Coaching Clinic : "When they do it, you are very proud"

UL Vikings Head Coach Paul Gilhool on his journey from New Jersey to Limerick

Andrew Cunneen

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Andrew Cunneen

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sport@limerickleader.ie

Coaching Clinic : "When they do it, you are very proud" g

UL Vikings Head Coach Paul Gilhool

Paul Gilhool moved to Ireland in 2005 and brought with him the passion and drive to share the sport he loved with his newfound neighbours.

"I grew up in New Jersey. My Mom was a huge sports fan; my Dad did not like them at all. My father worked with this guy whose son was paralysed playing American football, so he said that we couldn't play it.

"He said that any sport where you have to put a crash helmet on can't be good for your health. We'd go to college games, high school football, Jets games, Giants games - it was football all weekend," he reminisced.

"I moved to Ireland in 2005 and have been involved with the Vikings since 2011. My first couple of years were spent as running backs coach and then 2014 was my first year as head coach.

"It's great. I live in a rural part of Clare so there's not that many people around - and they're all GAA people. I've met a lot of great people through the Vikings. You become family with them because you spend so much time with them. This weekend, we're in the semi-final and going up to Carrickfergus. Those trips are great," Gilhool added.

The Vikings play in the Shamrock Bowl Conference of Irish American Football League (IAFL) and were the first Irish side to win the prestigious Atlantic Cup. They claimed the title back in 2010 - beating Lelystad Commanders of the Netherlands in the final.

Up until last year, no European player had ever played in the NFL without going through the college system. In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected Moritz Boehringer from the Schwaebisch Hall Unicorns who play in the German Football League.

So, while the New Jersey native knows it's about having fun for most people, he admits there is, in theory, a pathway to the NFL if you're a good enough athlete.

"Most people are just playing for fun. We're at the top level. There's three divisions in the IAFL and we've been in the top tier throughout our entire existence. We've had a couple of players that have gone over and played in Spain. That would be the next level - to play in Europe.

"Playing in America would be a bit of a reach. I've seen some players who I thought 'they could play in college'. In the US, most players start playing when they're ten years old. Here, you can't play until you're seventeen or eighteen.

"They're behind the curve on that. But if you're an outstanding athlete, you can overcome that. You see guys like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates transitioning from basketball, so it is possible," he said.

American football is unique in that coaches may have to teach up to twenty-four different roles. Gilhool is quick to point out that it's very much a team effort, and that backgrounds in other sports can aid your development. He explained:

"I'm lucky to have two outstanding coordinators. We've a guy who runs our defense that played in the top tier over in Italy. He's got great knowledge. And this year, one of our former players, Eoin O'Sullivan has come back to run the offense. He's done an outstanding job. It's such a big sport that you need to rely on other people to get you to where you want to be.

"Limerick is such a great place for rugby - and rugby players transition so well into American football. All the basic tackling, that comes into play in American football and we get a lot of great players through ex-rugby players."

Most youngsters in Ireland grow up loving soccer and the GAA because it's local and freely available on many platforms. American football is different in the sense that it's harder to find on free-to-air television, and impossible to engage with physically at grassroots level. Gilhool believes that gaming may be the medium that enhances local interest in the sport he's so passionate about.

"It's great fun. It's a good experience. If you like the sport, then get involved. People are so interested in the sport because of playing Madden. Television coverage is quite limited. You have to have Sky or BT - most don't have that. Gaming can be a gateway into the sport. They play the games, then try and find the matches online - and some end up wanting to play it. I find that a lot."

Gilhool's mantra for coaching is simple. He said: "A coach can only do so much. You're relying heavily on them to do it themselves, so when they do it, you're very proud of them.

"There's guys here that have been around for a long time. They do it for the love of the game. The amount of commitment and love they have for the team is incredible," he finished.