David Jeffrey: 'I am 54, but my parents remain my inspiration; I still get a feeling of pride when dad encourages me'
As David Jeffrey returns to Windsor Park for the first time as Ballymena United boss, the Linfield legend predicts a very emotional day, tells of his deep love for his family, his passion for his job as a senior social worker... and his dexterity on the flute.
For 17-and-a-half years as Linfield manager David Jeffrey was the King of Windsor Park. He guided the club to a staggering 31 trophies. Prior to that this larger than life character had claimed numerous medals as a Linfield player and captain. And before then, as a wide-eyed youngster, he cheered the team on loud and proud from the terraces.
In those days, if you'd cut Jeffrey open, he would have bled blue.
Today he will make an emotional return to the ground, and will do so as boss of Ballymena United.
Like any other top flight Irish League game, three points will be at stake. But there is a sense that this fixture means a whole lot more than that - certainly to Jeffrey, now 54, and just nine months into his new role already proving he has not lost the Midas touch.
Ballymena are a surprise fourth in the Danske Bank Premiership table, two places below Linfield, and earlier this week reached the League Cup final. It's worth noting his old team have not won silverware since Jeffrey's departure rocked the local game in 2014, though under Northern Ireland's record goalscorer David Healy they do hope to change that this season.
In a compelling new book - Every Other Saturday - by Daniel Brown, which tells the story of Linfield over the past 30 years, Jeffrey writes the foreword detailing how difficult it was to leave his beloved Blues and Windsor behind.
"My last night as manager was like a wake with all the players down in the Windsor boot room. It was heartbreaking and I'm not ashamed to admit that many tears were shed," Jeffrey writes.
Ahead of his return to Windsor as an opposition boss, the senior social worker by trade confirmed: "There were tears 100%. Absolutely. I will never forget my very last night. It was emotional. I had a massive attachment to my staff and the players.
"People need to understand that the men I worked with I always looked to treat them as if they were my own sons. Yes, at times, you had to make very difficult decisions and be firm, but they were special young men I brought to the club and invested in, in terms of time and effort. There was a bond there, and I'm not sure people outside the dressing room understood that.
"When I see them now, they aren't just former players to me they are friends, which is a lovely thing. But, yes, that last night was extremely tough, and not just for me but also my family, who had been with me every step of the way."
While focused on winning the game today, Jeffrey will spare time to think about his mum Isobel and his dad Ken as he walks to the visiting dugout.
In March Jeffrey revealed in this newspaper how his father, lying in a hospital bed in England suffering from haematoma after falling down stairs, told his son to "go and get it sorted", in reference to being offered the Ballymena post.
Thankfully Ken has since made a recovery, so much so that he is attending games again and is back with his son playing in the long established Ballykeel Conservative Flute Band. "Father has made an incredible and, dare I say, miraculous recovery," says the former Linfield boss.
"The best way to underline how well he has been doing is that last weekend at 81 years of age he was playing his flute alongside me in the band. He continues to be chairman and treasurer of the band, and he announced to me this week that he plans, God willing, to be at The Showgrounds on Boxing Day for our big derby match against Coleraine. From the time he said in his hospital bed in England to go and get it sorted to now he is doing well.
"We played in a community carol service for all denominations in Holywood last Sunday night, we've also played in a couple of old people's homes, and other than talking about the band and the music, all he talked about was the football. The support that he gives me is incredible.
"Throughout my life he has been my constant and my encourager alongside my mum. They have both been amazing."
Jeffrey says that his parents remain the inspiration they were when he was a little boy.
"Their support still inspires me," he insists. "While I'm now 54 years of age, you never lose that wee boy feeling. The first memory I have is of playing for the Cubs in east Belfast and dad shouting to me 'great ball David'. I still get that same feeling of pride when my dad encourages me now.
"Behind every good man there is a good woman, and my mother is our rock. That is not taking anything away from dad. Even daddy would say that mum is an immensely strong person.
"If you see her with her grandchildren as well as her children she is very much matriarchal, but always encouraging with a kind word or word of wisdom. She is an immense lady."
When David was manager of Linfield you would forever see his well mannered sons Gareth and Thomas in the stands following the Blues. Work commitments mean they can't attend games as much, but Jeffrey is still lifted by their support.
"Gareth is living and working in London and doing tremendously well. He is a principal consultant with Ramstad, and Thomas has just returned from working in Prague," says their proud dad. "He is a plumber by trade but also is a fitter in the airplane industry. When both of them are home, they'll come to Ballymena games. The support I get from them is fantastic."
Quizzed on who they will be supporting today given their past history with Linfield, there is a twinkle in their dad's eye as he answers.
"All I will say is blood is thicker than water!"
He adds: "Some people say it is just another game of football, and on one level it is, but it is not just another game of football for me.
"We have played Linfield twice in Ballymena, with us winning one game convincingly and them doing the same in the other, but this is the first time I'll be going back to Windsor Park.
"I'm going there on Saturday and people will expect me to do my best for Ballymena United and to try and win the game. That is without question.
"The reality is Linfield were my boyhood club, I played and captained them for 10 years and then managed them for 17-and-a-half and had a period as assistant manager, so when you spend almost 30 years of your life at one place, of course you are going to have a lot of feelings.
"When I go back to Windsor I will be renewing old acquaintances and seeing friends.
"What I see as a blessing is that I'm not going to Windsor Park as I knew it, because of the reconstruction of the stadium.
"The dugouts, dressing rooms and old boot room, where on many nights we had great times talking about football, have all gone, so it won't be as strange as what many think because the Windsor Park that I grew up with, knew and loved is no longer there."
Jeffrey will take Ballymena to Belfast with his new side ahead of schedule. Never one to rest on his laurels, though, on Thursday the manager held a review with trusted backroom staff Brian McLaughlin and Paul McAreavey to assess where the team is and where they believe they can go in the remainder of the season.
Away from football, he remains not just a member of Ballykeel Conservative Flute Band, but also loyal to the Orange Order.
"They are very solid and significant parts of my life," he says.
"As I get older I have a greater appreciation about the history and heritage but more importantly the whole family and community aspect. That means a lot to me."
As does his job as a senior social worker.
"I now work with older people and I love that work passionately," he says.
"I find it a great privilege to be able to be part of people's lives, and if we can help them in some way the satisfaction is unbelievable. How I go about trying to do my job is that everybody I come across I want to treat them as I hope my parents would be treated."
The former Manchester United trainee will tell you he finds perspective as well as pleasure in his post, but come Saturday afternoon old habits die hard.
"I haven't learnt how to cope with defeat," he admits.
"I take defeat with Ballymena as badly as I ever did with Linfield, but I probably have learnt to enjoy winning more and we aim to get a victory at Windsor. I'm looking forward to going back."