Photo: Scarborough Athletic

Such a prolonged break from footballing action has made for a challenging yet cherished time for Scarborough Athletic head coach Darren Kelly, who has taken the phrase ‘student of the game’ to the nth degree since his days on the pitch. For the ex-Oldham Athletic and Hyde United boss, his first few years in management have left him stung, revitalised, and ultimately, hungrier than ever.

Derry he calls home, but when Darren Kelly’s departure from Hyde United after a memorable three-and-a-half years led him to a fellow Northern Premier Division side last season, it also meant a sizeable tick in the location box. York-based, when he took the reins at Scarborough Athletic in November, he inherited a team whose players actually train in the city he lives in.

Also a club he played for in the twilight of his on-field days, his return as the number one brought with it a sense of kindred spirits. An easily recognisable former Football League name, Boro had to rebuild from the ground up after the demise of Scarborough FC 13 years ago.

Twelve years later, their former defender returned with the Seadogs having enjoyed three promotions, with the National League North their next target. The journey back down the levels before successfully starting the climb again is one the gaffer can certainly identify with.

“I did my (UEFA) B licence when I was 19, and now I’d be, to be honest, one of the highest-qualified coaches in the country in regards to the Pro Licence,” Darren explained. “I’ve also done my Diploma in Football Management and I’m just finishing a Masters in Sports Directorship, but as I soon found at Oldham, all them years of working and spending a hell of a lot of money, in six months, it’s effectively gone down the pan.”

“The stats of getting another opportunity are slim, but many people have many knockbacks, some harsher than others. I set sort of a plan for how I was gonna do things, and that was to start at the bottom and work my way up.”

Arriving in 2016, Hyde United was to ultimately prove the lift that both parties needed. The mid-2010s will not live fondly in the Tamesiders’ memory, with an incredible three relegations in a row (Darren coming in a few games before the end of the latter of those seasons).

Down in Step 4, a very definite turnaround was able to start, and 2017/18 brought promotion back to the Northern Premier Division, as well as a BBC-televised FA Cup first round game with League One Milton Keynes Dons. It was a club very much revived by the time Darren – by then the sporting director, having handed over to Dave McGurk in the dugout last May – bid farewell seven months ago.

That the club said they had accepted his resignation ‘with great regret and reluctance’ spoke volumes.

“I’m all about environments, and I went into Hyde, it was very depleted, it was just dark. Fantastic club, great potential, but they were on the back of three relegations; there were no smiles on anybody’s faces.

“I remember having the chats with Mark Worthington (Hyde’s late CEO and academy director) and the good people there, and saying ‘I’m gonna change this’, and I think it’s safe to say the day I left, I’d accomplished what I set out to do. They’re fantastic supporters, a fantastic little ground, and great, great people.

“That’s what I like; I like the interaction with the supporters, the closeness and everybody in it together. What we did, getting through in the FA Cup and getting promotion, was on a very small budget.

“Hyde, to me, was where I originally wanted to start out; my plan was to start at the bottom and work my way up. Obviously, I applied for Oldham, I got that, and getting the sack knocked me back, and basically my stock was down.

“What I had to try and do then was create a bit of success, and I think the win rate was 50 or 60 percent.”

Eleven wins in the 18 games since his appointment at Scarborough brought a rise up the table to the periphery of the Northern Premier Division promotion shake-up for 2019/20. It owed in no small part to an impressive group of players, Darren points out, but the surge is surely also further evidence of the capabilities of a coach whose reputation, by his own admission, certainly wasn’t thriving after his departures from Oldham and FC Halifax Town in 2015.

He considers if, and to what extent, those experiences changed him.

“Yeah, I look back on it and I reflect, and to be honest, I cringe at some of the decisions I made. For example, I went into Oldham, and I was a puppet on a string.

“You think results are gonna give you strength on things, but a couple of bad results, you’re out on your ear. Looking at it now, I should have stood up for what I believed in.

“I had a lot of really good players. Adam Armstrong, who was at Newcastle, who I could have got on loan but they wouldn’t let me bring in, he went to Coventry the same season and scored nearly 30 goals.

“I went into Halifax and I said I wasn’t going to be bit again with what I went through at Oldham. It was a situation then where going to training, I could see why they were where they were in the league, and I just thought ‘I’m not gonna let this happen again,’ and we just mutually agreed to part.

“The chairman’s a great guy, and it’s a great club, but just the unprofessionalism and everything from a footballing point. I came in at a very difficult time, they were down near the bottom, and I’m very hands on; there wasn’t much training equipment and that type of thing.

“As I said with Oldham, I wasn’t gonna be a puppet on a string again, and I just thought if it came across as similar to before, I’d walk away.”

Voluntary or otherwise, a step back from the never-relenting chaos of the footballing coalface can be hugely beneficial. Having undertaken his UEFA A Licence previously with Champions League winner Winston Bogarde, Darren would scour Europe, studying the varying practices at clubs with both storied pasts and intriguing presents – from Ajax to Saint-Étienne, Levante to Paris Saint-Germain.

“The biggest thing that I came away with from them all is that the mind is the most powerful tool you could wish to have. I try to utilise it, I’ve studied a lot of psychology, and if you’re technically very good but you’ve a confidence issue, you’ll shy away and you’ll not want the ball.

“Tactically, if you’re not confident, you’re unsure, you’re apprehensive of getting into positions, but if you’re confident, you’ll go and do it automatically. Even physically, if you’ve a confidence issue, you’ll try and show that you’re challenging, but you’re not.

“I’m linking it into my Masters dissertation at the moment.”

Continental competition was a glittering segment of his playing days. His years with hometown Derry City included time under current Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny, during which they knocked Swedish giants IFK Göteborg out of the UEFA Cup with a pair of 1-0 victories in the first qualifying round in 2006/07.

At the club alongside future Ireland goalkeeper David Forde and Celtic winger Paddy McCourt, Darren scored on their way past Gretna in the next round, before a meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in the first round brought a goalless home draw and a 2-0 loss in France. The images of the streams of red and white support at the Parc des Princes will not be forgotten in a hurry, however.

Football is many things: a unifier, a temporary escape, and so often, a springboard for better. The game can transcend so much, but for its incredible beauty and power, reminders of its relative triviality can frequently be found the world over.

“I’m not gonna lie, my upbringing was good but challenging,” Darren recalls. “My mum went out to work, my grandparents pretty much, as they say in Derry, reared me and they brought me up.”

“My uncle was killed in Bloody Sunday in 1972, and that gave my gran a new lease of life, because she was absolutely devastated. I was born into a very Catholic family; my gran and mum went to Mass every Sunday, my gran went every morning and dragged me along when she could.

“Right at the height of the Troubles, there were lots of bombings and shootings and all that going off, so it was very common to go home from school at half 3 and basically have to stay in for the night. I saw a picture of it the other day where it brought me back to that, where if you heard the shots go off, you had to kneel down in your living room basically, because it wasn’t uncommon for them to go through the windows in your house.

“Even when I was at Oldham, I got a death threat. I was worried about my family but it didn’t bother me, and I made a comment to one of the police officers that I’ve had bigger death threats in playschool.

“That wasn’t me being cocky or arrogant with it; it was just because of the upbringing and the Troubles. Where I lived, you’re talking Creggan and the Bogside, so if you do your looking into that, you’ll see it was at the highest of the Troubles.

“You’ve got the IRA fighting the Army and it was just hell on earth, but I’ll always be proud of where I come from and the upbringing that I had, especially through these challenging times.”

While it would be a stretch in the extreme to deem the past three months a wonderful time – for football, for society – Darren has been savouring a rare extended opportunity around his young family. His work with i2i Soccer Academy has understandably been on hold, but he and his wife run a nursery business, and there has also been time to consistently ponder and plan the next steps for Scarborough.

“There were things I wasn’t happy with (last season), in terms of the footballing side, the structure, how training was. Behind the scenes, the board, the volunteers, great supporters, everybody doing their bit, but off the pitch, in terms of the training side, travelling to games, I thought that was a very disappointing thing.

“I’m very about professionalism and standards, but I was very pleased with the squad I inherited; I knew with a couple of additions we could really push on. I came in, I think we were 19th or something like that, and to finish the season before it was expunged, I think we were in 8th, two points from the play-offs.

“Very pleasing in that aspect of things. We had a couple of players coming back from injury as well, but when it comes to this season, whenever it may be, it’s a clean slate and a chance to really professionalise the part of the club that I can control.”

A different name now maybe, and a much-altered footballing world in general, but the same soul remains from the Scarborough FC that was taken from the fans almost 13 years ago exactly. Memories of League Cup clashes with Arsenal and Chelsea (knocking the Blues out in late-1989) live on. Only a solitary John Terry goal (offside perhaps?), meanwhile, eliminated the Seadogs when Chelsea were in town for the FA Cup fourth round in the first season of the Roman Abramovich era. Don’t think that late, unpunished William Gallas handball in the area has been forgotten either…

Boro were painfully the team on the other end of the Carlisle euphoria after that famous Jimmy Glass goal against Plymouth in May 1999, sent down from the Football League and, so far at least, never to return. The club today, though, have every reason to carry high hopes, and a continued resurgence is there to be written.

One of the sides to come up with Darren’s Hyde team in 2018, Scarborough’s promotion under Steve Kittrick was the third since their ‘rebirth’. Despite the wider uncertainty far from subsiding yet in non-league, close-season developments like the capture of goalscorer Nathan Cartman can only whet the appetite for supporters. There have been sad farewells, too, with player/assistant Dave Merris, defender Jack Johnson and goalkeeper/coach Tom Morgan moving on.

Boro’s boss was given his first taste of English football by Carlisle manager Roddy Collins as a 23-year-old. Here in 2020, he says he now has a motto to never let people say you can’t do something, and takes pride and motivation from his continued ambition of reaching the highest levels in management.

When the Saturday 3 o’clocks and midweek 7:45s are ready to return in non-league, the 2020/21 Scarborough Athletic could well be contending strongly. Until then, the work will continue in the background. Well…in the main.

“When my dear granddad died, he left me a harmonica, so I had a bit of banter with (FC United boss) Neil Reynolds,” Darren explains. “He tried to sing a bit of ‘Dirty Old Town’ (The Pogues) but he absolutely killed it!”

“So much so that people will never want to listen to that song again, so the other day, I sent him a video message of my rendition, but the fact I can’t sing, I thought I’d send my twist, with the harmonica. It’s about 65 years old, this harmonica, but it’s precious to me.

“I’m a positive person so I’ve been trying to turn a negative into a positive, if you like. The most important thing has been to really take grasp of good family time.

“Life for the last number of years has been manic, so the opportunity to sit down together, have meals together, has been very good. My boys are keen footballers, so if that’s the line they wanna go down, I’ll fully support them. My little daughter, she’s keen on horses.

“I’ve also been learning Spanish, and as I said, finishing my Masters and just re-educating myself, because I left school with nothing. I’m qualified in psychology, UEFA Pro Licence; I’ve just basically relived education the other way around.”

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A, and you can find Darren’s here

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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