Tommy Hewitt looking forward to challenge of new season


Tommy Hewitt’s working day begins at 5a.m. On the Tuesdays and Thursdays when he travels to Sligo for night-time training it can be 18 hours before he sees home again. Saturday match days will be even longer. Family time is limited but precious. Welcome to the world of Sligo Rovers’ new League of Ireland women’s manager.

A postman in his native Athlone, Tommy took over the senior women’s team in November, replacing Steve Feeney, who had guided the team in its first two seasons in senior football before stepping aside for family reasons. He’s wasted no time putting his distinctive stamp on a new chapter in the fledgling history of women’s football locally.

He comes with a massively impressive CV in the women’s game, and a burning ambition to enhance it even further during his time at the Showgrounds. A UEFA A licence coach, Tommy was named SSE Airtricity Manager of the Year in 2022 after guiding Athlone Town to the FAI Cup final and a runners-up League position. He has also served as Assistant Manager with the Athlone Town’s men’s team and was head coach with the Irish Defence Forces team at the Military World Games.

Having been forced to retire from playing due to injury when he was only 25 years old – he has vivid memories of playing tough games for Athlone against Willie McStay’s treble-winning Rovers team – Tommy immediately immersed himself in what he calls ‘the next best thing’ – the pursuit of hard-earned coaching badges.  Initially working with local youth teams throughout the midlands, including exemplary work with Kennedy Cup (boys) and Gaynor Cup (girls) teams, he was invited to head up the underage women’s academy in the Midlands Schoolgirls League, thus beginning a twenty year relationship with girls and women’s football.

He was, therefore, the obvious choice to take charge of the first Athlone Town women’s team to enter the League of Ireland in 2018. Building a team from scratch obviously presented unique challenges — his early recruits included Sligo/Leitrim players, Aoife Haran and Muireann Devanney – but steady progress culminated in the FAI Cup final loss to highly-fancied Shelbourne in 2022 and a tantalising second to the same opposition in that season’s league chase. Some level of compensation came in victory over Shels in the inaugural Women’s President’s Cup, as well as his selection as manager of the year. In addition, one of his players won Player of the Year and four were included in the team of the year.

“The President’s Cup was Athlone’s first senior women’s title. Allied to the recognition for myself and four of our players it meant we’d really made a significant breakthrough. For a club like ours, outside of the traditional big three of Wexford, Peamount and Shels, to get that sort of recognition was massive. And it illustrated what could be achieved at the so-called smaller clubs”, Tommy recalls.

Little wonder, then, that when he decided to leave his post at Athlone in June 2023, there was no shortage of eager suitors.

“I had a few calls from National League teams, but once the call came from Sligo things progressed fairly rapidly. I met with Academy Director, Conor O’Grady and two club officials and we teased out what the future might look like. What impressed me was that they had a clear plan, an identified pathway for the future. This was not merely a box-ticking exercise for them. They were very serious about where they wanted the team to go, and I had similar ambitions, so the glove fitted perfectly,” he says.

Admitting that he is excited about the prospect of guiding the team in the new season which kicks off against old adversaries Shelbourne on March 9th, Tommy is refreshingly realistic about the challenges ahead.

“The first thing to make abundantly clear is that this is a long-term project, a four-year development plan. I don’t have a magic wand, nor do the players.

“It’s new and exciting, and it will be challenging. The biggest thing is not to let results affect the long-term goal. I’ve discovered over the years that girls take defeats more to heart than men’s teams do. That’s a fact, so part of my job, win or lose, is to keep the mood steady and level-headed. There will be downs as well as ups, but we don’t get too down and we don’t get too up. We stay focussed and we make progress where we can,” he explains.

His immediate target is simply to win more games in a season than has been the case heretofore.

“It’s easier said than done,” he concedes. “Steve Feeney did a great job here, guiding the team in its inaugural seasons. That was a hugely important period and I’m sure it was never easy, but he built a foundation.

“My job is to build on that. I have a different mentality and perhaps a different approach on how I like my teams to play, but it will take time.”

His squad has been bolstered by a host of impressive signings, including Kelly Compton and Zoe McGlynn from Sion Swifts; Kelsey Munroe from Mayo; Muireann Devaney from Athlone and local centre-back, Yvonne Heddigan. Many of last season’s top players have also re-signed, including top scorer, Emma Doherty and experienced skipper, Emma Hansberry. In addition to the 24-strong senior squad, Tommy points out that emerging players from the under-19s and even under-17s will be given an opportunity as the need arises.

“It’s all about buy-in from the players, and while we won’t get an accurate assessment until the season proper gets underway, the early signs are really encouraging,” he reports.

“The girls are dedicating their lives to this. Apart from match day and training,  there’s gym work, recovery time, analysis. It’s frightening what they’re doing in terms of total commitment. It’s full on for them. I couldn’t ask for any more.”

He’s also fulsome in his praise for his back-room team of coaches James Fallon, Brendan Fitzsimmons, Ultan McKenna; physio Ciara Mulrooney and strength and conditioning coach, Sean Og Campbell.

“It’s a four-year development plan, and we know the level we need to get to. Ultimately, the aim is to be competing at the top end of the table. That’s the next logical step,” Tommy adds.

Overall, he has observed a massive improvement in the women’s game since he first became involved at senior level four years ago.

“The players are now real athletes in every sense of the word. The standard at every club has improved enormously. The teams are all well coached, well structured, and there’s terrific talent coming through.

“Obviously, the success of the national women’s team has improved the profile, but that needs to trickle down to the domestic league. We have to be asking how do we produce the next Katie McCabe or Denise O’Sullivan. There’s a lot of work to be done. I’d like to see our league eventually becoming fully professional, but that will need a meaningful support structure both from the government and the FAI. But the women’s game is definitely going in the right direction,” he maintains.

Hoping for increased support for the women’s team, Tommy assures supporters they will not be disappointed.

“I would say to anyone, if you’re able to get to a women’s game then go and see for yourself what’s on offer. The standard is really high, the games are always entertaining, and there are seriously talented players on show.

“It would be a great boost for us if we get good crowds at the home games. We’ll be playing our games at 7p.m. on Saturdays, and the players would get a massive lift from a big crowd, they would feed off the energy from supporters. Sligo has always been a real football town, so there’s loads of potential for us to tap into. I can guarantee supporters that our women’s team will always give of its very best, so come on down, you might be pleasantly surprised,” he enthuses.

*Rovers kick off their season with an away game against Shelbourne on March 9th. Their first home league game will be on Saturday, March 30th against Galway United, 7pm kick-off.