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Mary Kelly - From Ireland to Sunshine in Abu Dhabi

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

'Getting a child to be able to execute a skill at the right moment to give themselves time and space is paramount'...

Name, age, where you are based?

Mary Kelly, 30, Abu Dhabi and I work for ProActive Soccer School.

Current Role:

I’m an early years coach (ages 4 – 9 years). I have two u7 teams and take many young groups in schools and our recreational programs. I also manage the social media content for our accounts (@passabudhabi). PASS is also the founder and organisers of the biggest Youth League in Abu Dhabi.

My role in this is to also collect the scores and update the tables for the Mubadala Community League and create the graphics on the social media accounts for the League. As well as that, I, along with another colleague, gather the information of every player in the league to create the official league ID cards and govern their use.


My highest coaching qualification is UEFA B license. I did this with the FAI. I also have a Level 5 FETAC award in Sports and Recreation.

How did you get into coaching And what has your path been like?

I decided that what I studied in college wasn’t what I wanted to pursue. I saw that there was a football course in Dublin for females who had been unemployed for a period of time. There were a few weeks left before the deadline, which had already been extended, so I guess when your luck is in then it’s really in! So, I applied for that 9-month course and it was the best time of my life!

I got to train every weekday and it was there that I started coaching. I remember a moment when I broke the pitch in two to make smaller sided games for some school children and I was asked why by the course director, Harry Kenny. My answer was so the kids would have more touches of the ball and his reply was “Spoken like a proper coach.” The seed was planted then!

My path has been straightforward, although it was tough when I was unemployed and coaching voluntarily. I just had to keep reminding myself that the experience will stand to me in the future. I was very lucky that the time in unemployment qualified me for a C.E Scheme with the Roscommon District League as a part time schools coach.

I did that for two years and I am forever grateful to Martin Conboy. He petitioned for funding for the UEFA B from welfare and an extension on my C.E Scheme for me to upskill and practice. Without that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pursue the UEFA B.

Any Major achievements?

No major achievements in terms of silverware and to be honest, at U7 and U8, you’re not really in it for the silverware! I suppose one of the biggest for me was setting up the girls team in Tuam Celtic that lasted for a few years and competed well, but unfortunately is no longer together.

However, setting up that team had a knock-on effect and surrounding clubs also set up clubs. Now the secondary schools in the local area all have female soccer teams, as the girls who were involved with the clubs wanted to play in school also. I guess that’s a decent achievement!

What made you first jump into coaching in the Middle East and how was Kuwait?

I was looking for opportunities in America but saw an advert for a female coach with Juventus in Kuwait and at that point, I thought I had nothing to lose and only experiences to gain. And yes, it was an experience and not one I really enjoyed.

It’s a difficult place to live with not a lot to do on your limited down time. The driving is bad in Abu Dhabi but still not as bad as Kuwait. Abu Dhabi is the least congested capital in the world and I very rarely must deal with traffic whereas traffic was a nightmare in Kuwait.

With a mixture of international and local players, what were the main differences in attitudes to learning, if any?

In Kuwait, I found that the youngest players would seek out a 1v1 on purpose even if they had an open goal in front of them! There was also a bit of a language barrier compared to the U.A.E where every child speaks English to a degree. Some players in Kuwait had no grasp of English.

How did your previous experiences in Kuwait help you to settle in the U.A.E and what coaching adaptions did it help you make?

I found as a white woman with short hair that I was a novelty in Kuwait, and I didn’t handle the staring all that well. However, because Abu Dhabi is a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities, it’s much easier to blend in. I don’t like to stand out or be in the limelight, it’s why I chose to play the drums and not be the lead guitarist growing up! Haha!

My experience in Kuwait though prepared me for the possibility of being stared at (or chased down the highway by a mad man waving like a maniac at myself and a female colleague when in Kuwait).

It also helped me realise that there isn’t an immersive football culture like we have at home. Kuwait taught me that many children don’t understand the basic rules of the game, that we would take for granted at home. I was much more prepared for that this time and I don’t get half as frustrated because I don’t make half as many assumptions any more.

As an Early Years Coach, in your opinion, what are the most important fundamentals for the kids to discover?

The ability to twist and turn with the ball and protect it, particularly in 1v1s. With my U7 teams, we are working a lot on developing the ability to identify space, creating an angle to that space and getting their body shape correct. You’d be surprised how much they can understand if you break it down for them!

Mastering the ball is hugely important. Getting a child to be able to execute an action at the right moment to give themselves time and space is paramount. I work a lot on being able to check for the opposition players, their teammates, and deciding whether to keep or attack. Them being able to manipulate the ball to maintain possession is a huge part of my coaching.

For the benefit of those who think working with young kids is easy… how testing is it for a coach?

It can be infuriating if you’re expecting too much. You also spend a lot of time tying shoelaces, fixing bibs and high-5ing snotty, grimy hands.

One of the most testing parts when working in youth football is being able to manage expectations of parents, whilst keeping players happy at the same time. But generally I can't complain, as all of my parents are good and very supportive.

In your roles, what did you find best for your development?

Having a Technical Director join the club and put in a curriculum and identify a clear playing style for the club has changed the way I coach and view coaching. I’m much less of a “fire-fighter” coach now.

I’m now not afraid of repetition in my sessions whereas previously, I would think I’d need to do something new every week to seem inventive.

What things have been challenging in your current or past roles and is there anything you would do differently next time?

My most challenging experience was being a head coach at a couple of recreational programs. Managing numerous parents, registrations, coaches and delivering quality sessions with a quick turnover time was quite a stressful experience. It also involved doing quite a bit of standing and speaking in front of groups of people which I have always been uncomfortable with.

It gave me an appreciation for people with excellent man-management and administration skills. Would I try it again? Absolutely!

Would you recommend coaches to move abroad and why you would or wouldn’t? any advice?

Yes, I would recommend it. But maybe I would say that as I am in a country with great weather where I’m not stormed or rained off every weekend!

I worry for a generation of footballers in Ireland not being able to kick a ball because of all the weather warnings recently. But it’s quite a big industry here and I interact with many different coaches in varying clubs and it’s always the conversations with them that intrigue me.

You can’t put a price on experiencing different cultures and meeting people of different ethnicities. It’s always fun to find people from home too. I play GAA with Al Reem Shamrocks. I never played camogie until I came out here!

Has anything developed you more than if you were working in Ireland?

Yes, I’m not sure I would find someone who thinks quite like our Technical Director. I really like the way he thinks about coaching and it’s a very different approach to what we do at home. I’m not sure I’d get quite as regular P.D sessions at home either.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I’m not a person who goes looking for inspiration! If it finds me then it tends to be through conversation.

How’s the future looking, what’s next?

I see my immediate future with PASS Abu Dhabi. I love the city. It really suits my personality! I’m curious to see how the club progresses and I want to see how the players I coach now grow into the playing style we are looking to achieve.

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