'I've had three tragedies on the third Sunday in March' - Derry City manager Kenny Shiels opens up in emotional interview
Kenny Shiels is speaking about Ryan McBride. There is emotion in his voice and sadness in his eyes. Ryan was Kenny's captain at Derry City. The 27-year-old died 11 days ago. It was and will forever be, a heartbreaking loss for his family. For the club and manager Shiels, it was devastating too. Another tragedy for both to deal with.
In February last year, Derry's record goalscorer Mark Farren, aged 33, passed away after being treated for an aggressive brain tumour. A month later, the team's young midfielder, Josh Daniels, lost his mother Ruth, his younger sister Jodie-Lee, brother-in-law Sean McGrotty and nephews Mark and Evan when the car they were in slid off the slipway into the water at Buncrana pier in County Donegal. On March 19 came the shocking news of Ryan's death.
At last Thursday's funeral, amid sorrow and hurt for family, friends, team-mates and Derry City fans, Shiels provided strength and compassion when holding back tears he read out his own poem about the "top Candystripe".
The mourners packed into St Columba's Church, Long Tower in Derry stood to applaud the poignant words and sentiment behind them.
Tomorrow night, Derry City play their first League of Ireland game since the death of their skipper against Bray Wanderers at their temporary home ground, Maginn Park, with reconstruction work ongoing at the Brandywell. It will be an emotional occasion in what has been an emotional fortnight.
In a moving interview with the Belfast Telegraph ahead of the match, 60-year-old Shiels revealed how at first he couldn't believe that Ryan had died, the grief that hit the team, his pride at the club and city coming together as one and how he wrote the uplifting poem in a car park.
"It's been a tough period for everyone. It will be for some time. The absence of Ryan will always be there," said Magherafelt-born Kenny.
"As a footballer, he was fully committed and he was also very technical. His distribution was good and he had a lot of facets to his game that were underestimated. As a man he was a great inspiration to those around him. There is a big void in the dressing room. I had a good relationship with Ryan, as you do with your captain, and I will miss him.
"You don't move on, you go on. You have to carry on for his family and the club."
Kenny added: "It is still hard to believe he's gone. Last Saturday, we won a game and Ryan was in the team. On the Sunday, we did recovery with the players, then Ryan went home to his family, just like normal. He went for a sleep and never got up again.
"I heard at a quarter to 10 on the Sunday night. When you hear that news, you don't believe it; there's a numbness that comes on you and you are thinking, 'This can't be right, somebody is making a mistake here'. And then you start to think and think and think. And you never stop thinking.
"As a team, we all met up and went to the house and then we went on to see Ryan in the coffin on Sunday night. We all went home and said we would meet up on the Monday morning at a local hotel, which we did. That was a hard day. The Monday was a really hard day. Not many words were said. Everyone was just staring into space."
Prior to the funeral, the Derry boss asked the McBride family if he could say a few words about his on-field leader. As a keen writer, Shiels decided the best form of tribute would be a poem. It will be remembered forever in the city, but amazingly took less than 10 minutes to compose.
"I was waiting for the coffin to come home on Monday night and I was sitting in a car park in the middle of the city near the funeral parlour. It may have taken six, seven, or eight minutes to write. I thought of Ryan and the things that people were saying about him and I just put it into words.
"I had asked the family if I could say something. I wanted them to try and get some comfort in some way in a format where it let the family know how we as a team were feeling and how much we loved Ryan.
"In the poem I tried to get it across that we were sharing their grief. It was a message to the family through Ryan and I think it was appreciated. Saying the words in church was tough, but I felt I had to get through it for Ryan and his family."
Kenny added: "It's been a difficult year for Derry City. Mark Farren passed away, then there was the tragedy with Josh's family and now Ryan.
"I have seen how as a football club Derry City has provided strength in tough times. I've been around football a lot, but I believe Derry City is different to any other club. Also the people were brilliant. Ryan lived right in the heart of the Brandywell, beside the ground, and it is one of the most impoverished areas in Europe.
"There's a toughness of people in that type of environment and they deal with death in a way whereby they show unity.
"All the people of Derry rallied around Ryan and his family. The four hotels in the city put on food for everyone after the funeral. That's what they do. Derry people are unique."
It's no wonder the ex-Carrick Rangers, Coleraine, Ballymena and Larne boss fits in. He is a one off, too. Controversial and sometimes too honest for his own good, he started managing in the Irish League 25 years ago before taking over the youth academy at Tranmere in England and then managing in Scotland, where he helped Kilmarnock win the League Cup for the first time in their history and was regularly fined by the Scottish FA for speaking his mind. He has also coached Northern Ireland youth teams, earning a deserved reputation for bringing the best out of kids with potential.
Since late-2015, Shiels, who has a degree in physiology from Warwick University, has been an effective guiding light for Derry City. Married to the devoted Gwen, Shiels is immensely proud of son Dean, a former Northern Ireland international, now playing with Edmonton in Canada, and daughters Lauren and Grace. Away from football he enjoys having fun with his grandchildren.
Scars of the past remain, however, such as when his brother Dave was killed in 1990 by the IRA, supposedly a case of mistaken identity. He also talks about the impact the third Sunday in March has had on him in recent years.
He says: "I've had three tragedies on the third Sunday in March. This year with Ryan, Josh last year and five years ago when our player Liam Kelly's dad died on the day Kilmarnock won the League Cup for the first time, beating Celtic at Hampden.
"He was sitting behind the dug-out and had a massive coronary. It was so sad for Liam and everyone connected to the club.
"What happened to Ryan brings back similar emotions, because you are the manager and you have pastoral care of the players and responsibility and you want to be close to their family and be supportive of them.
"It was desperately hard last year with what happened to Josh's family, when you go into a wee room and there are five coffins sitting there."
Josh has spoken about how Shiels and his Derry team-mates have helped him during his time of need.
When asked about the how the gifted 21-year-old is doing now, Shiels says: "Josh is good - on the outside. But it's obviously very hard for him. We try to be there for Josh and you hope you get it right.
"People who wear their heart on the outside are okay, but those who have it in the inside are different and everyone has different emotional balances in how they deal or how they cope with grief. It is difficult to explain."
We move on to speak about Kenny's brother, Dave, who was murdered 27 years ago. It's a difficult subject to discuss for Kenny, the fourth out of eight brothers in a family of nine brought up on a chicken farm.
"Back then we went through the numbness, disbelief, feeling hard done by and the regrouping and bringing people together.
"I've had to deal with different tragedies in my life. I'm not saying you get hardened by it, because I certainly haven't ... you just switch on that chemical and try to go on.
"In 2005, an old player of mine Gary Bowness died. There were lots of tributes then but today it is his family and those closest to him who will think about him every day. That's what happens. When you lose a family member or someone who meant a lot to you, they are in your mind every day."
Tomorrow night, Shiels returns to the dug-out and his team, minus Ryan McBride, will return to the pitch.
"It's going to be emotional," says the manager. "The family will be there and everyone will be there, expecting us to win.
"I've said to the players don't put yourselves under that pressure, because that brings stress 'having to win for Ryan'. Winning for Ryan is a given, but they also have to try and win for themselves.
"Obviously, we will be thinking about him, but we have to channel our energies to the game. We have to go about our business in a professional way.
"I know I will be working harder than ever before in my life and I have told the players we have to work harder from here on in to try and fill the void."
Kenny’s tribute to Ryan McBride
In your absence, our Trojan warrior
You’ve ran your last race
Your passion and energy, you just loved the place
In your absence with love and respect
In your absence, we will never forget
You were our captain without all the hype
The one and the only, our top Candystripe
In your absence we will endeavour to fight
In your absence, with all our might.
Our Brandywell boy you wore stripes with great pride
It made you so happy to play in the side.
In your absence we still feel you here
The big number five, so vivid, so clear.
Ryan, we love you with all our heart
A giant so gentle and now we’re apart
In your absence we still play the game
But in your absence it won’t be the same.