Having started 2019 as a rookie manager in the Danske Bank Premiership, Paddy McLaughlin ended the year as one of the most sought-after young bosses in the country.
Not bad for a man who really didn’t see himself as a club manager when he first hung up his boots.
The former Coleraine defender showed how good a manager he was in his first year as Institute boss, as he guided them to the Bluefin Sport Championship title, despite remarkably only playing one home game at Drumahoe. However he came into his own this year.
McLaughlin, along with his youthful ’Stute team, lit up the top flight; some of their goals went viral and some of the breath-taking football his side was producing week in, week out, didn’t go unnoticed, especially at Cliftonville when they went in search of Barry Gray’s replacement.
Since his appointment last January, McLaughlin guided the Reds onto Europa League glory in the summer and now has them challenging at the top end of the Premiership table.
“Yeah, 2019 has definitely been hectic and a lot of changes, especially in my football life,” he reflected.
“Just as I was approaching the end of 2018, I was thinking about how close we were to securing our status as a Premiership club with Institute, but within a short couple of weeks I was planning to try and get a team to quality for Europe, so you are going from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye, so yeah it has been hectic.
“My lifestyle has also changed because I don’t be in Derry too often anymore, I’m in Belfast four days a week, it’s crazy how things can change in an instant.”
The 40-year-old admitted that making the decision to leave ’Stute was horrible, but he also knew that if he wanted to further his managerial career, then taking the big step to Solitude had to happen.
“It wasn’t just a tough decision it was a horrible decision that I had to make leaving Institute,” he insisted.
“I have got a lot of good friends at ’Stute and I’ll always will. I’ll always appreciate what Institute did for me, they gave me the opportunity as a manager, player, captain and coach of the club and that was the start of my managerial career.
“I coached under Deerso (Kevin Deery) for a few years and I’ll always be grateful to everyone at the club, but when an offer comes to manage one of the biggest clubs in the north and work with some of the best players in the country, north and south, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“Yes you do feel bad, because I was convincing players to sign long term deals and stay at ’Stute, when they had a lot of interest in them and then for me to leave, I did feel bad about that, but I think the players understood.
“As a manager you don’t get too many opportunities to move up. You will as players, but not as a manager to move up a level, so I couldn’t say no and lucky enough it has worked out well.”
The modest Creggan man continues to praise his players and also had a special mention to Kevin Doherty, who stepped in for a few months last season to ensure the Waterside men finished their campaign on a high.
“We were playing good football and the players I worked with at ’Stute were brilliant, some of the goals they scored went viral on social media and it was getting shared all around the world more or less,” he added.
“There was a lot of talk about this young footballing side’s first year in the Premiership and how well they had adapted and along with that your profile obviously raises and once again that’s all down to the players.
“I have to thank the ‘Stute players as well as the Cliftonville players because they have got me the opportunity in the first place. Because if you are getting beat and not playing as well as they were, then you don’t get recognised. So, someone out there was mad enough to think it was all down to me, it definitely wasn’t it was all down to the players.
“Getting the recognition for the football they played did start a few whispers that Cliftonville might have been interested in taking me, but to be honest I was just concentrating on what I needed to do for ’Stute, every game was massive for us and I didn’t look past my next game and whenever I felt the club’s Premiership status was secured for another year, Cliftonville made the approach and everything went so fast from that.
“You also have to give Kevy Doc (Kevin Doherty) a lot of credit as well, because he went in and steadied the ship whenever I left and he got them another couple of wins that guaranteed their safety, so I can’t take the credit for everything that happened at Stute last year, Kevy Doc played a part as well, so you have to remember him.”
Since making the switch to Belfast, McLaughlin has made a few changes to the set-up, one of those alterations was adding extra training and gym sessions and so far its paid dividends.
“Going forward Cliftonville is as good as anybody in the division and rightly so when you have players like Joe Gormley, Ruaidhri Donnelly, Ryan Curran, Conor McMenamin and Chris Curran,” he confirmed.
“So yeah going forward they would blow anybody away and they are top drawer, but I felt defensively it just wasn’t about sorting out the back four, there was a lot of things I felt we need to tweak and tighten up and I can’t fault the players they have bought into everything me, Brian (Donaghey) and the coaches have introduced to the system up there has worked.
“However, you have to give all the credit to the players, look it’s easy patting me on the back, but the bigger picture it’s all down to the players. They have been superb from the first day I have come in and up until now, they have done everything I have asked of them and they are reaping the rewards so far.
“I took advice from all walks of life and footballing people and a lot of them had doubts about what I was going into in regards the commitment levels of the players that were there and one or two people were writing them off and thinking they were finished, but I’m quite glad to sit here today and say they have been proven wrong.
“The boys have bought into the extra sessions, extra gyms sessions and the players who people were foolish enough to doubt, are playing the football of their lives at the minute.
“I don’t need to name them, they know they are doing well and they are taking great satisfaction about all the praise they are getting at the minute, because there’s no better feeling proving people wrong whenever they doubt you.”
Going into what will be his fourth year as a manager McLaughlin feels the next step for the Reds is securing silverware, as he’s already looking for an even better 2020.
“I want 2020 to be better than 2019, because that’s the demands you put on the team,” he confirmed. “You have to progress as a manager and as a team, you can’t be resting on your laurels and that’s one thing that we have targeted this year.
“At ’Stute it was about survival and then when I went to Cliftonville the target was to quality for Europe and that’s what we did. The boys responded well as it was tight going, because we had two playoffs to play in a week and we put a lot of demands on the boys, but they were superb, but now the demands is that if we want to progress from that you have got to be winning trophies.
“We have to be winning medals and that’s the target we have set the players this year. That’s a realistic target for Cliftonville. We aren’t saying we are going to win any particular trophy, but the demand is there that we have to win a trophy this season and that’s what I said to the players.
“Look it isn’t nice watching other teams lifting trophies and putting medals around their necks, we want to be one of those teams this season.”
With the January transfer window open in a few weeks, McLaughlin like every manager is looking to strengthen his squad and he can’t thanks Gerard Lawlor and his board enough for all their backing since his appointment, both on and off the pitch.
“The board have been brilliant from day one, they have fully backed me and in the transfer market they have paid for Conor McDermott and Ronan Doherty and not many teams in Ireland pay transfer fees, so the board have given me their full support and I can’t thank them enough,” said McLaughlin.
“What we have we are delighted with and we have added probably at least 25 or 30 per cent extra from last season’s squad on each individual and that has nothing to do with the previous managers or coaches, I just feel that I have got that wee bit more out of them.
“Look as I said I’m delighted with what we have, but you are always open for business and always want to try and improve with what we have and that’s what we’ll be doing, if any player that becomes available that we feel will improve us then we’ll do all we can to bring him to the club.”
Later this year McLaughlin will finish his UEFA Pro License, something which he didn’t think he would ever do, as he thought when he hung up his boots as a player, that would mean he would become a spectator.
“I finish my UEFA PRO License in May and I’m looking forward to getting that wrapped up,” he added.
“I had my B License and I was going for my A License and I have to admit I thought that would have been it in terms of my coaching career.
“I had no plans to go into management and I thought those Licenses would have been enough, but then I was asked a year ago about the PRO License and again the people I trust in football is who I spoke to again and asked them for their advice about whether I should go for it or not, because it’s a lot of expense, but now I’m delighted that I went for it, because it opens up a lot of opportunities for me in the future.
“I’m delighted I took that advice on board and went for it, because I wouldn’t be where I am now, manager of Cliftonville.
“So yes there has been a lot of work involved in doing the Pro License and it does take a few years to get sorted, but adding those strings to your bow definitely will pay off long term, but I have to admit that I had no intention of doing it.
“I was just doing coaching badges in case that one day I might need them, but I was just happy playing and then whenever I stopped playing that would have been finished, but I was lucky enough ’Stute gave me the opportunity and since then I have just tried to develop and progress since then.”
Having played for Derry City, when asked would he like to manage his home town club, he was very quick to state that he was happy at Solitude.
“That’s a million miles away from my mind. I think Decky (Devine) and the boys have been doing brilliant and I go to the Brandywell and support them and watch them as often as I can on a Friday night,” he insisted.
“Derry City is my hometown club and every football fan in the city should be Derry fans and I’m no different to that. I like to go to the games and hope they do well, and I also try to learn things. I think I can learn all the time from big Decky because I think he’s one of the best coaches and managers in the country, so I try to learn wee bits and pieces of how they play and how they train.
“I even go down early and watch their warm-ups and stuff like that, so I’m always trying to learn of them boys, but the Derry City’s manager’s job is definitely not something that I’m even contemplating, because I’m delighted that Cliftonville have given me the opportunity to work and manage one of the biggest clubs in the country and my main focus for the foreseeable future is Cliftonville.”
Another person, who McLaughlin admits plays a major role behind the scenes is his wife Helen, who is very understanding and supports him.
“I’m lucky as I have a wife who is fully understanding about the commitment, which you need to give to football,” he said. “It’s not just me, it’s the players and the coaching staff who are travelling from Derry, so we are lucky that we all have wives and partners who are understanding.
“You have to put the hours in, because if you try to wing it you’ll be found out, but if you put the hours in, you’ll get the rewards for it and that’s the commitment I made when I got the job.
“I’m in Belfast four days a week and in between times you’re away watching matches, so there’s a lot of hours put in.I’m lucky enough my wife is very understanding.
“She knew it before I took the ’Stute job because I accepted that while on my stag do and then told her that we had to cut our honeymoon short, because I needed back for pre-season but, yes, jokes aside, she has been understanding from day one and I can’t thank her enough.”