By Matt Badcock
Darren Kelly’s first love was in the ring. Five nights a week, he’d go to the Rosemount Boxing Club in Derry to train.
“Box, box, box, that’s what you would do,” he says.
By the time he was 14, he was fighting in championships in Europe. Football was more of a spare-time pursuit until he eventually made the decision to go with the ball rather than the gloves more permanently. It was a path that took him from his hometown club to England where he played for Carlisle United, York City, Garforth, Frickley Athletic and Scarborough.
But the Hyde United boss’ upbringing in Northern Ireland during the troubles has made him the man he is today, thickened his skin and set him up for the maelstrom of the football industry.
“Being where I was from, boxing was the norm – it was the key thing in the area,” Kelly, who is preparing to lead the Tigers into Step 3 following last season’s promotion from EVO-STIK North, says.
“It shaped me. I’m a very passionate guy, a very caring guy but I don’t take fools lightly. I’m well educated but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen people knee-capped, you see bombings. I lived in the Bogside. Type ‘The Battle of Bogside ‘69’ into Google to get an idea.
“You would hear bombings close by, sometimes three in a week, there would be regular shootings between the army and the paramilitary groups. You had it all so you become very thick-skinned.
“I don’t mean it to sound bad because I had a good upbringing, but you were dragged up in a way. You’d get into fights at school. I hate bullies and I liked to help people. The same now. That’s why I like to see people do well and take great satisfaction working with young players.
“It’s all through my upbringing, to see people do better and have better than I did maybe growing up. I like to see people happy and see them smile. I’d do anything for our players. Last season they gave us everything. Some would be sat in traffic to training for three hours and never moan. So it’s those little things. You want to help people and see them do well.”
Kelly, himself, is doing well with the way he has helped turn around Hyde on the back of their three relegations.
It’s come on the back of two difficult experiences in his first two management roles, at Oldham Athletic and FC Halifax Town.
Whinges from the terraces pale in comparison to the death threats he received at Oldham. It was taken so seriously that police installed alarms in his house. Did he ever think about just walking away from football?
“I’m not going to lie, I did,” Kelly, 38, says. “It was more the fact that my family – the death threats were all over the papers and my family were seeing it. It was more I didn’t want them to worry about it. It didn’t bother me.
“The letter said they were going to shoot me and the directors if I wasn’t sacked by the 1st of July, with a picture of a knife. Growing up in Northern Ireland, and I don’t mean for it to sound bad because you should never get used to it, but, as I said, it was a regular occurrence where bombs would go off and shootings would happen. I’ve been very hardcore to that.
“So when we got that letter I came out with the comment, ‘I had bigger death threats at primary school’. The policeman said, ‘Mr Kelly, take this seriously’. I just didn’t want people to worry.
“It just never bothered me. More the fact I had to have alarms and walk about with a little button, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t really take it anywhere.
“They had to come to my house and put in these alarms. Where I live, I’m thinking, ‘If someone comes to shoot me and I hit this button, are they going to be there 15 or 20 minutes later! What are they going to do?’
“So I did see the light side of it. My wife was worried and that was my concern. I didn’t want her feeling like that. She knew how I felt, that I was laid back, but that was the point where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this’.
“But then I looked at the fact I’d spent £8,500 on my Pro Licence, I believe in what I want to do, I believe in what brings success and I stuck with it.
“I believe we haven’t achieved a lot. Yes, we achieved promotion, but I believe in doing it again. I like to challenge myself more.”
Kelly knows football moves on quickly and looks forward to what awaits. He expects strong sides in their division like Warrington Town and Grantham, along with South Shields and Scarborough Athletic, who they battled with for promotion from Step 4 last season.
He’s been busy adding to the squad – sticking to the ‘No D***head’ rule preached by the New Zealand rugby side – and placing an emphasis on characters who are driven by the chance of success rather than the pound note. If he sees a bad influence, they are soon out the door.
“It’s about bringing in players who, when they go over that white line, will die for the club and their team-mates,” he says.
“It’s also about good personalities who will help and encourage the players. I’ve played in and managed teams where you can have disruptive influences. You have one bad result and they’re jumping in trying to create cliques.
“Yes, we look for talented individuals. But along with that, there’s got to be a good personality and players willing to come in and make real sacrifices. I think and hope we’ve made the right choices with the players we’re bringing in.”
Kelly thinks it’s the little touches that appeal to the players and why some have turned down more money elsewhere. Training is meticulously planned so that when they turn up on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, the cones, bibs and balls are already laid out.
A team Whatsapp group allows Kelly to send all the info the players need. Already they have their pre-season schedule at their fingertips.
Professionalism is the key thing. As well as his UEFA Pro Licence, he is starting a sports management degree in September.
He leans heavily on his Hyde management team – assistant Dave McGurk, coach Gaz Prendergast, physio Stef Todd and goalie coach Chris Shaw – for their opinions.
“If there’s something they don’t like or disagree with, they say,” Kelly explains. “I’ll always say to Dave McGurk and Gaz, ‘What do you think?’ Their opinion is valuable. The buck stops with me and I make the actual decision but I always ask what their opinion is.
“They won’t agree with what I say for the sake of it. You need people like that. I’m very blessed to work with all the backroom staff. You need people around you who are very good at what they do.
“There’s key things that I stood by as a player and wanted to bring into management.
“Professionalism – making sure you’re representing the club, you’re on time, a good character in the changing room.
“Do you know what, I was never the best player by any means.
“But I wore my heart on my sleeve and I gave my absolute all. That’s all I can ask.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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