The pinnacle of women’s club football, America’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), will have a distinctive Derry look in 2016 after Culmore native Christy Holly made history by becoming the first Irish man to clinch a Head Coach’s role with one of the league’s 10 professional teams.
The 31-year old former Nazareth House and St. Columb’s College student was confirmed in his role with New Jersey based Sky Blue F.C. last week, having previously worked as assistant manager, and he admits he is still coming to terms with the high profile nature of his new job.
“I’m delighted,” explained Christy, who is also the league’s youngest Head Coach. “The NWFL is regarded as the highest level of womens’ professional soccer in the world so it’s not a decision I came to easily but I’m really excited. I have to fly the flag for Ireland!
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with many good coaches in my career, all of whom I have learned from. Growing up in Derry, I played a lot of different sports from swimming to soccer to GAA and rugby and, perhaps, that gives me a more holistic approach to coaching.
“This opportunity was too good to refuse. The profile the women’s game gets here in the States is huge and, maybe, I was a bit naive in that I thought my appointment might fly under the radar. I spoke to different people about the position, about if it was the right time to do it, but I couldn’t turn it down.”
Sky Blue FC is a founding member of the NWSL which is the largest professional women’s soccer league in the world. The club was founded in 2006 as an amateur club because no professional league existed at that time - but 2016 will be its seventh season as a professional club with 2009 it’s only Championship winning year to date: a statistic Holly is hoping to change.
His belief is fuelled by a strong squad which includes a number of high profile players including US captain Christie Rampone, one of the women’s game’s most decorated players and fresh from lifting the World Cup with the US in July of last year. Kelley O’Hara is the second World Cup winning member of Holly’s squad and both have been supportive of the Derry man’s appointment.
“Christie has won two World Cups,” he adds. “She was the US captain in Canada last summer and has been a very good mentor for me since I‘ve been at the club. She pushed hard for me to take the job which was a real confidence boost. Last season we had 10 players at the World Cup and this year we are looking at a similar number going to the Olympics. The calibre of players is very high.
“Kelley O’Hara is another US international who has won two Olympics and the World Cup. Beyond that, we have Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord, two Australian internationals who are among the best young talents in the world. “Ironcially, Sam Kerr’s brother, Daniel, played Aussie Rules and played against my cousin, Barry McGoldrick, in the 2007 International Rules Series at Croke Park - so, it’s a small world.”
That McGoldrick connection is not the final link to the Oak Leaf senior football team. The second boy of a sporting family of five children, Christy is a brother of current Derry GAA star, Niall. And, while he’s now making a splash in soccer, his first taste of transatlantic sporting competition came many years ago as part of a City of Derry Swimming team which, under the guidance of local instructors Seamus McAnee and Carmel Gorman, made annual trips to compete in the States.
“I first went out to America with City of Derry and it’s funny how things have progressed. Growing up, swimming was always the sport I invested most of my time in. I used to go to the States as part of an exchange programme and stayed with a host family for a month every summer from I was 10 years old until I was 20. We competed out here and benefited from top level training.”
A Sports Psychology degree at John Moore’s University brought Holly back to Europe but a chance opportunity with Global Premier Soccer in Boston offered an intriguing route back to the US. The company, which is run by Derry brothers Joe and Pete Bradley, is well known for bringing coaches out from Ireland and they proved a valuable first step on the management ladder for Holly.
“It helped coming back to New Jersey which I knew from the swimming. The coaching went well and I was enjoying it, interacting and learning. Things just snowballed. When I first came out, I never had the ambition to taking on one of the professional teams in the league but it really starting escalating while I was working with the Bradley School. I was working with high level youth teams and was quite fortunate to enjoy some success.
“From there, I was brought in to work with the University team which is a huge thing in the States, similar to the American Football set-up. The college game here is fantastic and so well resourced; it was a great experience.
This new post is both a huge honour and challenge.Christy Holly
“While working in the College system, I was offered the chance to work with the Sky Blue reserve team. After a season with the reserves, they promoted me to assistant first team coach and, consequently, this new post is both a huge honour and challenge.”
So, while brother Niall is plotting Championship glory with Damian Barton’s Derry, Christy - who played for Tristar, Culmore, Celtic Swifts and Limavady United as well as GAA for Eoghan Rua - will be seeking to get his season off to a positive start when the NWSL action starts in mid-April.
But if ever the new Sky Blue FC boss starts to get ahead of himself, he knows he will soon be brought down to earth.
“I still like to remind Niall that I’m the better player - GAA or soccer,” smiles Christy.
“My family have been fantastic but my dad, Brian, is always quick to remind me that Gaelic football and hurling are ‘proper’ sports so they make sure to keep me grounded. They constantly call soccer ‘ground ball’ to wind me up, yet Dad maintains he has forgotten more about soccer than I will ever know!”
Christy is conscious of the pressure that comes with such a position but believes the experience he has garnered from Ireland and America can prove a winning formula.
“Our normal crowd is between 4,000 and 5,000 but we have set ourselves a target of averaging 6,000 this season so, hopefully, we can play a brand of winning football which people will want to see and can get excited about. To be honest, I can’t wait to get started”