Friday 20 September 2019

'You are always questioning yourself' - Pain of Ryan McBride's death still felt by Derry City


Kenny Shiels: ‘It’s not about it being hard for me it’s about their family, they come first. They are so quiet and so like Ryan. He was such a great fella.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Kenny Shiels: ‘It’s not about it being hard for me it’s about their family, they come first. They are so quiet and so like Ryan. He was such a great fella.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Marie Crowe

From the window of Crawford's coffee shop in Maghera you can see the local cemetery. Kenny Shiels looks across as he speaks, pointing at the spot where his brother David is buried.

David Shiels 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.

The firing started as he was outside feeding his dog. He was hit. A hail of bullets riddled the caravan the family were living in - a makeshift home while their new house was being built. His wife escaped unharmed but the baby received a ricochet mark above an eye. Luckily, it wasn't life-threatening.

It was a devastating time for the grieving Shiels family, something Kenny hoped never to experience again. But just last March, the Derry City manager found himself grieving once more when the captain of his team died suddenly.

"Come on down here quickly, Kenny." These were the words uttered to Shiels in a phone call on that fateful Sunday evening when the news broke that Ryan McBride had died in his sleep. These are the words he will never forget. The team physiotherapist didn't want to deliver the news on the phone. He was concerned about Shiels racing down the road from Maghera to Derry knowing the tragedy that was unfolding a stone's throw from the Brandywell.

"When I got there and saw everyone it was like there was numbness about the whole place," explains Shiels. "You had 20 players there and the youth players were there too just looking at each other and no one knew what to say. I'm thinking I'm supposed to be the leader of this group of people. What do I do now? And you have to try and act like you are unaffected by it and you can't. That emotion is there and you think about all the things that are happening . . . it's really hard to take and no one can understand it.

A poster in memory of Ryan McBride. Photo: Sportsfile
A poster in memory of Ryan McBride. Photo: Sportsfile

"I've lost a brother, he's buried over there beside my father, and that was traumatic. This was different because a manager-player relationship has a close affinity to a father and son relationship. I speak to the team all the time about trying to be a family. I've always done that with players. I feel that builds up a good rapport, relationship and dynamic. Ryan was like that.

"Because he was so quiet it felt even worse. He wasn't an out-there guy. He was modest and quiet and it's just hard to understand why it happened. Even talking to you now puts me into that train of thought. It's hard to believe it was this season. This is October. In some reflections it feels like a couple of years ago and in other thoughts it feels like a couple of weeks ago."

When trying to get on with life, Shiels thinks of McBride's family and how they might be dealing with things, how they get on with it. They have a foundation going in his memory and that helps; it's therapeutic and maintains a connection.

"You might think, you've only known him a short time, which is true, but it was a close relationship. He will never be forgotten that's for sure. Having football to play makes it both easier and harder. Easier because you have kept a connection, an invisible relationship there, where you feel there is a wee bit of purpose as well as the normal incentives that are there.

"You want to do well because you work for that club, every manager is the same. We have a bit of extra incentive because inside us we are doing it to try and connect with Ryan's legacy. It's harder then because that brings a wee bit of pressure. You want to try and help the players who are still there, you are more affectionate. It's a season where you compartmentalise; it will be next season before you have that closure, that mental closure. There are so many people who need an arm around their shoulder and you are looking around the dressing room and wondering where to start."

Before McBride passed away, Derry were flying high in the League. They had the perfect start to the season - five straight victories. But after the tragedy they hit a poor run of form, embarking on a six-game winless run. This was to be expected given the huge emotional trauma of the team captain's death.

"The ensuing six weeks to two months were hard, you are trying to get normality back. Like every football team, we all have issues: Shamrock Rovers, Cork, Drogheda and you have to try and go back to your mentality of, 'I'm here to win football matches at this club'. This is cruel.

"You spend so much time thinking about what you could do and what you haven't done. You see someone who has had a dip in form and in a normal season if someone has a dip in form you are not thinking is it because of what happened. Now if they aren't playing well you are thinking that what happened is the reason and you can be so wrong. This season has had a big impact on my life, on how I am.

"I feel a wee bit damaged. You are always questioning yourself, we had really tough training that week and I think and hope that wasn't the cause. (The cause of) his death was inconclusive, you don't know why; he just went to sleep and passed away. You don't know why it happened; you hope that it's not because we worked him too hard. They are young, healthy people, what can you do, and we will never know. It makes it harder but it's not about it being hard for me it's about their family, they come first. They are so quiet and so like Ryan. He was such a great fella.

"Every other player in the League came through an academy structure except Ryan. When he was 15 he went to play in a pub league, a big strong boy, and he came to Derry from there, he was unique."

There are so many layers to Kenny Shiels, so many emotions within the man that he is unable to contain. As the conversation bounces from topic to topic his demeanour reflects how he feels. He's animated and exhilarated when talking about football and youth development. He's troubled when talking about the past and perplexed when talking about the future.

First, the past. He grew up in a Protestant family just outside the village of Maghera. His father was football-mad and having eight sons meant he had the basis for a team. He was a chicken farmer and he called his band of boys 'Roy's Chicks'. They played football from dawn till dusk. He formed the football club in the village so they would have a team to play on. This was when The Troubles were at their peak and divisions were deep.

"At the time everyone on one side of the village was one religion and everyone at the other side was another religion. The only thing that connected it was my father and the football club he started. Both religions played on the team.

"At that time you couldn't play Gaelic and football but the boys sneaked away and played with us anyway. We built brilliant friendships because of that. There were very few cars back then so we went in a trailer to matches or in the boot. They were fantastic times.

"What my father did was unbelievable; he would have went to the top of the town for a drink. He was on his own, he was the only one from his religion that did that and everyone liked him. He was a councillor and he would get Catholics houses and Protestants houses. He just loved people. I see a lot of that in myself, that passion for people no matter what. When I was in Coleraine, I signed players from Shankill and the Falls and we all became friends. It was the whole embodiment of our sport."

Before returning to Derry, Shiels, who has a degree in psychology, spent time managing in Scotland, most notably with Kilmarnock. He was appointed Derry manager in November 2015 and last season they finished third and qualified for Europe.

As to the future - it's a rewarding job being the Derry City manager but demanding too and there are lots of challenges that come with the role. Like trying to keep players and also trying to entice players to come and play for Derry City when they could realistically earn better money playing elsewhere.

"I go to countries that have poor economies, like Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe or lower leagues in Scotland. I can't go to the market in Dublin, you have the 20 per cent VAT and the Brexit situation hasn't helped.

"All these things are against us. I'm loath to talk about it too much because it comes across as paranoia, excuses, all those things. It's hard to find the right age balance; we have a very young squad. When we lost 5-0 against Bray it was hard to take but we had three teenagers in the back four. We had six teenagers in the team. We had an inexperience and naivety, but there is so much learning from that. We lost 5-0 to Dundalk last year and we went 20 games unbeaten after that. It can be educational as long as it doesn't destroy you psychologically."

Derry City are on the verge of qualifying for Europe again and if they achieve that, their season will have been a success. Having European football will help financially and also be a draw for potential new signings. But with only 10 teams set to contest the Premier Division next season, the geographical landscape could be tricky.

"We have just lost Drogheda and if we lose Finn Harps and Sligo too that's three of our four closest teams. And you are bringing in Waterford and you have Cork and Limerick and Galway. If we lose them three then that will cost us £30,000 extra in transport alone."

As he ponders what lies ahead for both his team and himself, he's never sure what life will throw at him but he knows no matter what he will keep going and football will be with him every step of the way. There's some solace in that.

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