David Jeffrey: 'The drive for me was a fear of failing. I only appreciated and truly enjoyed being a Linfield manager after I left'
Our Sporting Lives and Times
David Jeffrey is the daddy of Irish League football. As a manager, player and pundit he has been a major influence on the game here since 1982. Aged 55, there are no signs of him winding down from the sport he loves. Such is his endless energy and enthusiasm, you wonder sometimes if he is just getting started.
All the while Jeffrey combines his football life with his professional one as a senior social worker which he sees as 'demanding and stressful but keeps things in perspective'.
Today he will take charge of Ballymena United against Dungannon Swifts as the new season kicks-off. He will stride into Stangmore Park demanding his team deliver a big performance. It's been the same throughout his staggering managerial career which saw him claim 31 trophies as boss of Linfield. Since going to Ballymena in 2016, he has picked up a League Cup success for good measure.
Before that he won the lot as a player and captain of the Windsor Park Blues. Jeffrey has come a long way from the days he used to kick a ball around a field in east Belfast as a boy.
"We lived on the Gransha Road in Dundonald and next door to us was Mr McDowell's field," explains Jeffrey, his face lighting up at the memory.
"I played football in that field with Mr McDowell's son Derek and we recruited other youngsters, forming a wee team called the Gransha Terriers to take on kids from down the road in the Wanstead estate who were called Wanstead Rovers.
"We had make believe games which were like the most important matches in the world. My love of football grew and I remember in P7 writing an essay about wanting to be a footballer. I was told by the teacher, 'You are dreaming boy, you'll need to think about another career'. That redoubled my efforts."
Soon Jeffrey's talents were being noticed with the legendary Manchester United scout Bob Bishop, who discovered George Best, paying attention.
Jeffrey, dad to Gareth and Thomas, recalls: "I went to Dundonald Boys High School and then transferred to Sullivan Upper in Holywood. Rugby was the only game played in school but I wanted to continue playing football, so I played rugby in the morning for the school and football in the afternoon for a team called Holywood Star.
"I was spotted and ended up going to trials for the Northern Ireland schoolboys. I was a year young at 14 but the manager of that team, Alex McKee, a great Ballymena United boss, made me captain and then I came to the attention of Bob Bishop. In the first week of my Easter holidays in 1977, I went to Arsenal on trial and in the second I went to Manchester United.
"Going home on the ferry from Liverpool to Belfast, Bob Bishop said I had impressed and United wanted to sign me as a schoolboy at 14.
"That involved going across in school holiday periods. Then I became an apprentice along with another lad from home Kel McDermott and I was there for three years as a professional. It was like living the dream.
"You were going in every day seeing players you would only see on television. We were mixing with Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl, the late, great Ray Wilkins, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan and sometimes you would be called up to take part in first-team training sessions which was great.
"As apprentices we were responsible for cleaning the boots and getting the kits sorted out. One of the players I was personally responsible for was Martin Buchan, the captain. He was so precise with how he wanted his football boots."
All was going well for Jeffrey with his flowing blonde locks. A career with United beckoned. Then came a crushing blow.
"The manager when I first joined as a schoolboy was Tommy Docherty, then Dave Sexton took over. He signed me as an apprentice and young pro and was very involved. In my last year, Ron Atkinson was in charge. The first two years at United were fantastic for me but I had a pretty difficult and frustrating third year," says Jeffrey.
"At the end of it in a very clear manner Ron Atkinson told me I wasn't good enough for United. It absolutely broke me in two. It was a heartbreaking moment and the most awful feeling.
"Up until then things had been going well. I had even been called into the Northern Ireland youth team a year young. It was success, success, success from the age of 14 to 19 and then someone is telling me I was no longer good enough. That was devastating. It was a hammer blow."
Ironically it was Glentoran, the team that would become Jeffrey's bitter rivals when he was a player and manager at Linfield, who effectively saved his career. They were playing against Liverpool in a friendly at The Oval and Jeffrey, seriously considering his football future, received a call to play as a guest for the Glens from then manager Ronnie McFall, who of course is now back in that role.
"Yes, ironically what saved the day for me was Glentoran," states the Ballymena boss who attends practice every Wednesday night with Ballykeel Conservative Flute Band along with his father and brother.
"My confidence had taken a real blow because of what happened at United and on the morning of the game I remember saying to my mum, 'If I don't play well I am giving up football'. This was the sport I had loved and cherished but at 19 and a half I felt if I didn't perform that was it for me.
"My mum said, 'David, trust in God and go and give your best'. That was her advice. It was a full Liverpool side and in defence I was up against Ian Rush and Craig Johnston. That night if I kicked it God guided it and I had the game of my life.
"The very next day Bob Bishop phoned me and said that Mr Roy Coyle, the then Linfield manager, wanted to speak with me to see if I would go to Holland to play in a youth tournament for Linfield. In the Linfield team were players like Lee Doherty and Paul Mooney and we had guests such as Nigel Worthington and Ron Manley, who has since passed away. I played against people like Ally McCoist and Charlie Nicholas in different games and did really well. When I returned home Linfield asked me to sign, as did Ronnie at Glentoran, but my grandfather and dad had been Bluemen so I joined the Blues."
Jeffrey won everything at Linfield as an uncompromising defender yet says his stand-out moment as a player at the club was the warm welcome he received from his idol and iconic Linfield defender Peter Rafferty on his first day. Another was "captaining Linfield. Roy Coyle gave me that privilege and I'll always be grateful for that".
On his mind was an even bigger role at Windsor.
He says: "When I left Linfield as a player and went to Ards in the first of the infamous trilogy of Cup finals against Bangor I was man of the match and in the post-game hospitality I was getting praise from different people. Then the Linfield chairman David Campbell came in and reminded everyone of my 10 years at Linfield and I said to him, 'Some day I will come back to manage the club'. It was a ridiculous statement, but even then it was in my head."
The chance came in 1997 when he was assistant manager to Trevor Anderson, who stunned local football by leaving Linfield for Newry Town.
"Billy McCoubrey, an incredible Linfield chairman, asked me to take temporary charge and I thought this may be my opportunity," says Jeffrey.
"We won 2-0 at Portadown in my first game and at that match there was a vox pops on television with Linfield fans asking them who should be the next manager. Names like Kenny Shiels and Ronnie McFall cropped up but one man, a massive Linfield fan Colin Graham, who became a dear friend, said to give it to David Jeffrey because he knew the club. I don't know what influence that had on the board but the next thing I was offered the job and couldn't wait to get started."
Jeffrey, along with close friend and assistant Bryan McLaughlin, would spend the next 17 and a half years in the most pressurised and demanding job in the Irish League becoming the longest serving Linfield manager in the process before stepping away in 2014.
"We had so many highs and some lows. The drive for me was a fear of failing," he admits. "I enjoyed winning trophies but the enjoyment didn't really last. It was always a case of what's next?
"I probably only appreciated and truly enjoyed being a Linfield manager after I left! Since leaving so many people have come up to me talking about their happy experiences when I was Linfield manager and that means a lot to me.
"Linfield and Ballymena are different clubs with different expectations levels but what hasn't changed is the hunger of Bryan and myself to be successful.
"After Linfield, Brian and I were approached on three occasions, by Drogheda and two other Irish League clubs but the circumstances weren't right. Then Ballymena came out of the blue with chairman John Taggart and vice-chairman Don Stirling.
"In many ways Ballymena were the last club I could have seen myself at because I didn't enjoy the greatest relationship with the Ballymena fans when I was with Linfield.
"I was one of those they loved to hate and took that as a compliment. Since coming in though the Ballymena fans have been brilliant with me as have the whole club.
"When I left Linfield I remember saying I was stepping down and that to me was the end of management but I wasn't stepping away from football.
"On my last day managing Linfield at Glenavon, the renowned journalist Gordon Hanna approached me about writing a column for the Sunday Life opening up a new opportunity. I also did radio and TV punditry and narrated 'The Whistleblowers' documentary. I really enjoyed that but now I'm back doing what I love most of all."
For how long will this charismatic and popular figure go on?
"Football is in my blood," says Jeffrey with a knowing smile.
"I haven't set any age that I will retire from football as such. I will keep involved as long as people want me to be involved and for as long as I have the desire."
One senses with Big Davy that desire will never go away. Long may he continue to be the daddy of the Irish League.