Belfast Telegraph

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'When you've been battling cancer, suddenly that disputed penalty or offside call doesn't seem so important

By Claire McNeilly

Bryan McLaughlin (56), one half of Irish League football's most successful managerial partnership, tells about the remarkable chemistry between him and David Jeffrey... and what effect a recent, major health scare has had on him and his family.

Q. Tell us something about yourself, Bryan

A. I'm married to personal assistant-turned-homemaker Georgie (53) and we have three sons - Ryan (26), an electrician, Craig (25), an engineer, and Aaron (23), an apprentice electrician.

Q. You're currently Ballymena United assistant manager... but what's your day job?

A. I'm an engineer by trade but I was a production manager with Nortel for 28 years. I work for myself now and I've been employed by the Boys' Model in Belfast for five years to coach multi-sports, mainly focusing on football. I also teach PE and enterprise workshops at local feeder primary schools.

Q. How on earth do you find time for all that?

A. I've always done it. At Nortel I was working 40 hours a week, training with the football team twice a week and playing on Saturdays.

Q. How long have you been an assistant manager?

A. It all started 24 years ago when David asked me to step up from looking after the Larne reserves and help him with the first team.

Q. When are you actually at home? Do you have a very understanding wife?

A. I'm home one night a week and all day Sundays, when I'm available for husband duties, which is a bone of contention... I do have a very understanding wife. Georgie has always been used to football being around; her dad was Derek Wade - the late, legendary, former chairman of one of my ex-clubs, Crusaders. I retired from playing when I was 32, at Ards. The boys were so young (one, three and four) and it was just too much. I promised I'd stop... but six months later I went back to Larne to work with the second team. When David got the Linfield job (in 1997) he asked me to go with him... and we did that for the next 17-and-a-half years.

Q. What's better - playing or managing?

A. Playing is more enjoyable but you can't go on forever. With my day job I was working from eight in the morning with a very young family and bills to pay; I couldn't have afforded to get injured playing.

Q. What's the highlight of your football career?

A. As a player, winning the Ulster Cup with Larne in 1987 probably brought most satisfaction.

With managing, the 'clean sweep' year at Linfield (2005/6 season), was something special. It'll be really difficult for anybody involved with local football to equal that achievement.

Q. What's the secret of your partnership and unparalleled success as a double act with David? (31 trophies at Linfield).

A. Respect for each other. Like any relationship, or a marriage as such, when you get to know the other person then you can be more effective. A marriage is more effective as it goes on because you understand the relationship, you understand the roles, you understand your strengths, you understand your development needs or weaknesses... with us, it's telepathic.

Q. So you're actually married to two people?

A. I've got two long-standing relationships. My 25th wedding anniversary was a couple of years ago (my wife and I went to Mexico) but I haven't had that with David yet. I don't know where he's going to take me...

Actually, David and I have had a broken relationship, two or three years ago when we left Linfield. My mum Margaret (78) had died from bowel cancer and I started rebuilding the house, while David was doing radio and TV and swanning around. My dad Jack had died 15 years earlier. He was only 68. He had a heart valve problem. Glenavon asked me to help them coach so I did that for eight months. Last March, however, Ballymena appointed David as manager. I'd already made a pact with him that if he did come back to management I'd go with him.

Q. Have you ever fallen out with him?

A. No, never. I've fallen out with Georgie more! There was a challenging period at Linfield where in the first couple of seasons we hadn't won the league and were coming under more pressure. Linfield wanted a higher profile person than me to come in to support us, but David was very clear; he said no to that. The rest is history - Linfield went on to win the league and we went from strength to strength.

Q. Does it annoy you that David's always the upfront man, the guy who gets all the attention - and most of the credit?

A. No. Everyone has an ego but I don't need mine massaged. A little bit of credit and acknowledgement and I'm quite happy. But David is very quick to say this is a partnership. I actually prefer to be in David's shadow because he's a big person. David always takes the lead role. He's always up front. He has that way of connecting with people. I know what he's going to say at team talks but still the hairs on the back of my neck go when he's on fire. He just has that way of engaging people, making them believe and making then feel good about themselves.

Q. Did you ever consider trying your hand at being the main man?

A. I know I'm capable of doing it, but I'm really comfortable working with David. It means I can do the work behind the scenes while he carries on doing what he's very good at.

Q. You recently attended the funeral of former Larne team-mate Davy Smyth, who died on Christmas Day after an 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer. From all accounts, Davy was an incredibly popular man both on and off the field; that must have been emotional for both you and the other Larne old boys?

A. It was difficult in one sense but, at the same time, because of how exuberant Davy was as a person he wouldn't have wanted you to be sad. He was phenomenally strong throughout his illness. When Davy was diagnosed, all the players in the Ulster Cup winning team were invited back to the club; it was one of the anniversaries of the cup success, but it also was an opportunity to support him in the battle ahead. We met each other three times, the last of those in Lavery's bar six weeks before he died. We knew what was coming - as did Davy - but he was so, so strong the whole way through it. He loved life. He was a very warm, intelligent person.

Q. I understand you've had your own worrying health issues recently... how are you now?

A. Last May or June I had high blood pressure. I ultimately went for scans and was told I had a lesion on the right kidney which turned out to be (renal adenocarcinoma) cancer. It had to be removed as soon as possible.

I didn't tell many people; only very close friends and family.

It was a shock because I live well, and never felt unwell. If it hadn't been for high blood pressure and a young doctor insisting I go for tests I'd never have known. They said that type of cancer grows at 1cm a year and it was 9cm long - it was grapefruit size and I didn't know it was there, even though I could have had it for nine years, showing no symptoms.

If it spreads it could ultimately kill you. When I learned I had kidney cancer and it was nowhere else in my body it was a relief it hadn't spread but I just wanted it out and fortunately you can live with one kidney.

Q. After what happened to Davy (and another friend, Michael Lavery, who died from stomach cancer last year, aged 49), do you feel relieved that things have worked out for you?

A. I consider myself lucky that it was only the kidney and the hospital got it out so quickly and I'm fine. They told me I'd be able to get on with the rest of my life.

I was in hospital for a week. (I only missed one match - we beat Cliftonville 3-2; a great get-well present from the team) and I was back in school in a week. They were all really shocked, but I was keen to get back. I take lunchtime sports and the boys weren't getting that so I was really taken aback by the their warm feeling for me when I came back.

Q. How did Georgie deal with it? And the boys?

A. She was very strong emotionally and the boys just took it like it was getting a tooth out.

Q. We understand another ex-Larne pal of yours from those glory days of the mid-80s was diagnosed with skin cancer at around the same time?

A. Yes, Eddie Spiers had a growth in his head. He has it out now and he's fine. On one of our days out with Davy Smyth, Eddie was sporting a patch. The boys were shocked that I hadn't told them about what had happened to me. I didn't want attention, and didn't want them to worry. But I ended up showing them my scar and Davy, of all people, was really concerned. We were laughing and joking and others were joking that us three could go and drink in the corner on our own... it was actually quite funny.

Q. Does something like this rearrange your priorities; suddenly that disallowed goal or disputed penalty doesn't seem important any more?

A. Your health is totally separate from whatever else goes on in your life. Your health is your wealth. Whatever difficulties people have, once you have your health everything else should pale into insignificance. It does bring everything into shaper focus.

Q. How important were your wife and family - and the pupils you're so fond of - during those worrying times?

A. They were fantastic. I gave them all the information and told them I was going to be fine. School was the same. When we were coming to the end of the year - which turned out to be really successful with us winning the cup - the boys got me one of their football jumpers, signed by the players and framed. It was so unexpected, I ended up sobbing in the assembly hall in front of everyone.

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