Footballers' Lives with Ryan Harpur: Lifting the League Cup for Dungannon would be extra-special with my family and Canadian fan club at Windsor
In the latest of our popular series,Dungannon Swifts captain Ryan Harpur discusses the arrival of his daughter, how injuries marred his Everton stay and what a BetMcLean League Cup win would mean to him.
Q. How did your football career begin?
A. I can always remember my mum saying I didn't need a toy, all I needed was a football to be happy. We lived in Portadown, my parents' house was opposite Annagh's football ground and I used to go there and kick a ball up against a small wall. I started with Portadown Youth before moving to Lisburn Youth. That was one of the best moves I made as it was more competitive and I also enjoyed playing for the Northern Ireland Schoolboys' teams. It was a big honour to captain them.
Q. At the age of 16 you moved to Everton. How do you reflect on those times?
A. Everton came in for me just as I was in the Portadown first team but ever since I played for Lisburn Youth there was cross-channel interest and I liked the idea of moving to Everton or Middlesbrough. A scout called Billy Barr had spotted me and, at the age of 14, I signed for Everton. They wanted me to move across earlier but the principal at my school in Craigavon would not accept that. Looking back it was a crazy time as I was flying to Liverpool every weekend to play games and come back home again. It was a fantastic experience and I wouldn't change anything for the world. My dad Davy told me not to have any regrets and give it my best shot. Wayne Rooney had just left for Manchester United but they had good players such as Mikel Arteta, Thomas Gravesen, Yakubu and Leon Osman. I played in a few friendly games and went on tours and even came back home to play against a Northern Ireland select team. David Moyes was the manager and he was quite stand-offish with his players.
Q. How disappointed were you when it didn't work out at Everton?
A. It was difficult to accept because you are planning a career in football. In February of my last year there the reserve team manager told me I would get a new contract but a few months later David Moyes said there wasn't one for me. I went to Bristol Rovers where I played in a trial match but I broke a bone in my shin and that was a big setback. Sometimes injuries can happen at the worst possible time. In my second year at Everton I was close to a first-team appearance against Watford but I suffered a dislocated elbow in the run-up to the game and when the injuries happened, Jack Rodwell, who is now at Sunderland, overtook me. I think even though you are young it's difficult to turn down a chance like that, but if I was to do it all again I wouldn't be afraid of joining a big club like Manchester United or Liverpool where I had trials, as youngsters who are released still get opportunities. I was advised to stick with a smaller club, and I did love Everton, so that's how my career panned out.
Q. Do you have any big regrets?
A. When you fall out of the full-time game it can be hard to get back into it and perhaps I could have made a stronger effort to stay in it. I signed for Glenavon and wanted to get back playing but I could have persevered a bit more and worked a bit harder to stay in the full-time set-up.
Q. Have your parents been a major influence in your career?
A. My dad Davy and mum Edel drove me all over the country, and there was one time I came back to Belfast after a trial at Portsmouth, my dad picked me up at the airport and, after getting something to eat, we were on the road to Cork where Leicester City had organised a tournament, and my dad stayed with me the whole week in Cork. I can't thank them enough for their support. I've two brothers - Raymond, who plays for Tandragee Rovers, and an older brother David, who was more into rugby.
Q. Who is your toughest opponent and best player played with?
A. I played with a guy called John Paul Kissock at Everton and I'll never understand how he didn't prosper in professional football. I think he went on to Luton among others and ended up at Southport but he was only about 5ft 8in and in those days the big striker built like a horse was a more popular choice. I think the Barcelona teams have made a mockery of those ideas but when he played for Everton at the Milk Cup, John was named Player of the Tournament. We have good players at Dungannon who don't get the credit they deserve, players like Grant Hutchinson who could be playing in England. I was impressed with Barry Johnston when I played with him at Glenavon, while the toughest opponent would have to be Paul Scholes at Manchester United. Scholesy was an unbelievable talent, one touch and he was away. In the Irish League, Jamie Mulgrew and Ruairi Harkin are top players.
Q. After a disappointing spell at Glenavon, you felt like walking away from the game. How disillusioned were you?
A. I was only 23 or 24 at the time but I just wasn't enjoying my football. I came home from England and had to adapt to the Irish League style which was all hustle and bustle, get the ball forward rather than get it down and pass it around. It was a more physical game and I didn't like it, it look a long time to get my head around that. As a central midfielder you can't influence the game when the ball is being pumped over your head. At the end of my time at Glenavon I felt like packing it in. Dungannon Swifts signed me and I liked the club's philosophy on how the game should be played. That salvaged my passion for the game, but I can remember sitting with my dad on Saturday evenings, telling him how much I wasn't enjoying it. I think you should always be honest with yourself and the club you play for and if I wasn't enjoying football I couldn't carry on. How could I take a wage off a club and justify it? The move to Dungannon was one of the best decisions I have made.
Q. And you became Swifts captain at the age of 24, you must have felt very proud.
A. Johnny Montgomery was retiring and it was a great honour to be handed the armband by then-manager Darren Murphy. I've been a captain with Northern Ireland youth teams and at Everton, so to have that role at the Swifts was another big privilege. I had only a few years of Irish League experience so it came as a bit of a shock, but it's also exciting to have that responsibility. I'm not someone who will shout and rant at players but there will be times when I'll have a quiet word with someone when needed. We have some headcases in our team but the lads will fight each other's corner. We are a tight-knit group, and then you have Seanan Clucas and Paul McElroy who are like two peas in a pod. If we win the League Cup I dread to think how those guys will celebrate. One player I really look up to is Terry Fitzpatrick. He doesn't get enough recognition in my view but he has been an outstanding servant to the football club. He works as a joiner now and used to work on the roads. I've never met a fella as committed to the cause as him. I've seen him up to the neck in a sewer before going to training and giving it everything. 'Choka' is what our club is about and he's a Superman in my eyes. It would be nice to win the cup for him too.
Q. If you lift the League Cup as Swifts skipper will it be an emotional moment?
A. I can be an emotional guy so it would be. It's the first time the Swifts have played in the League Cup final and the only other senior final for the club was the Irish Cup in 2007. It would be one of the biggest highlights of my career if we win it. I've won trophies at youth level but this is different, and being captain would make it more special. I get excited about winning three points on a Saturday so you can imagine how a cup win would go down in our dressing room. My mum is coming along to the game and she hasn't watched me play for seven years, not since my time at Glenavon. The family is coming along including my wife Jenna, her twin sister Trudie and her boyfriend Tyler, who is from Canada. Their friends are in Northern Ireland at the moment and they will come along to cheer me on so I'll have a supporters' club from Canada. I've lost four semi-finals so hopefully we can win this one.
Q. When you aren't a driving force for the Swifts, you work as a driving instructor. How much are you enjoying that?
A. I've been doing it for about seven years now and have set up the Harpur School of Motoring. I had left school early and when I came home from England it was important to find work. My dad used to work for the police traffic branch and I decided to have a go at the tests. I can work flexible hours which helps with my football. I've been hit three times from behind as people have struggled to see the big sign! During my time at Glenavon, we were reversing into a corner when a lady struck us at about 35 miles per hour. We were in reverse gear but the car still ended up about 16 metres away and I had a very sore back and neck for my troubles. I also deliver parcels part-time for DPD (Dynamic Parcel Distribution) but I have always had an ambition to own my own restaurant so we will wait and see if that happens one day.
Q. Where did you get married? Tell us about the new addition to the family.
A. We married in 2014 in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, guessing the weather would be better there. It was a beautiful setting and really enjoyable. My mother's side of the family is bigger than Jenna's so we thought it would be better to have a smaller affair in Italy. A few months after that we went to Vegas and took in a Conor McGregor fight. Our daughter Margot is five-months-old now and doing great. I picked the name after watching the actress Margot Robbie in the film 'The Wolf of Wall Street'. I felt it was a nice name and the ladies agree with me. At the start we didn't get much sleep, and I was left out of a game against Crusaders, but now she sleeps for six hours every night from 12 to 6am and, like any baby, she can make a lot of noise. She's not up on her feet yet but she's very happy. It was a breech birth and with the baby coming out that way Jenna needed to have a C-section. The baby's head was facing the rib cage area so she was unable to have a natural birth, which was disappointing as she really wanted that. It was a worrying time and Jenna was in pain afterwards. The recovery period is longer and she's still not pain free now. After the birth at Craigavon Hospital she went into shock a bit but everything turned out fine. When Margot arrived it was the best day of my life, it's an absolute pleasure to have her.
Q. What has been the worst day of your life?
A. Around six years ago, my granda Robert passed away. He was a big football man, he lived in Maguiresbridge and they were very sad days when he passed away. He was a big supporter of mine and the last time he watched me was in the Everton v Northern Ireland Select game in Coleraine. He lived to 90-years-old and was never sick until the very end. He lived a good life for sure.
Q. Tell us something about you we don't know.
A. I'm a big dog lover and we've had three huskies. I've named them all after footballers so they were called Messi, Zizou after Zinedine Zidane and now we have Ramos. I also enjoy playing golf in Tandragee and got my handicap down to one.
Date of birth: December 1, 1988
Place of birth: Portadown
Previous clubs: Everton, Portadown, Glenavon
Dungannon Swifts record: 57 goals in 242 appearances