Remembering Ryan McBride: 'You went down to watch your son playing. All of a sudden he is not there'
Just a few hundred feet from Bluebell Gardens, an old working class street a mere kick of a ball away from the Brandywell Stadium, the steep ascent to his final resting place begins.
Up the winding Blighs Lane between the Creggan and the Brandywell we arrive at the cemetery, camped on the side of a hill overlooking the River Foyle and the city of Derry.
It can't be more than a thousand yards from Ryan McBride's home to his graveside, and in between is his whole world. He had more lucrative offers to go elsewhere but this is where he belonged. It's very much the town he loved so well. A love that was reciprocated in abundance.
A Derry City crest and a trademark picture of Ryan, fists clenched and arms in the air, decorate his grave, one he shares with his beloved mother, Noreen, who sadly passed away eight years ago.
It was her untimely passing that fueled the fire in Ryan that would see him fulfil her dream of her son playing for Derry City.
At that time, March 12 2010, McBride was playing junior football in the Derry and District League. His subsequent rise to legendary status with the Candystripes is a story that will be recanted for years to come.
"She always said he should be playing for Derry, always said it. She passed away and he started to take it seriously," Ryan's father Lexie tells Independent.ie.
"He was still playing junior football at the time. I think because she drummed it into him, that he should be playing for Derry. She always said he should be playing for Derry.
"It was then that he started to knuckle down.
"He was a real mammy's boy. That's what they called him, Bunge. That's what she called him. That's my Bunge.
"It was a big shock to him (when his mother died). It was a big shock to us all. We all knew. She only got out of hospital to die at home but it's still a shock."
Just three short weeks after his son's passing, Lexie buried his father. He was another man who was influential in shaping Ryan's career.
"His Granddad too, he died about a month after Ryan. He died at 86 and was a lifelong Derry City supporter. He would have drummed it into him too. He just loved Derry.
"He wouldn't go anywhere else," adds Lexie to laughter from Ryan's sister Caitlin, his partner Mairead and Derry City supporter and family friend Karen Pyne, who are all seated on the couch next to him.
"I would say if Manchester United or Celtic came in for him he wouldn't have went. He just loved playing over there."
* * * * * * * * *
The morning of March 19, 2017, a year ago today, was like any other. Ryan had more than likely flung his kit bag on the ground and headed for a nap after a warm-down with Derry.
The previous day, Derry had beaten Drogheda 4-0 and that came on the back of a double shift in the Gweedore Bar on Paddy's Day.
"I was on the phone to him and he was in his bed," recalls Mairead.
"I was telling him to make sure he was up in time because we were going for dinner. It wasn't uncommon for him to sleep on as Lexie said, because he was after working and playing a match and I said I would let him (lie on).
"I texted Caitlin to go wake him up and obviously he was dead in the bed.
"She rang me and I was thinking 'what is she ringing me for'? I knew, I just had a feeling it was something. It's still surreal."
The raw emotion is still evident as Lexie, sitting under two framed pictures of his son, recalls that fateful day.
"Tuesday, he played against Dundalk," remembers Lexie.
"He played on the Saturday, St Paddy's Day was Friday. I think he did a double shift on Paddy's Day, he usually did.
"Then he played a match Saturday. He went for a warm down on the Sunday. He just came in and said he was 'away to his bed'. She (Caitlin) went up to get him up because he was going for something to eat (with Mairead).
"Caitlin said he was supposed to be down at Mairead's, he was lying dead in the bed.
"I was lying there and I said I would let him lie on because he had worked a double shift and played a match. I said I would let him lie on. Just shocked."
Ryan's passing left a gaping void in the city of Derry. His funeral mass coincided with that of Martin McGuinness as the city came to a standstill to remember two of its favourite sons.
His name still echoes around the terraces of Derry and beyond and maybe the influence of the big number five is still felt on the pitch.
Following Ryan's passing, Derry would not win in seven games.
And then it happened.
On the fifth day of the fifth month, Derry ended the rot with a 2-0 win over Bohemians in Maginn Park in Donegal as Derry's home at the Brandywell was being refurbished.
Derry made an emotional return to the Brandywell last week, beating Bray Wanderers, fittingly, 5-0 with the first scored at the South End, just beside 'Ryan's gate' a few yards from his home.
"The fifth was scored down this end," smiles Mairead.
"He was as passionate about football as he was about his family and the people around him," adds Caitlin.
"He was an easy-going kind of guy. He went and played football and came back and had his date night and then working in the Gweedore.
"He was mad about his nieces as well.
"Because he was so passionate about football, he put it into everything, not just football. He gave everything his all."
"Passionate and humble," Mairead continues.
"He came off the pitch and he was quiet. Just a different person on the pitch. He just loved it, everything to do with football.
"It's what he loved to do and he was just brilliant at it."
McBride's rise to captain his hometown club was so meteoric, it's hard to fathom that in his pre-Derry City days, he was once part of a team thrown together by his father for players who were not getting their games with other teams around the area.
"He used to run the Youth Club and played football at junior level for a few different teams," Lexie recalls.
"We started a football club called Brandywell Celtic for young boys who were not getting their games with other teams. He went on then to play for Brandywell Harps who were a bigger team in the Derry and District League.
"He played in a final and John Quigg (Derry scout) came over and was asking about him. I called Ryan over and said 'there was a man who wanted to talk to you'.
"John said he was talking to him two or three times before and he said he would go to training but he never came.
"So I said, 'tell the man now are you going to turn up or what'. He turned up and since then, it's history."
McBride would go on to play for Derry 131 times, scoring nine goals.
Lexie proudly recalls how, on his debut in the Brandywell, he kept Shamrock Rovers' Gary Twigg scoreless.
Meanwhile, Caitlin, Mairead and Karen all smile as they proudly remind each other that Ryan had scored two goals and kept four clean sheets in Derry's blistering start to last season.
And then there was the first match following Ryan's passing.
"They were playing in Maginn Park," Lexie says.
"It was (tough). You went down to watch and you went down to watch your son playing. All of a sudden he is not there. It was very hard.
"First match I went back, we all did. We ran a bus, nephews, cousins and supporters all went down on the one bus."
Derry fan Karen Pyne adds: "The first game after Ryan passed, it was hard. It's hard to explain how everybody was feeling. It wasn't there, his presence wasn't there. He walked out on the pitch and the shoulders were out, the chest was out. There's McBride.
"Then he wasn't there. Everybody is asking questions, the family, us, everybody. I think we all came together. Everybody in Derry came together for Ryan. It's hard to explain.
"We will never have another Ryan but we will never forget Ryan."
* * * * * * * * *
A couple of miles away in the predominately Protestant Ebrington Primary School, Derry boss Kenny Shiels is with club captain Ger Doherty and Rory Patterson.
They are there representing the Ryan McBride Foundation alongside Ryan's childhood friend, Conor Loughrey.
This is Ryan's legacy.
"Ryan worked tirelessly in youth clubs across all communities. This is very much what he would have wanted," says Conor.
Shiels himself is acutely aware of the importance of using the platform of football to embrace all sides north of the border.
David Shiels, his brother, was killed by the IRA in a case of mistaken identity almost 30 years ago. He was shot four weeks after his son was born.
"I can see the potential, I came through the Troubles and football is far more for bringing people together. It's the number one working class sport to bring people together," says Shiels.
"I have lots of friends from different communities that I have built up over the years. I am proud to be involved in football. It has helped me to mix with other people. My father beat it into me, 'make sure you don't get involved in these Troubles'.
"We were the worst family that they could possibly attack because my father was so middle of the road. He went everywhere and worked across all communities."
Shiels recalls when Ryan passed away, the heartache off the pitch and his team's struggles on it.
"Coping strategies are one thing...the young lads especially. Ger and Rory and Barry McNamee would have been the closest to Ryan because they have played with Ryan for so long but they were a little bit older and had more strength of character.
"It was the young ones we felt for the most because, rightly or wrongly, I was looking at them every day and it was hard to pick them up. I definitely made a contribution but they had to search themselves to get strength.
"We needed to get that result and we did get it. I think we went on a run and won a few on the bounce.
"We turned the corner and then the next calamity that came along....we were to play in Europe against a very strong opponent and we had a lot of injuries and had to play a very young team. We got a good beating but I think it helped our resilience because the boys stepped right up again. The players deserve more credit than anyone and the staff as well.
"You have good days and bad days. We don't turn our back on Ryan but we have to move the process on and that's what we are going through now."
In a photo frame on the wall of the McBride sitting room in Bluebell Gardens is the Derry City captain's armband alongside a picture of Ryan. It's the same armband so proudly worn by Ryan and was presented to the family by Ger Doherty, who took on the role of club captain following Ryan's death, at the end of last season.
"It was a bit strange because when Ryan was injured before I would step in as captain and that came as second nature to me. When Ryan passed away there was a very different dynamic to it," says Doherty.
"It was hard not giving the armband back to Ryan because I knew how much pride he had in doing that.
"Even before a game he would put the armband on and look in the mirror and you could see him growing in stature and taking real pride in it so for me just not to be able to say away you go again, that was tough.
"Overall I think, even coming into training and Ryan not being there was the toughest part for me. Things happen in life and the best place to be as footballers is back on the training pitch. You look around and Ryan is not there and you wonder what is going on.
"It definitely took a lot to try and get used to it. It's never going to be the same but you have to deal with it as best you can.
"It was tough for a lot of the players. Not just the younger players. Myself and Rory, we took it bad. It was a bad hit and it was tough to come out of that kind of spell at the time."
The McBride family take comfort in the fact that Doherty is the man who stepped into Ryan's shoes.
"It was just as hard for Ger as it was for us. Ger was very close to Ryan," says Lexie.
"The day he was announced as captain I was out for coffee and Ger text me. I replied saying no better person to take the captaincy and we are happy for you," recalls Mairead.
For Patterson, hardly a day goes past when there isn't a piercing reminder.
"The day that it happened, I pulled into the car park and the first person I saw was him," remembers Patterson.
"He was talking about work at the weekend. Then when I was leaving training he was the last person I spoke to as well. I told him I would see him tomorrow.
"You sometimes think, that was the last time I was going to see him. There are a lot of things every day that remind you of him and that will never leave."
* * * * * * * * *
Lexie, Caitlin, Mairead and Karen sit comfortably discussing their abiding memories of Ryan.
The one-year anniversary will be a poignant occasion, a gathering to celebrate Ryan's life. Then they will once again be back to normality and while the Ryan McBride Foundation has given them all a sense of purpose, there will still be the 'normal days' when they are engulfed with grief.
"I think the foundation has kept everybody going a bit," says Caitlin.
"It really does," agrees Mairead.
"You haven't really got time to think because there is something happening all the time," adds Caitlin.
"It's keeping everybody's mind on the foundation rather than on the sadness around it. We are just trying to make some good come from it, so we are trying to make that a success. It's all guns blazing at the minute."
"His new car," Caitlin says, as one of her memories of her brother.
"He got a new car in October. He was obsessed with it and you weren't allowed to eat in it. One time he took me to McDonald's and he found two chips in the back of it and I wasn't allowed in the car again. He used to clean it every two days, obsessed with it."
"Oh My God, every time I rang him he was down in the garage cleaning it," Mairead interjects.
"He didn't let the power hose near it. It had to be hand cleaned because the hose took the paint off," continues Caitlin.
"He wasn't a big drinker. He played football and worked all the time so it was football and his car. He lived for football and he never left the bar, he loved working there."
"Coming in and tripping over a sports bag, that's how I'll remember him," laughs Lexie.
"He would just come in and throw in down, nine out of ten times he tripped over it."
Like the family, Doherty too can look forward to a bright, brand new day in the town he loves so well.
"Coming up to a year now. It took a while for everyone to get over it but now we can look back at things and laugh and remember Ryan," says Doherty.
"Coming back into the new Brandywell it's in the back of your mind. Ryan would have loved this. Right beside his house and all done up. He would have loved to lead the team in the new Brandywell."
The sun sets beyond the famous old ground as kids make the most of the fading light and kick a ball against the wall. Maybe they will some day get that chance to emulate Ryan McBride.