There’s still no place like home for Derry’s Darren Kelly

You can take the man out of Derry, but you can’t take Derry out of the man - a description that is particularly true of Darren Kelly!

Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 6:30 am

While the former Derry City defender hasn’t been back in his home town for a number of years, Kelly, who won two FAI Cup and 3 League Cups during his career at the Brandywell, still has a lot of fond memories playing in the Candy Stripes.

In fact the 40-year-old, who currently manages Scarborough Athletic, still has some of his Derry training gear and he admits the current lockdown has been left him very nostalgic and looking back over his many old Derry City press cuttings, pictures and DVDs.

Kelly, who made his Derry City first team debut in a friendly at Ballymena United when he was just 16, describes himself as only a squad player when Derry last won the league in 1997 but he remains fans’ favourites after many memorable nights in the red and white

He made four appearances in the league for Felix Healy’s champions in the 1996-97 campaign but such is Kelly’s competitive nature, he feels that doesn’t warrant him a title winner though he admits he loved the challenge of trying to force his way into a squad which featured the likes of Paul Curran and Gavin Dykes

“That season gave me a great sense of what it meant to play for Derry City,” insists Kelly.

The ex-Carlisle United and Portadown defender, who made 227 appearances for his home town club, remembers travelling to away games in a club sponsored ‘Ford Galaxy’ which picked up Paul Hegarty complete with burger and chip as he had just finished work. And after the match it was straight home so Felix could sing at the Rocking Chair!

“I remember those days, it was great picking Higgsy up and then getting chips in Strabane, before flying back up the road for Felix to get to the Rocker in time. Going into that dressing room was great any young player,” he added.

“Although I played a few matches, the learning at training and camaraderie amongst the squad especially for young boys like myself, Ryan Coyle and Ryan Semple was great. The boys really looked after us and now, with me being a manager, a father and more mature, I reflect on those times and wish I had soaked it up more and asked more questions because the quality of people in our dressing room was amazing.”

Kelly’s famous ‘DKTV’ feature on the club’s official 2006 UEFA Cup DVD also brings back memories from an unforgettable campaign and he concedes there was plenty of footage which didn’t make the final cut.

“I have all the original tapes from that time and a lot didn’t make it onto the DVD,” he smiles, “I remember one piece, it was the time in Glasgow when we were playing Gretna. In our hotel, which people will remember was a big glass hotel, there were windows everywhere and Flynner (Stephen O’Flynn) had the idea to glue a £1 and a 50 pence piece to the ground. We filmed a lot of people walking past trying to pick them up, it was hilarious.

“Those few years were just fantastic. The whole town backed us during that time, especially that season and not just in Europe, but in all our games. It really was a special time for everyone in the city.”

Darren Kelly runs away celebrating scoring against Shelbourne during City's FAI Cup run in 2006.

With those years in mind, we’ve asked Darren about some of the highlights of his career:

What was your biggest achievement in Football?

“There are lots of things but, again, I go back to my home town club and the ‘nearly treble’ team which lost out on goal difference. That season would be my biggest footballing achievement for many reasons. We obviously had good success but in the end it was a horrible way to lose the league on goal difference.

“But, to be honest, that same year we won the FAI and League Cups and had that fantastic UEFA Cup run. That alone was just fantastic and I don’t think anything will better that. It would need for me to win an FA Cup managing Spurs, or something that big, to top that season.

Peter Hutton was a huge influence on Darren Kelly's career at the Brandywell.

“I say that because it was my home town club and that year you were playing with just a fantastic group of players who all got on so well with each other and everything about that season was brilliant.”

How would manager Darren Kelly manage Darren Kelly the player?

“I was never really any bother. By no means was I ever the best player but anyone who watched me play would see that I wore my heart on my sleeve and would go through a brick wall for any team I played for. From that point of I view I would be very easy to manage. As a manager I get great confidence working with that type of player.

“When I was a young player at Derry I did a couple of little silly things, but nothing major, things like making poor decisions, but I would put that down to me being naive and immature.

Who was your toughest opponent?

“Please don’t think I’m being big headed but because for the majority of the time I was at Derry I had Pizza (Peter Hutton) beside me and when you played alongside Pizza you had such an air of confidence, you knew any player who beat you they weren’t going to beat Pizza.

Darren Kelly is enjoying life managing Scarborough Athletic.

“But players I enjoyed playing against were boys like Glen Crowe. If I seemed to come out on top in those battles it was because I was reassured and played with confidence when Pizza was beside me and it was the same in Europe.

“Whenever we played PSG, when Pauleta was playing for them, I never had a fear of playing against them. Whenever I played for Derry, and especially at the Brandywell, I never had any fear because you knew you had the support and a superb defence of Hargy (Sean Hargan), Pizza and Eddie (McCallion). Then in front of that you had Baz (Barry Molloy) or even Higgsy (Paul Hegarty) during my first spell with Derry. When I played with those type of players, I never feared anyone.

“There’s no player in the League of Ireland where I felt ‘I don’t want to come up against him’ and I don’t mean that to sound over confident but, as I said, if anyone got past me they didn’t get past Pizza.”

Who was the best player you played with?

“For me it was Pizza but if you can look at it in terms of pure ability, you would have Paddy McCourt or Liam Coyle 100 per cent all day long. However, if you look at it in terms of leadership qualities, Pizza was always helping me. He would be consistently talking to me and helping me through games.

“He was captain for a reason, he had brilliant leadership qualities. He was vocal in the changing room and when he talked I listened. That’s why, for me, he’s the best player I played with. Yes Paddy, Liam and even David Ginola for that one game, they were all unreal, but I’m looking at a player who has contributed to my game as a defender. I watched Pizza and I learned a lot from playing beside him.”

A lesser known fact about yourself?

“Not many people will know this but during this coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been learning Spanish. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so doing it now when I have time to learn it is great. I feel having it will add to any job I may go for in the future. You never know, maybe one day I’ll get the chance to manage in Spain or something like that but either way, I feel having that added to any CV is something different.”

What was your biggest footballing regret?

“This one would have to be management at Oldham, being too native. There were things that I wanted to happen that didn’t happen because of the powers that be and to try and gain that power from results, I wasn’t given the time. Then things like team selections, there was such a big say from above and I let it happen. Looking at it now, I’ll not let that happen again.

"When I reflect on it I get very annoyed with myself but that moment, in what was my first managerial job, you let it happen because you think results will give you strength. People were having an opinion on team selection and I shouldn’t have let that happen but I believed letting that happen would give me more time. It still annoys me.”

What was your standout funniest moment in your footballing career?

“I’ll never forget playing at the RDS for the first time. I was 17 and we were going to play Shamrock Rovers at the RDS and I can’t remember if it was Kevin (Mahon) or Felix (Healy) was manager, but either way the boys were taking the hand out of me and said that I needed to get a tetanus injection, because the horse show or something like that was staged at the RDS.

"They got me up on the bench before the game and pretended that I got a jab, I think they used a pen flicker and put that into my backside and there was me thinking it was a tetanus jab, but they were taking the hand out of me.”

What was your best last ditch tackle or clearance?

“It has to be at the Brandywell, and I think it did the same at the Parc des Princes, when I cleared the ball off the line against PSG. If that season is talked about or repeated somewhere, that clearance at the Brandywell seems to come up and it was just instinctive.

"I can’t remember who had the shot but I remember Fordie (David Forde) was out of his net and I just stuck my leg out to clear it. Had we lost 1-0 at home, going to the Parc des Princes would have been a bit doom and gloom, but the fact we held them 0-0 at the Brandywell, we had a lot to play for going to France.

“We didn’t fear playing anyone and playing with that defence, with Baz Molloy, Ciaran Martyn, Ruaidhri Higgins and Kevin Deery, we didn’t fear anyone. That was just the belief Stephen Kenny installed in us all.

“A wise man once told me that when you play for your home town club you get an extra 10 per cent and I believe that. It just seemed to mean more with your home town club.”

How have you found management?

“I’m really enjoying management but I have to admit it was an eye opener that within seven months of starting in the management game I had been sacked from one job, and left another! To be honest my plan when I did my UEFA Pro Licence was always to start at the bottom and work my way up.

"I put a 10 year plan in place in terms of where do I see myself in 10 years time and as it stands I’m in about the right spot.

“I have to admit a football league manager’s job came about with Oldham and that wasn’t in my original plan, it was to start in Academies and work my way up but at the time I couldn’t turn down the chance to manage a club like Oldham.

“At Hyde we gained promotion and went through seven rounds to get into the first round of the FA Cup and now at Scarborough Athletic, I’m really enjoying it and I’m still learning as I go. I find management is all about people and how you treat people. When I went into Scarborough, we had no budget and it was the same squad, so I have to get them believing in themselves and that’s why we had done well prior to the pandemic.”

Do you ever see yourself managing Derry City?

“That’s the reason I did my Pro Licence so, yeah, maybe someday I’ll get the chance to manage my home town club. I’m not going to lie, I missed out on getting the job the last time. I received a text message saying I was unsuccessful because I didn’t know the League of Ireland but it’s one of those things. I do know the League of Ireland and I do know what we would need to win it.

"I study the league a lot because being over here and managing in lower leagues, I have been doing some scouting work, especially on League of Ireland players so, yes, at some stage I would love to come back and manage Derry.

“However, at the minute I’m looking to try and get back managing in the Football League but you never know.”

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Barry Molloy, Stephen OFlynn, Darren Kelly and Gareth McGlynn celebrate after crushing Gretna 5-1 in the UEFA Cup in 2006.
Darren Kelly takes on Shelbournes Richie Foran back in 2001.