Friday, June 03, 2022

The Lusail Stadium outside Doha will host the 2022 World Cup final this December. Mayo native Ciaran Kelly has been working with local club Lusail FC for the last five seasons. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty

By Keith O’Dwyer
It has been another season of great progress for Lusail FC of Qatar, and in particular their Technical Director, Mayo’s Ciaran Kelly. Lusail finished third in this season’s Qatari Second Division and are now on the verge of being fully accredited as a professional club by the Qatar FA, which would mean they would be entitled to centralised funding.
At present, Lusail are restricted to using amateur-status players but they are competing against sides allowed to sign up to five professionals, one from the Middle East, one from Asia and three from the rest of the world.
“For us to be able to do the same we have to meet the criteria that have been laid down by the Qatar FA and be operating as a club in the second division for over three years,” explained Kelly from Qatar last week.
“In that respect, it is very like the centralised system used in the MLS in America. We have gone from seventh to fifth to third which is a great achievement for all involved given we get no revenue from gate receipts, so we are entirely reliant on our academy structure and our sponsors.
“Technically we wouldn’t have been able to get promoted due to our status but we still ended up only three points off second place. We finished very strong considering there was a transition for the players during the season when our new head coach came in.”
Lusail appointed Fabio Cesar, an ex-Qatari international with a Brazilian background, as their new head coach during the season.
“He came in initially to do some support work with our staff and then when the role came up, he was offered it and accepted the job and has done really well,” said Kelly.
“To finish how we did and have the run of games where we came so close to finishing second was a huge achievement.”
In keeping with Kelly’s proud cup final tradition, Lusail also reached the final of the Qatar FA Cup where they were beaten by top-flight side Al-Arabi. For Kelly, it was another milestone in their continuing progression as a club.
“The cup is run a little different here. There are two competitions, the Amir Cup and then the FA Cup. The FA Cup is for all of the teams not playing in the Asian Champions League.
“We finished top of our group and then won our quarter-final and semi-final and got to the final against Al-Arabi who play in the top flight, the Qatar Stars League.”
Al-Arabi were able to call upon the services of a number of high-profile professional players for the cup final, including Icelandic international and former Cardiff City player Aron Gunnarsson and Gabon international Aaron Boupendza.
“You would be frightened if you knew (Boupendza’s) salary,” said Kelly. “It’s $7million dollars a year and he was the difference between the two sides.”
Kelly’s team made a poor start to the final, falling 2-0 down inside the first 15 minutes, but they battled back to make a game of it and eventually lost out by a single goal, 3-2.
“The age profile of our side is 23 years old and because of our status and budget we have to look to sign young players who we can develop and move on,” offered Roundfort man Kelly.

Ciaran Kelly won the FAI Cup twice as a goalkeeper with Sligo Rovers. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

“We look to see that they have what we are looking for in terms of desire and passion and that they want to use the club as a platform to kick-on in their career. We have to look to develop players for now and for the future and to be winning games.
“That creates an issue in its own right in that our players and staff attract the attention of other clubs in the league who would have bigger budgets. That creates a headache for us and adds to all the work that goes on in the off-season. Currently the club is in discussions with the QFA about our status for next season and if we are accredited, that will be life-changing.”
The club is continuing to grow at a rapid pace and Kelly is keen to continue that growth through strong community programmes. Recently their academy was visited by former England international David Beckham.
“This club started in 2014 as a group of ex-pats getting together to train on a Tuesday and then play a game on the Saturday in the amateur leagues, so nearly like a Castlebar Celtic,” said Kelly.
“I joined as Head Coach in 2017 and then in 2019 we won the Qatar Amateur League to get into the Second Division, where we have been since.
“We run it on a business model which is no different from that of any other club in the world and I draw on the experience of having worked with good people in the past and of making sure we have strong community programmes.
“We work with ‘Generation Amazing’ who have just won the ‘Football For All’ award from the QFA and through this scheme they arranged for David Beckham to come and visit our academy. Our community scheme is called A-Fereej which translates as ‘village’ in Arabic and was the closest word we could get to community.”
Lusail run youth leagues in the local community and are currently in the midst of a five-week youth tournament that includes over 700 players from the ages of 7 to 17.
“We have gone full cycle in terms of setting up a pathway for players,” said Kelly. “We have kids starting with us as young as 3 and then all the way to the first team and we have to close that gap. So this season we introduced a second team that are playing in the Qatar Amateur League and with two games to go they are in contention to win that league.”
Having experienced the lows and highs in his playing career, especially during his spells with Sligo Rovers, Kelly feels that he has plenty of great examples to draw from as he looks to help Lusail make the step to the next level.
“I suppose now that I look back at that time period as some of the happiest memories of my life and there times every day when I draw on certain experiences that I had and use that in my decision making with Lusail,” said Kelly of his time in the League of Ireland.
“I think of scenarios that happened at the clubs I was involved with and what might have gone right or what went wrong.
“For me, one of the main things I took from my time with Sligo Rovers is to surround yourself with the best people who want the best for your club and that includes staff, players, and committee members.
“That can be a difficult process to get right but it is all about togetherness. One of the posters we had up in the dressing room in the Showgrounds was ‘Together we are Stronger’ and we use that as a hashtag here. You have to be like a family and that’s what we had in Sligo, we were one big family from the groundsman to the bus driver to the supporters, we were all in it together. At that time we all wanted to win and to bring success to the club.”

When asked would he consider a return to Ireland, Kelly admitted that is a difficult question to answer. He does keep in touch with what is happening in the League of Ireland but ultimately he is happy with where is career-wise.
“I don’t know the answer,” he stated. “An hour can be a long time in football and I know that in this industry you nearly have to take it one day at a time. But I am happy here and am surrounded by good people who have given me a platform to grow the club and to be put in the right people to move this club forward.
“This has been a long process since 2017 but it has been an enjoyable one. And we couldn’t have done it without the support of everyone involved with the club and our partners.
“Around three years ago I did have the opportunity to take over as head coach of the first team here and the players were pushing for me to take over and I was chomping at the bit as I believed I could do a good job.
“But the President and Vice-President said that I could never have that job as if I took it, then they would lose me from my current role which was reassuring to hear as it showed that they believed in the work I was doing.
“That said, I do stay in contact with the goings-on in the League of Ireland and see that a lot of young managers and coaches are being given opportunities so part of me is like, ‘wow, am I missing that window to go and have a go?’ But I have to be real and look at where I am. I am lucky to have a fantastic work-life balance and am enjoying what I am doing.”

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