The Creggan man took McDermott under his wing at Solitude following his departure from Derry City in 2019, driving him from Derry to Belfast for training four times a week while they trained together in the gym most mornings. But it wasn’t until the former Northern Ireland U21 international reached out to the Cenacolo Community for help, that McLaughlin realised how big the problem actually was.
The 24 year-old right-back last week revealed how his five year battle with addiction had left him rock bottom and thrown out of his family home before eight months in rehab transformed his life.
McLaughlin didn’t hesitate to welcome McDermott back into the fold at Irish League leaders Cliftonville after a self-enforced 10 month absence from the game and the Reds boss praised his fellow Derry man for speaking out so candidly about his issues.
“It’s hard for young men and women these days to admit they have difficulties behind the scenes,” said McLaughlin. “They tend to keep it to themselves and think it will go away or think they’re showing some kind of weakness by admitting they need help.
“So fair play to Conor for opening up and being honest because I don’t think anyone realised how deep his problem with gambling had got and how it had a hold of him for months. It was a long time and it was just mad how he hid it so well from everybody.
“Conor was coming from Derry City and from a full-time training schedule so I knew he would get bored going part-time and I took him to the gym to keep him occupied at the time,” he explained. “I knew he was used to being busy and training so we would go to the gym nearly every day and then to Belfast in the car to train four days a week but I had no inkling at all that he was gambling as heavy as he was.
“It shows you that no matter how close you think you are or how things are going, people can put on a brave face but you never know what’s really going on behind the scenes when you walk away from them. It was shocking to hear he had gone as far as he did. He held his hands up and sought the help he needed and it was the best thing he did.”
When he returned from Italy, McDermott was delighted and surprised when his manager welcomed him back with open arms but McLaughlin insists it was never going to be an issue to bring back ‘one of the best players in the country’.
“He was always going to be welcomed back. He never did anything to hurt the club or anyone at the club. We felt disappointed we didn’t do enough for him and he had to deal with it himself. I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t see or pick up on anything, otherwise we would have offered him help a lot sooner than he got it,” he admitted.
“He’s a top fella and one of the best players in the country, north or south, when he’s back on top of his game and is fully fit. The players were glad to see that, first and foremost, he was back at himself. We were delighted that he got his life back on track again and obviously we know how good he is as a player. The first two years he was here he was probably one of the best players in the division.”
McDermott was back on the bench for the 4-2 win at Warrenpoint last month before earning his first start against Linfield at Windsor Park. Last weekend he enjoyed a terrific reception when coming off the bench in his first game at Solitude in 10 months as Cliftonville earned a 1-0 win over Ballymena.
It will be slow and steady for the defender as McLaughlin intends on easing him back to action but the Cliftonville boss reckons it will be only ‘a matter of time’ before he’s back to his best.
“It’s all about building up minutes and fitness again and that will take time. At the minute he’s working hard. He has a completely different mindset now and such a strong mindset - it’s an incredible turnaround for him.
“It’s just a matter of time before he hits 100 per cent and when he does he can be, and I’m sure he will be, one of the best talents in the country.
“The fans have always loved the way Conor plays. He plays on the edge, with heart on his sleeve and with desire. The fans love players who are passionate about the club and when he plays like that the fans respect it.
"They were delighted to see him back, he got a good reception when he came on at home on Saturday. It gave the crowd a lift and the players a lift. They know how special a player he is and it’s important now that we look after him over the next couple of weeks.”