Brennan is ready for lift-off with Elks in Super League

LET'S start with a good old stereotype by observing that it's just as well women can multi-task given the number of balls Dr Deirdre Brennan has to keep in the air.

Where basketball’s Brennan breaks the mould though is in being a female coach of an elite men’s team – Irish Super League outfit, the Ulster Elks.

That in itself is a story and makes her one of a kind in the top tier of Irish basketball but Brennan’s about much more than that label and her involvement in the sport goes far wider and deeper than simply taking the team.

It’s fair to say that, if it wasn’t for her hard work and vision which has turned a dream into a reality, there simply wouldn’t be an Ulster Elks outfit rubbing shoulders with basketball’s big boys.

A senior lecturer in Sports Studies at the University of Ulster, Deirdre’s heavily involved in and passionate about the drive to develop Jordanstown as a leading-edge centre of sporting excellence for Northern Ireland.

And, along with her husband Gareth Maguire, Ireland’s most capped basketball international of all time, Deirdre’s developed what was originally just a student side into a Super League franchise.

Maguire’s come out of retirement to add a bit of experience and up the team’s average age in these first few seasons in the elite league – to twist another clich, behind every successful woman is a good man.

They’ve three children aged 10 or under as well so she’s got family commitments to juggle as well as academic and sporting ones but Brennan’s an able, positive person who appears to take it all in her stride.

Every sport, particularly those which don’t automatically attract a lot of attention, need a Brennan-type figure to take things forward and the Ulster Elks’ success story shows just what is possible.

Basketball is run on an all-island basis by Basketball Ireland with the 10-team Super League – and being the semi-professional end of the sport – clubs have a couple of overseas professionals, usually Americans.

“Up until a couple of years ago, there was promotion and relegation, but then they introduced a new system where clubs had to bid for a licence.

“We each had to draw up a five-year business plan outlining our capabilities in terms of sustainability, infrastructure and development.

“The adjudicating committee was chaired by former GAA President Sean Kelly and they worked closely with clubs to give guidance and get them up to speed.

“In June 2007, we got the nod for a five-year licence, only of only three teams to get that long a period even though we were the only team which was new to the Super League to apply.

“The rest were provisional licences so the teams had to resubmit at the end of the year. Killarney bit the dust while Tralee – who won the Super League – and the only other northern team, Belfast Star, were only given a provisional licence for a year.”

The system seems to have been a little like that used by the IFA for their new Invitational League whereby the criteria was wider than current playing prowess alone.

The then University of Ulster team previously played in Division One, another national division just below the old Super League, but were invited into the top tier based on other factors.

Brennan admits that “we wouldn’t be in the top flight at this stage if Basketball Ireland hadn’t gone down this route” and understandably last season was a bit of a struggle.

“Although we finished bottom and faced some resentment and resistance from clubs who felt we hadn’t earned our place on playing merit, it was a fairly successful season inasmuch as we were realistic about where we expected to be.

“We won only three matches out of 22 but were very competitive in spite of deciding to go with only two foreigners whereas most teams have three or four, with a couple (of Kolpak-type recruits) on top of the two official overseas players.

“We went with a very domestic set-up, our aim being to develop local talent and complement it with the use of American players rather than seeking short-term success to the detriment of everything else.

“Hopefully with the support structures and facilities here we can close the gap more quickly than would otherwise be possible.

“Last season you only had to have two Irish players on the floor at any time so we were at a disadvantage. On average we lost matches by 11 points and the extra foreigner on average scored 15 points a game so that was very significant.

“We took Belfast Star to overtime and gained a lot from the season overall.

“This year too is about development and all except two of our 14-player panel are students at the University of Ulster including two southerners on scholarships.

“We’re the youngest team in Super League even though my husband – who is 38 –pushes the average age up considerably,” laughs the Monaghan-born Brennan, herself a former Irish international basketball player.

Basketball is a school sport south of the border whereas netball is the big indoor girls game in Northern Ireland but Brennan was lucky “that our history teacher spent time in the US and was mad keen on basketball as a result.”

Initially involved in athletics, Deirdre was actually a young Ulster sprint champion but basketball won out in spite of her ending up studying in Belfast instead of original choice, the University of Limerick.

Basketball’s bigger in the Republic – Kerry gaelic star Kieran Donaghy is one of its leading lights – and it isn’t really seen as a girls game at all up here though there was strong support for the sport when Brennan came to town in the 1980s.

“You might have got 1,000 people for a Team Smithwicks game in Finaghy but teams struggled for financial sustainability and, with less Americans paid to come in, the product became less attractive to spectators,” she says.

Basketball Northern Ireland is one of eight regional arms of the national governing body but the sport here has, for whatever reason, tended to be much more associated with the Catholic community than the Protestant population.

“There are strong schools like St Malachy’s which would act as a feeder to Belfast Star (formerly Star of the Sea) and the Troubles undoubtedly took their toll but I certainly played alongside Protestant girls at Sporting Belfast and religion was never an issue.

“I imagine people see it as an American sport first and foremost rather than associating it with one side or other of our community.

“Geographically we would have more basketball east of the Bann, though there are teams in places like Omagh, Strabane and Londonderry.”

At present there are no northern players in the Irish squad, unlike in the days when her husband and Adrian Fulton flew the flag for Ulster and served as role models for aspiring players.

The Ireland set-up has “gone down the Jack Charlton route to some extent by bringing in Irish Americans at the expense of indigenous players,” and although that may make the team more competitive at international level, Brennan isn’t convinced this is the right route.

We will deal with the establishment of the Ulster Elks, including the story behind the name, and how that fits into the bigger picture of sport at the University of Ulster in another article as their second season in the top flight – though first under the new name – unfolds.

Basketball may be Brennan’s passion but the tale of the Elks’ emergence is illustrative of how a university can afford an ideal environment for sport and sportspeople to develop and thrive – that’s an interesting interview in its own right.

Now a senior lecturer in the School of Sports Studies, Brennan’s been working at UUJ for 16 years and has had many of the province’s current crop of sports stars – including cricket’s Kyle McCallan and Andy White, gaelic footballer Sean Kavanagh, rugby’s Ian Humphreys and athlete Anna Boyle – through her hands.

But she’s been involved in coaching for a lot longer, since her mid-teens when Deirdre and her dad started a boys team back home in Monaghan.

Then she became a PE teacher, involved in taking school sides, and also started a junior section at her club, Sporting Belfast.

“After I got the job at UU in 1992, the men’s club asked me if I’d like to coach.

“It was collegiate basketball with a four-day varsities tournament every March and then there was the Colleges league before we became an established club.

“I suppose Super League has been a big step up for all of us and I’m the only female coach in the competition but it’s been fine so far.

“I enjoy doing the coaching but am not sure if I’ll continue taking the team long-term. Family commitments come first and there’s also an important job to be done driving the development of the Ulster Elks in a strategic sense.

“Out of 60-something sports clubs at the university in total, we have seven focused sports with basketball being the lead in that model and, in terms of wider work, we want to make the University of Ulster the No 1 for sport on the island of Ireland.”

After talking to the ambitious and engaging Brennan for over an hour, you realise she’s serious about that and, given the Elks example, doubtless has a practical plan for delivering.

The team lost last weekend’s opening Super League match 91-84 against Neptune in Cork but are looking forward to their first home game, against DCU Saints at the High Performance Centre at Jordanstown this Saturday at 7pm.