Dan Gebski talks to Martin Connell

“Respect is a two-way street, if you want to get it you have to give it.”  - R. G.Risch

This quote it is very accurate to my next guest. He is a very active community campaigner. With his team he is doing an amazing job getting people working together through sport activities, I would like to introduce you to Martin Connell.

DG: Thank you Martin for agreeing to do this interview. I am actually humbled to have you in my project. Could you tell me more about yourself? Where you are originally from and tell me more about your childhood and family?

MC: Hi Dan. Thank you for asking me to do this interview. I have lived in Newry all my life. I grew up in a great place called O Neill Avenue and I had a wonderful childhood growing up there. As children we spent most of our time playing football on the streets or in the tennis courts in St Mary’s High School, which is right beside where we lived. I also spent many hours, particularly during summer holidays exploring the fields and quarries that faced onto the back of O Neill Avenue. I had great friends growing up in the area and we were blessed with having great people living on the street. My parents still live there and so does many of the parents of the friends that I grew up with. 

Dan Gebski with Martin Connell.
Dan Gebski with Martin Connell.

DG: Why the name Respect Project and how did it all start? Can you tell me more on this please?

MC: I set the Respect Project up in 2011 alongside the support of a number of volunteers from the local community. I suppose the idea for the project came from my own involvement in playing sports at various levels since I was young. I was lucky enough to be reasonably successful in the sports I played but it was more the outcomes of playing sport that I got most of my enjoyment from, things like the friends I made, the confidence it gave me, the opportunities I got to go to different places, the social skills I helped develop and most importantly the fun I had with the people I played with.

These were the core principles that I wanted to base the project on. These principles also helped shape the name of the Project and our strapline of helping young people learn to respect themselves, their sport and their community and how these aspects can all be interlinked with each other. I also was aware when setting up the Project that there was already a number of organised sports clubs in the area for people to get involved in so I wanted to go about setting up something different that gave all young people, regardless of ability, an opportunity to benefit from being involved in Sport. I had seen at first hand the impact that Community Projects delivered through Professional Football Clubs in England and Scotland had with the young people they were working with and this motivated me to develop something similar here in Newry. Our very first Youth Programme was delivered in 2012 with 30 young people as part of a summer scheme, however over the years the project has just got bigger and bigger whereby we have probably engaged with over 3000 young people since we started.

For example we now have approx. 100 young people involved on a weekly basis in various programmes from 6 years of age to 18 years of age. I take great pride in seeing the impact that the Project is having with the young people involved and also that the project was developed and delivered on a voluntary basis by myself and other local community volunteers from the Newry area. 

DG: What is your occupation? Could you tell me more about your career please?

MC: Earlier this year I resigned from my role as a Good Relations Support Officer in the Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Council after working there for over 10 years. I had been thinking about moving on from this job for a while and when I was offered the position of part time Sports Studies lecturer with the Southern Regional College this gave me the opportunity to move on to something new and it related more to what I had studied at University, which was a Degree in Health and Leisure Studies and a Post Graduate Diploma in Health Promotion. It was a difficult decision to leave the security of a permanent post with the Council, particularly when you have a young family but I felt that life is too short to be working in a job you weren’t enjoying so I decided to move on. I also have recently taken up a part time post with PIPS Hope and Support here in Newry as an Education Officer so between this and doing a few hours teaching with the SRC I am very lucky to be earning a living doing something I enjoy and hopefully making a difference in peoples lives. 

DG: Is the Respect Project for every child? Is it a matter of origin? Religious believes? Disability? What is the age limit?

MC: The Respect Project is open to every young person. We work with young people from 6 to 18 years of age through various different programmes. Examples of these programmes include Street Football Programmes, Fun Football Coaching programmes, Peer Youth Leadership Programmes and Cross Community United through Sport Programmes. We always try to keep our programmes fresh and the young people involved in them help shape the format of these programmes. We also have approx 12 adult volunteer leaders who play a vital role in the development and delivery of the Respect Project activities. 

DG: Do you like sport yourself? What is your favourite sport discipline? Have you got any sports Hero`s?

MC: As you can see from my physical appearance I'm nowhere near as sporty as I was when I was younger lol. When I was young I was quite lucky to play various sports at a competitive level and was quite successful in these. For example I won many All Ireland Medals in Athletics even breaking a number of All Ireland records in such events as 300 metre hurdles, long jump and 600 metres. I believe I still hold one of these records 20 odd years later so that’s something im quite proud off. I also played soccer locally with Ballybot when I was younger and we had a great team and were unbeaten for over 5 years and we went on to win the Northern Ireland Championship at Under 16 level. I even scored the winning goal in extra time in this final.

Although I finished competing at Athletics when I was around 17 years of age I continued to play both Soccer and Gaelic Football. I played gaelic football for Newry Shamrocks and I was part of the teams that won the Down Senior Football Division 1 and 2 titles during my playing career. I actually was Captain of the team that won the Division 2 league. I also played for County Down at Under 21 level. I played senior football (soccer) locally with Cleary Celtic and Rockview United and I won a few honours such as the Bessbrook Cup (with Cleary Celtic) and First and Second Division titles (with Rockview United). My playing career was cut short by a bad dislocated shoulder and I ended up managing Rockview United for a number of years. Although I don’t play any more I am still very interested in Sport whether it be watching games on TV or reading sports bibliographies or researching different coaching sessions.

My main involvement in sport now is through coaching the young people involved in the various programmes that we deliver with the Respect Project. I really enjoy the coaching aspect of the programmes and I hope to have a positive impact on the young people involved the same way many of the coaches that I played under had on me. In a way these were my sporting hero’s who I looked up to growing up. For example people like Liam Rafferty who was my Athletic’s Coach when I was younger through the Newry Shamrock’s Running Club. Liam was brilliant in the way he coached the finer details of different athletic events to help you gain a slight edge over your competitors and various All Ireland Medal winners came out of the Newry Shamrock’s Club over the years. But more importantly Liam alongside people like his wife Bridie, Molly Carr and my own parents who all helped create a fun environment for everyone involved regardless of their ability and many a great weekend was spent travelling all over Ireland to various athletic meetings and many great friendships were formed and to this day I often bump into people and we talk about the great times we had then.

Other sporting hero’s that I would have looked up to over the years were coaches I played soccer under such as the late Micky Maguire (with Ballybot) and Pat Quinn (With Cleary Celtic) and also coaches I played Gaelic Football under with Newry Shamrock’s such as people like Eamon Trainer, Joe O Reilly and D.J. Kane. All of these people would have had a positive influence on me when I was playing sport when I was younger and I suppose in a way I have taken little things from each of them into how I develop and deliver the sessions with the Respect Project.

DG: We all know the Respect Project is an absolutely positive project and I have witnessed myself foreign national children attending at the sessions? Can you actually see any culture differences between kids while they are playing together?

MC: I think that is the beauty of Sport in that it can break down barriers and perceptions that sometimes society can place on people because of their cultural identity. People can come together from all walks of life and just play Sport and have fun together. In a way I feel that sport is a common language between people and I have seen this at first hand through our street football programmes and our United through Sport Programmes, whereby we have young people from various different cultural backgrounds come together and interact with each other through sport. 

DG: Do you think diversity brings any positive way to our community in Newry?

MC: I think diversity is a good thing and has many positive impacts within our community in Newry. I think having people from different backgrounds living in our community allows us the opportunity to learn new things such as different languages, types of music, different food and of how different cultures have different traditions and celebrations - all of these things can help us strengthen as a community if we can learn to embrace them as it gives us a chance to experience different things outside of what we are normally accustomed to.

DG: What message would you have to the all parents and their children out there to encourage them to get sign up for the Respect Project?

MC: I would encourage them to check out the different programmes we deliver and get involved in them. We try our best to give all the young people involved in our programmes a positive fun experience. We advertise all our programmes through our Facebook page – Respect Project Newry and anyone can get involved in them.

DG: What are future plans for the Respect Project? Any changes? Or maybe new ideas?

MC: We recently started a Community Youth Champions League Programme with over 60 young people aged between 11 – 14 in the Bosco Youth Centre every Thursday night. It involves weekly 5 a side football matches and various fun off pitch games over 10 weeks. Due to the positive feedback from this programme we hope to deliver this with different age groups after Christmas. We also have been very fortunate to have been selected as a model of good practice here in Northern Ireland through an Erasmus Plus European Programme whereby representatives of the Project have had the opportunity to visit places like London, Madrid, Milan and Romania to see best practice examples of how other Countries deliver social change through Sport. We are hoping to build on these links in the coming months and develop new programmes based on some of the ideas we have seen. 

DG: I am not afraid to say to you Martin this. Thank you for being our community Hero. I am glad we have met and discuss such important messages. Thank you for all and good health my friend. Dan

MC: Thanks Dan. I am very humbled with your very kind words. 

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