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'Northern Ireland people have more in common than green or orange. We can all have respect for each other whatever colour or creed we are'

Ballinamallard boss Harry McConkey on driving forward cross-community spirit in honour of late Greg Turley, his supportive family and dream of inspiring Irish Cup glory

Happy times: Harry McConkey with grandson Harry
Happy times: Harry McConkey with grandson Harry
Harry alongside wife Rozy
History boys: Ballinamallard and Harry McConkey celebrate reaching the Irish Cup final for the first time
National call: Harry as NI junior boss

By Steven Beacom

Ballinamallard United manager Harry McConkey will walk out at Windsor Park next Saturday at the Irish Cup final with his grandson of the same name beside him and his players right behind him in every sense.

The 59-year-old is sure to be beaming with pride. McConkey has achieved a lot in his football career but he says leading the Ferney Park outfit for a David v Goliath clash against hot favourites Crusaders is going to be the pinnacle.

McConkey isn't just the boss at Ballinamallard. He's been in charge of the Northern Ireland junior international team for many years.

Harry could also talk for Northern Ireland. Get involved in a conversation with this genial character and be prepared to stick around for some time. The thing is, though, it's a joy chatting to McConkey and often an education.

He's not known as one of the nicest guys in football for nothing. In sport, rivalries are so intense that it is no surprise not everyone gets on but you won't hear anyone in the Irish League speak ill of the popular father-of-three.

As a youngster, Fermanagh native McConkey won the Junior Cup with Lisbellaw United in 1978. He went on to play for Glenavon, Dungannon Swifts, Chimney Corner, Coleraine, Carrick Rangers, Ballyclare Comrades, Ballymena United, Larne and Ballinamallard. He was 43 when he packed it in.

McConkey has also managed Larne and Dergview, coached at Dungannon and been in charge of Ballinamallard for two spells, inspiring the Championship underdogs this season to the first Irish Cup final in the club's history.

Moments that stick out include playing alongside Linfield legend Billy Murray at Ballyclare, working for 'gentleman' Jim Hagan at Larne and his good pal David Jeffrey (now Ballymena manager) visiting him every night in hospital after he had broken his arm in 22 places at the age of 36.

Known for his canny man-management skills, McConkey relays a story from his Coleraine playing days which taught him a valuable lesson for the dug-out.

"We were playing German side Brandenburg Stahl in the 1986-87 season and the player/manager Jim Platt told me that he planned to bring me on as the first substitute," says McConkey.

"We weren't doing well in the game and Jim shouted to the bench about changing things. I was supposed to be the one to go on but he called for Michael O'Neill instead.

"I didn't get onto the pitch and was devastated. That's why I have such empathy for players who I have to leave out because nothing comforted me coming home."

For that tie in Germany, McConkey was the first room-mate in football for a teenage O'Neill, now of course a successful Northern Ireland manager.

"Michael was my room-mate on that trip. He had a portable CD player which I'd never seen before. We didn't have them in Fermanagh! He would be on his bed listening to his music and I was fascinated by it. I was 26 and he was 16. Even then you knew Michael had something about him," says McConkey.

One of McConkey's great strengths is his positive attitude making something good out of bad, be it terrible injuries like a double leg break when he felt he was playing some of the best football of his life. Or worse, when his close friend and then Ballinamallard manager Greg Turley died in 1999.

"After Ray Sanderson signed me for Ballinamallard, Greg came in as manager and there was a great buzz around the club," recalls McConkey.

"We'd known each other for a long time and Greg had a wonderful smile and enthusiasm for life.

"My 40th birthday was on September 18 and we had a party at Lusty Beg Island and Greg was there. He made this wonderful tribute to me and I said to him he didn't need to say those things. He then replied: 'It's so important that you hear them because you don't hear them when you are dead'.

"On September 23 I got a phone call to say that Greg had been involved in a horrific accident and he had been killed. It was a desperate time for Greg's family and really tough for all of us involved with Ballinamallard because everyone had so much love and admiration for Greg.

"For me he influenced the whole cross community aspect at the club. Greg was a driving force for Ballinamallard even after he died because we wanted to take the club forward in his memory."

Determined to maintain that cross-community spirit at Ferney Park, one time schoolteacher McConkey adds: "I don't believe in making political statements but to me Northern Ireland people have far more in common than whether they are green or orange.

"The one thing we can all have is respect for each other whatever colour or creed we are.

"If you can have empathy with people and understand where they are coming from you have a greater chance of connecting and communicating with them as opposed to having a more narrow approach.

"My dad used to say to me, 'If you have manners you can go anywhere'. Those words have echoed in my head since I was young living on the border."

Growing up in Magheraveely, a small Fermanagh village, with the county hit hard by the Troubles wasn't always easy but McConkey says his parents made it enjoyable for their six kids - five boys and one girl.

"My mum and dad had a very simple life and worked very hard and gave us all they could. We had a lovely childhood where we played football on the streets, rode our bikes and climbed trees and built huts. It was an innocent life," he says.

"Family has always been the most important thing to me. My wife Rozy and I will be married 38 years in August and we have three fantastic children. Mark is 37, Katie will be 35 in June and Matthew is 26. Our grandchild Harry is five and he is just great. I'll walk out at Windsor Park with Harry on Cup final day. That will be a proud moment for all of us.

"Over the years, even as a player, I didn't like my family coming to watch me.

"I felt the pressure that if I didn't play well then I would be letting them all down.

"As a result, Rozy has been to very few games. Even at the Cup semi-final win over Warrenpoint I didn't know she was coming until the last minute. Rozy has her own interests and her own life and for me I love coming home to a house that has given me something else because football is so intense. Rozy has been there through it all and her support levels for me have always been fantastic.

"All the family will be at the final. Our son Mark was due to be going to a wedding in Italy but has got his flights changed to attend. A mini-bus of 18 has been organised for the McConkey family and friends. My sister Marian went to the semi-final and that was her first game ever and she will be at Windsor as well."

On the big day, McConkey states: "This is history in the making and we are part of it through a game of football. There will be thousands of people who will go up the road from Fermanagh to Belfast to support the club which is just amazing for the town and the county.

"Our grandson Harry has a new word in his vocabulary: ridiculous. He says, 'Papa, that's ridiculous'. I was thinking of looking up the true definition of ridiculous in the dictionary but I already know it… it's ridiculous that Ballinamallard are in the Irish Cup final. 'That's ridiculous,' I say to Harry. We know we are massive underdogs against Crusaders, who are a great side, but we will go there to enjoy it and in football you just never know."

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