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Footballers' Lives with Darren Mullen: Newry's return to top flight has been incredible - my father would be proud

 

By Graham Luney

In the latest of our popular series, Newry City boss Darren Mullen discusses his fight to resurrect his hometown club, the importance of family life and thinking of his late dad after play-off triumph.

Q. How did your football career start?

A. At the age of 10 I played for Cleary Celtic and can remember scoring a screamer on my debut. I really enjoyed it. In those days you got changed in the back of a car and if your dad had a car you were playing.

I played for Glenavon Under-18s when John McKeown was the manager and Niall Currie was on the coaching staff. I went to Newry Youth and Reserves where I won Player of the Year in 1990. Myself and my current assistant Raymond Byrne were the two centre-halves. Ray went on to Nottingham Forest and I went to university in England.

When I came back I played for Bessbrook, then Armagh City. After a bad ankle injury I moved on to Windmill Stars, a successful junior team and we won everything over about 12 years. After that I got involved in coaching kids at Newry, taking on the reserve team job and then first team.

I've been here about 11 years. Marty McGuigan, a Tottenham scout who was involved with the Academy, invited me along to do coaching. It was a great learning experience and I got the coaching bug. If you can look after 50 kids on your own then you're doing well!

Q. So you didn't develop the coaching bug when you were playing?

A. No, I was so immersed in playing it didn't cross my mind. I had a young family and there was a lot going on.

I'm sure my wife Diane - we've been married for 19 years - was glad when I stopped playing and didn't see me going into management.

I played on until I was 40 and my last game was the same time as Newry were wound up. Playing for Windmill was good fun and we are still the only Newry team to win the Junior Cup in 2003. Barry Doran was a fantastic manager and I learned a lot from him.

Q. Back in 2012, Newry City's IFA membership was terminated following a High Court winding up order. What were those times like?

A. I remember being part of Pat McGibbon's coaching staff at the time and the off-field issues were worse than we thought. We realised how serious it was and I arranged for politicians to speak to the Irish FA.

It was too late for anything to be done. There is an argument the IFA could have done more to help us but we never wanted to blame anyone. Medicine had to be taken but there was a feeling of numbness as it affected youth teams in the area. The whole club was decimated.

There weren't a lot of people willing to fight for the club, there was a feeling of resignation that was it… there was too much debt. I thought someone had to do something and I put a lot of time and effort into that. No one else was going to do it.

Q. The easy thing to do was walk away so what motivated you to try and save the club?

A. I'm a Newry man and having the opportunity to manage the club at that level was a fantastic opportunity. I had brought local lads to the club and didn't want it to be a missed opportunity to manage the club.

I spoke to Mickey Keenan, Raymond Byrne and Jervis McCaul and I said I'd be happy to continue if we can sort the off-field issues. Did I know the extent of the problems? No, but I kept going through sheer stubbornness and a will to make sure we got up and running again.

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Cup of joy: Darren Mullen with daughter Eve

Q. Did you ever think the club would never be resurrected?

A. No, but there was one obstacle after another. I didn't rub anyone up the wrong way. I knew I would need people's help. I got politicians involved and sought to start as a different entity. I didn't want animosity towards Newry to exist.

Once the debts were cleared we called a public meeting to assess the support and the club was packed. The Mid-Ulster people were great and in 2013 we became a new club.

Q. But you could never have dreamed of the club now competing in the Danske Bank Premiership in 2018. How amazing is that story?

A. It's probably a mixture of feelings. It was difficult to gather a team. No one was knocking on my door saying, 'I want to play for Newry.' We had to drive around and find players.

We ran trials and got a young team together. But to be in the Premiership in five years? No, you would have thought about a 10-year plan to reach the Premiership and we've done it in half the time. It's hard work from everyone. Good footballers and good people gave us the foundation to push on. Sometimes you'd like to sit back and take it all in.

Q. Is there any important lesson you have learned from Newry's story?

A. No one person should be bigger than the club. You need structures in place and a solid base so if there's one departure it can function in the right manner. Hopefully the more success the first team has that will keep filtering down. The club can't go through what it has been through again. There's no excuse.

Q. Can you sum up Mickey Keenan's contribution to the Newry cause?

A. It would have been easy for Mickey or Raymie to get involved with another club. Other clubs would have wanted a good goalkeeping coach like Mickey but they are Newry men and the club is in their heart. Opposition fans want photographs with Mickey, that just tells you how highly he is regarded.

Mickey works as treasurer and was heavily involved in getting our licence. He deserves great credit for that. The manager gets his photograph in the paper but you don't see Jimmy and Geraldine Greer sitting on the steps of the social club waiting for paint to dry for an hour.

You have volunteers and fans like that at every club. When I see the reaction of the fans it gives me great pride. The night we got promoted we brought 500 with us and as manager I felt immensely proud.

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Mickey Kennan during his own playing days.

Q. What was the emotion like that night after the play-off win at Carrick Rangers?

A. It was very emotional. Families, including my own, were on the pitch. You can't buy an experience like that. Our fans are local and they have that passion for the club. Sometimes that's hard to buy. That night will live with me for a long time.

My mum Anne stayed at home, my brother Neil came on as sub, my other brother Shane and two sisters Joanne and Rachel were watching as well as more family members. If you haven't got an understanding wife you might struggle to achieve as much in football.

I have four daughters and if I had four sons I could be involved in their football and have no time to do the Newry job. It was great to see the pride on their faces.

The girls keep me grounded and the two things I need as a manager are the skin of a rhino and a sense of humour. They are vital to survive and you need that in my house, never mind in management! Diane has given me the time and patience to help the club and her support has been crucial.

Our kids play sport too and it's important to step back and have family time. Sometimes players are dealing with personal issues and you have to be there for them. I won't mess the players around. I'll be honest with them. No one likes being dropped but I'll treat players the way I would want to be treated.

Q. Tell us about your kids.

A. Erinn is 17, Eve is 14, Cara is 12 and Grace is 9. I'm kept busy as I'm an Everton scout and have just signed a contract to stay as their senior scout in Northern Ireland. Erinn played youth camogie for Down, Eve plays camogie and football for Down and Cara is playing for Saval Gaelic team and camogie with Ballyholland. But we're not talking sport all the time, not when Love Island was on!

The football doesn't consume the house because you need to switch off. I like chilling with the kids, watching TV, reading and spending time with the family. A manager rarely switches off.

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Darren Mullen puts his daughters Cara, Grace and Erinn through their paces.

My wife can tell when I'm watching the television and thinking about something else! You need to find that balance and I like the reading as I can immerse myself in a good book.

Diane is a camogie coach with Ballyholland and when we are out she doesn't want us talking about football but Newry isn't big and usually someone wants to talk about it! It's great people are talking about Newry in a positive manner.

Before, there was a feeling the club didn't give local lads a chance but now there's a greater buy-in from the community. My grandfather was a big Newry fan, my uncles played for Newry.

My brother Neil and cousin Conor McCaul play while another cousin David McCaul is the club doctor. Ballyholland put out a tweet saying the whole community was behind us for the play-off and that meant a lot.

Q. Your father Raymie died nearly two years ago. I'm sure he was in your thoughts when promotion was secured.

A. A documentary was being made about the club's revival and my father died during it. The film was dedicated to him and it was an emotional time. It's good for my family to have that to look back on because he was a big football man who always supported us. He managed Windmill Stars as well and we have a lot to be thankful to him for. I know he's proud of us all but when he passed away our results were not good and it was a tough time.

My dad's health had gone downhill and he was 67 when he died. The club made a fuss over him and he enjoyed coming along. It was nice that he saw me managing Newry and he would be proud of what myself and Neil have achieved. I've had a great upbringing and good memories.

My dad was never far from my thoughts and when I was hugging my brothers and sisters after promotion you didn't need to say anything because we were all thinking of him. There's not a day I don't think about him but I take comfort in the knowledge he's proud of me.

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Fond memories: Darren with mum Anne and late dad Raymie

Q. How optimistic are you now about Newry's future?

A. I'm fiercely ambitious but I also recognise we need the support of many volunteers. We have local people, with no egos, committed and they are the lifeblood of the club. We need that link with the community and we will keep working to give them a football club to be proud of.

Snapshot

Date of birth: June 23, 1972

Place of birth: Newry

Previous clubs: Bessbrook, Armagh City, Windmill Stars

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