pat’s last season when Ali Reghba scored twice after Keith made 11 changes with one eye on the cup semi-final, and we had younger players thrown in at the deep end in a Dublin derby. “They were a credit to themselves and testament to everyone at the club, Jimmy Mowlds has done unbelievable work with the Bohs-SKB U7s and that’s the same right down to U15s and now to U13s – I’m just bridging the gap! “I think what we’re doing now in terms of developing players is right. We’re not just a first team, we are a club. “You look at players who have broken into the first team recently, the likes of Ross Tierney, who has come through at St Kevin’s and the partnership teams, he has thrown himself head first into this club. “That’s what we aspire to. By our actions and how we conduct ourselves, how people enjoy a Friday night at Dalymount, we want all of that to resonate with our youth players. “I think we have more than a couple good enough for the first team. Whether they’re quite ready yet, maybe not. But we’re working extremely hard with them up to that level.” That is an ethos that comes from the first team, who train alongside Sexton’s U19s at TU Dublin’s Blanchardstown campus, formerly IT Blanchardstown. Sexton revealed: “Our U19 players can see the first team. They train 20 yards apart. Within a minute or two they could be called into their session so their levels have to be consistently high to be ready to do that. We need to match the first team’s standards as much as we can. They know being in the first team is within touching distance. “Keith and Trevor (Croly, Bohemians assistant manager) break my heart at times – they’re always taking our players for sessions, every day! Sometimes mid-session but that’s our role at this club and we’re delighted to see our players move through and also we are assisting Keith with preparation for Friday nights, which is crucial. “He might take three before training because players are missing through injury. But ultimately that’s what bridges the gap with our players and that is the end goal.   “They’re exposed to the environment and they become more comfortable with it. It’s not a total shock to the system. You try to create a seniorish environment for our U19 players, so it’s not a case of when they step into Keith’s changing room that they are overawed. “You want them to be able to adjust quickly and hit the ground running and that’s what’s working for us. It’s Keith’s management of us, he’s able to bridge that gap and bring lads through. “They’re speaking to Keith every day, they’re seeing Trev, they’re seeing the first-team lads. Mid-session they could be called in, which is the consistency of inconsistency for our sessions! You have to be OK with that as it helps their development.” Sexton’s pride at seeing talent he helped nurture make their mark at senior level comes as no surprise when he describes with fondness and respect the impact his parents have had on his own career path and his affinity for Bohs. He comes from solid Bohs stock, inheriting a love of the club from his father Gerry and mother Beth. He said: “Since before I was able to walk, I’ve been brought to Dalymount. It’s a place you fall in love with straight away. You get the bug and that’s it. “Bohs were successful when my dad started watching League of Ireland, so that’s how he started following the club. He’s been a member for I’d say over 30 years. He’s been through the good times and the bad, which I have as well to be fair. “My dad is from Pimlico but my mother is from Cabra, so I’ve northside blood in me. I’m forever indebted to both of them. They have done absolutely everything they could do for me. They brought me to the northside for training three nights a week, all that kind of stuff and much, much more.” But Craig has repaid a lot of that too, even if he tries to downplay it. Seeing your child line out at Dalymount Park is a dream come through for any die-hard Bohs parents. Beth and Gerry were lucky to get just that. Craig beams: “It was special that they got to see me play in Dalymount. It meant a lot to them and for everybody in my extended family, who are massive Bohs fans too. I hope that was in some ways a little give-back from me to them, but it will never repay what they’ve done for me. “Even the things like seeing me manage in the European games last year, my dad takes even more pride in that now. I hope I’ve repaid a small bit but for what he’s done for the club, I feel, he’s done a huge amount.” While Craig feels indebted to his father, so to should everyone at the club. Back in 2011, as Craig was breaking into the first team, his dad was busy behind the scenes making his own impact. With the club well over €6 million in debt and staring into the abyss, Gerry established the Gypsies Supporters’ Trust, which worked closely with the club to help keep the show on the road as Bohs embarked on the uphill and painstaking task of clearing its debts and securing the future of Dalymount Park as its home for future generations. Craig says: “When I sit down for a cup of tea with my da, it’s always in the back of our heads that we know that potentially the bad times could be around the corner. You have to be mindful and not take anything for granted. “It was difficult back then. He wasn’t a decision-maker at the club as such, but he would have been privy to information that I really didn’t need to know as a player. “He might have been chatting about things at home to my mam and I might have been in the room and they’d be like ‘actually we can’t speak about that with him in the room’. “He’ll still do whatever he can for the club. He’ll paint the changing rooms, he’ll do whatever is required. It’s his club. That’s what Bohs does to you. I think he’s a perfect example of what Bohs is to its fans. “That’s what is driving us as a club now – the people. From the volunteers, management, coaches and our players, we have good people. We’ve come back from a hard place but we are cutting our cloth accordingly and working hard together to get the club back to where we aspire for it to be.” Sexton’s experiences have shaped his mindset in different ways. While the damage done by excesses of previous eras have given him a grounding, the achievements of the old pros he rubbed shoulders with, and the professionalism those set-ups aspired to, have also had a big impact. He said: “We had a good crew at Belvedere and seven or eight of us signed for Bohs U20s under Owen Heary. “I played with Lourdes Celtic, moved across to Belvo when I was 14, played with them for four or five years, playing with the likes of Keith Buckley, Roberto Lopes, Kevin Feely. We all played together at Belvo. “We got to two cup finals and were beaten in two finals against UCD and Rovers. That was our taste of it. The club was struggling financially at the time but that meant Pat Fenlon gave a lot of us a go, which was brilliant. “I’ve a lot to thank Pat for. He gave us a chance at senior football and we learned loads from the likes of Owen Heary. “There were a lot of good senior pros. A lot of the habits that we have now were instilled upon us. You’ll see that from Keith Buckley in the first team, he’s a leader. That’s a testament to the upbringing we got back then.” In all, Sexton made 15 league appearances for the first team in 2011 and 2012. He followed that up by winning the First Division with Athlone Town. But while he enjoyed his time between the posts, he came to realise his true calling in the game was coaching rather than playing. He said: “It was a conscious decision. I left Bohs, went down to Athlone and had a brilliant season under Roddy Collins. We won promotion. It was fantastic, I loved it. “The following season, there was a change in management. I was studying in IT Carlow and starting my coaching badges. I was coaching the DDSL Kennedy Cup team. Coaching was starting to become a lot bigger for me than I thought it would do. I was really, really enjoying it. “I made a decision that I wasn’t quite good enough to make it as a professional footballer. I accepted that, so I asked myself why was I running up and down the country when I was getting a better kick out of coaching. “I decided to see where coaching took me because I was enjoying it so much. I had been coaching at Lourdes Celtic all the way through, even four-year-olds at one stage. I started coaching at around 16. Coaching the babies gives you a grounding! I’ve worked my way up through all age groups. “I ended up at Bohs through doing my A Licence. I was working with the FAI at the time, I got a job. The LOI U17s just started and I was asked did I want to get involved. “That interested me greatly. It was my club and it was at an elite level so it was a no-brainer. I was six months with the U17s and then when Keith reshuffled his staff I ended up with the coaching staff with the U19s. “The first year we came in with the U19s and we had to pull a squad together. It was difficult. We got to the final of the Shield, the secondary competition, and Limerick beat us. “We weren’t happy. We felt Bohs should be competing at the upper end at this level and getting players through to the first team. The following season we got better players and we improved the structures. We weren’t expecting to go very far but we won the league, beating Pat’s in Dalymount to win it. “A lot of luck is involved too. I’m not perfect, I’ve loads to learn, absolutely loads. I like to keep learning and keep progressing. It’s the same for me as a coach in that regard as it is the players we are coaching.” While he looks back fondly on the good habits and professionalism he learned from his time playing at the club, he believes there is a greater feeling of collective affinity and drive in young players coming through now. As a Bohs fan who lost an U20 final and A Championship final, Sexton is only too aware how having such an affinity can hurt in defeat – and spur you on next time around. He said: “From my short time playing with the club, to now working with the club, I’ve seen a massive change in the landscape. I wouldn’t have known the inner workings when I was playing as you don’t think of those things at that age. But I see it now, there are so many good people working at the club.   “We see the benefit of players now having an affinity with the club from a young age. When I look back at myself, we were beaten in the U20s final against Rovers in Tallaght on penalties. For me that was the worst day ever. “Luckily enough we changed that last year by beating them in Tallaght to win the U19 league and for me personally that was obviously a motivating factor! “But there were people that day when we lost at U20s who weren’t hurting as much as they should. That’s fine, not all players are going to have an affinity to the club. “Now we have people with an affinity to the club from a young age. That comes from our youth section and the Bohs-SKB U13s/15s/17s. When we meet, we don’t speak as if we’re two clubs. It’s one club to us. That is already standing to us. The players feel part of something. “Alan Caffrey (Bohs-SKB Academy Technical Director) assists Keith in his new role and assists us all in any way he can. He’s a consultant basically to both of us. I try to meet Alan every week or two. It’s important I link directly with him. It’s fantastic, everyone is working together for the same goal. Long may it last.” In October, Sexton will, for the second year running, manage Bohs in the Uefa Youth League. Last year, Bohs lost out 4-2 on aggregate to Danes FC Midtjylland, but were up against a side with designs on winning the competition and who subsequently knocked out giants Roma and Manchester United before bowing out against Porto. But it was a memorable night in Dalymount for the second leg, with 1600 people in attendance. He said: “It was big for everyone, the whole club. People realised, ‘oh, maybe we’ve got something here’. Maybe this is the start of something. “It was almost like a celebration for the whole academy/youth section. It was a testament to everyone who’s helped bring these players through. This is us, representing the country. “We played Midtjylland at home on the Wednesday in front of a huge crowd at Dalymount. It was such an experience for the boys. “It helped us so much in Tallaght for the league final against Rovers the following week. The lads felt inspired by the support they’d had. If we hadn’t had the experience in Dalymount the previous week, maybe Tallaght might have been a bit overawing for the boys. “You need to experience things to adjust and feel comfortable with them. “I spoke to the players and told them to forget about it for now. It’s miles away, we have a lot to do before then.” CRAIG’S BACKROOM TEAM It is testament to Sexton’s belief in the collective that he asks to finish off his interview with some words of thanks for his backroom team. He adds: “My best signings this season were my staff. Last season I was stretched thin at times with Ian Morris having playing commitments and with his role as YDO. I brought in a couple of coups. I have an unbelievable backroom team.” Seán Lestrange (Coach): “I worked with Sean previously at Lourdes Celtic and with the DDSL teams as my assistant. He was out of football for a few years due to family commitments, kids, the usual stuff! So I’ve drawn him back in. He’s an unbelievable talent at developing underage players. He’s worked in the States with the New York Red Bulls, so he is really well experienced.” Carl Grehan (Coach): “I have worked with Carl previously over recent years, most recent Carl was with Wexford Youths. He was Wexford’s first team assistant manager last season. Carl like myself was a product of IT Carlow. He spent a lot of time with youth football with St Kevin’s, so he is a product of St Kevin’s also.” Paul Flynn (Goalkeeping coach): “This is Paul’s third season with the club and he’s brilliant in assisting myself. Brilliant with the goalkeepers but just brilliant around the place too.” John Healy (Physio): “John is basically the academy physio. So any underage players who need treatment go to see John. He works with us directly and oversees the academy players. He works in James Connolly Hospital and has great experience.” Andriu Conroy (Fitness Coach): “Andriu looks after our GPS and is our fitness coach. He’s a young lad learning his trade and he has been absolutely fantastic for us.” John Bohan (Video Analyst): “We also have a massive help through our video analyst John Bohan who does brilliant work throughout the club, including first team. His level of work is fantastic.” Courtesy of Bohemian Football Club