Determination, hunger and desire — key ingredients for success. Just ask Darren Kelly.
He may have experienced more highs and lows than an out-of-control rollercoaster in a football journey that has lasted almost three decades but his enthusiasm never waned.
In fact, Darren’s CV as player, coach and manager has recently been upgraded after being appointed the first ever Sporting Director of English Football League club Newport County.
Not bad for a wee lad from Londonderry who has blossomed from a kid devoid of confidence and full of self-doubt into a guy bursting with character and charisma, with an unquenchable thirst to succeed.
Having dipped into the League of Ireland, the English League, the Irish League, the Conference Premier, Conference North, the National League and Northern Counties East, it would be fair to say that Darren is well-travelled!
Born and bred in the Maiden City, he played for local junior club Trojans before joining the Derry City youth set-up.
“I must say I wasn’t very good,” he laughs.
“When we played 11 versus 11 in the street, I would be left out, even if we were a man short, but I wasn’t deterred.
“If anything, it made me even more determined. In many ways, I battled against that all my life in terms of trying to prove people wrong. I always wanted to be a footballer, so I just never gave up.
“After a couple of years of hard work, I joined Derry City’s youth team. I then began to excel. I suppose in football jargon, I was classed as a late developer.
“I joined Derry City under Dougie Wood, who was absolutely amazing. I really prospered from there. I went over (for trials) to the likes of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Port Vale. It was an amazing experience.
“But I got the opportunity in Derry City’s first team when I was 15. My debut was a friendly against Ballymena United. It was the days before mobile telephones.
“I was in the Community Centre playing football when my mum arrived to say that Felix Healy wanted me for the first team. I remember the game. I came on as substitute and I did very well.
“It wasn’t long after that I made my competitive debut against Sligo Rovers, we won 4-1. Tommy McCallion scored a hat-trick. I was playing against Ian Gilzean, but I had lads like Paul Curran and Peter Hutton with me. They talked me through it, they were a big influence.”
It wasn’t long before Darren got a move to full-time football with Carlisle United.
He adds: “It was a bit of a dream because there were loads of players who were head and shoulders above me, quality-wise, but I got the move.
“I was determined and disciplined. Some boys would have gone out at the weekend, I wasn’t interested, I was determined to succeed. I got the move to Carlisle United for £100,000. Derry were struggling financially, so they were glad of the money.
“Roddy Collins was manager. He was assisted by John ‘Bugsy’ Cunningham. Bugsy was the biggest influence on my footballing career. I was there for a couple of years.
“I picked up an injury near the end of my contract and I was transfer-listed. To be honest, I had put on a bit of weight and I fell down the pecking order.
“Unfortunately, Roddy got the sack. A new manager came in with his own ideas. I was still only 25. It was then I realised that a football career doesn’t last long. I began to think outside the box and trained as a sports therapist. I embarked on a Masters degree and also completed all my coaching badges.
“Although I was still full-time, I thought the best way to do that would be to revert to part-time football. Ronnie McFall then got in touch and he brought me to Portadown. I travelled over to meet him with my wife, who was then my girlfriend.
“My plan was to play part-time and train in other areas (away from the game) for when I stopped playing. I wanted to be prepared for that. I had to look at the bigger picture. I was never the brightest spark, but I was always clued in — I was forward-thinking.
“I knew my limitations. When I was at Carlisle, I knew the way the game was going and I knew players like me would be left behind. I was never the best player, but I made up for it in commitment. That’s the principles I stand by even at this moment in time.”
Darren admits it was a special time at Shamrock Park.
“The journey at Portadown was brilliant,” he recalls.
“Ronnie, Kieran (Harding, coach), the players and the directors made me feel so welcome. We won the Irish Cup in 2005 and finished runners-up in the League. It was an amazing time.
“We beat Larne 5-1 in the Cup Final, although they took the lead. They had some good players, Jimmy McGeough was manager.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish what we should have at Portadown.
“Man-for-man we were the best in the League, but Linfield had the experience, they had a togetherness and that know-how to get over the line.
“Our team was packed with talent — Miskelly, O’Hara, Convery, Craig, Alderdice, McStay, Feeney, Marc McCann, Peter McCann, Collins, Clarke, Arkins, Hamilton and Boyle.
“Yes, we achieved, but we should have achieved more. Linfield had the financial backing and, even at that time, they were pretty much full-time. They had a fantastic manager in David Jeffrey, someone who I admired greatly.
“When I signed for Derry City for a second time, I actually spoke with David Jeffrey about the possibility of joining the Blues. Considering I’m from the Creggan in Derry, I don’t think it would have gone down too well!
“David was a character — and he still is. I would have loved to have played under him, but the chance to join Derry was too good.
“I always said I could never join another League of Ireland club when I was at Derry and it was the same at Portadown, I could never play for another Irish League club. The opportunity to go back to Derry was a chance I couldn’t resist.
“Although Derry City were full-time, I took a pay cut to go there, not a lot of people know that.
“Stephen Kenny had taken over and he had a big vision which I fully supported.
“We had great success, especially with the European run. I was the only player to play in every game of that run. We beat IFK Goteborg and Gretna, I actually scored against them when we won 5-1. Then we played the might of Paris Saint-Germain.”
But when Kenny moved on to Dunfermline, things at the Brandywell turned sour.
“Pat Fenlon came in, but it wasn’t the same,” adds Darren. “Even though he had great success at Shelbourne, I don’t think he was ever accepted at Derry.
“The fans are amazing, they are my people, but they don’t forget and there was always a big rivalry between Derry and Shelbourne.
“After a short time, Pat was gone. John Robertson came in, another great guy, but I made it clear I wanted to go back to England.
“John asked me to play in a Champions League first round qualifier against FC Pyunick, an Armenian side. After that, I got a move to York City for £45,000.
“I’ve been living in York ever since. Even though I’ve had jobs up and down the country, we have made our home in York, where my wife is from. The children were born and brought up here. We are quite secluded as we live out in the country, we have animals of all sorts.”
In March 2009, Darren renewed his love affair with Portadown but things didn’t go smoothly.
“Ronnie never brought many players back to the club for a second stint, so it was a compliment,” he says. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t commit to training. I was just flying in and out for games. I was leaving the house at four or five in the morning to get over for a game at 3pm.
“Because of the way the Ports treated me, I didn’t want to be disrespectful and just come over for the money. I told Ronnie it just wasn’t working. Along with Derry City, Portadown’s is a score I look for every week.”
Darren is now focusing on his new position at Newport County and concludes: “It’s another new challenge for me, but one I am embracing. My past experiences will hold me in good stead.”