Home is where the heart is for Johnny McBride
IT was inevitable that, some day, Johnny McBride would end up in charge of The Loup.
There was no chance of him ever staying away. A common misconception is that, with his second championship secured in 2009, he finished up completely along with Paul McFlynn and Fionntain Devlin.
That trio had all committed for one final season in the green and white, and how they were glad of that decision when Enda McQuillan flicked home a 58th minute goal to snatch the title from Dungiven.
The trio did retire, while McBride went to take up a coaching post with Fermanagh under his former mentor Malachy O’Rourke.
The following year, he was in charge of Tyrone club Galbally but in 2012, he couldn’t resist and pulled on the Loup jersey again. He would finally retire after a Championship quarter-final defeat by Coleraine the following year.
“You see it as much as me, around strong clubs where players are in central roles for a long period of time, it can become as big a weakness as it is a strength sometimes,” says the now 39-year-old.
“Some people don’t want to shift you on. Regardless of whoever’s managing, a player that has a history in a club, they’ll go ‘I have to pick that man’.
“It was probably a good thing in a sense, none of us hung about that long. You have to move on and let other boys develop.
“And it takes players a wee while to develop. If you even go back into that Loup team that was successful, I was 26 when The Loup won in ’03.
“It just didn’t come straight off the back of all our underage success, it took a wee while.”
When Peter Doherty stepped down after a disappointing defeat by Bellaghy at the same stage last autumn, there was only one natural successor.
McBride won Derry titles as a player in 2003 and 2009, adding Ulster to the former and reaching the provincial decider again on the second occasion, only to be turned away by a formidable St. Gall’s side.
That Loup team was notorious for its grit, particularly when it mattered. There were very rarely points taken away by any visitor to their claustrophobic home pitch.
What he inherited as manager was a team that wore a different skin to the side he played on. Their new field, opened last year, bears the dimensions of Croke Park. It suits their young, pacy team that has already bridged that seven-year gap to their last final.
But he is old enough and humble enough to remember the more modest surroundings that they were exposed to as youngsters.
The Loup won the Derry junior title in 1989, when he was 12. They progressed to the intermediate ranks and won that title in 1994.
All the club’s efforts that year went in to securing senior football, which they achieved. They would tell you that it was almost at the expense of what could have been three Ulster minor club titles in-a-row, having won the St. Paul's tournament in 1993 and 1995.
That success would take eight years to bear fruit at senior level. So he’s well equipped to reassure the current crop that their rate of progression is natural.
“I suppose there’s a benchmark there, which is a good thing. Boys maybe look at it and think ‘I’d like to have a Championship medal like people in ’03 and ‘09’.
“There are a few like Paul Young, trying to get his third medal, but not a lot.
“When I was a youngster, you were looking at teams within your own club and whether they were intermediate champions or junior champions, you still looked at them as champions.
“Regardless of what level you play at, your championship is as important as the next championship, whether it’s intermediate or senior.”
And while the youth of Jason Rocks, Terence O’Brien, Patrick Coney and Conall McGinley has helped re-establish them as challengers, there are as many as eight of their starting team that were playing in 2009.
Twin brothers Colm and Dominic McVey, Paul and Declan McVey, Paul Young and Aidan McAlynn are all still there, while Ciaran Devlin and Brian Doyle were the teenage stars of that side under John Brennan.
When he took over, the most obvious problem was Loup’s physical size in some areas. They had all the pace and all the football, but they couldn’t break the tackles.
McBride enlisted the help of former Tyrone and Coalisland player Richard Thornton, who came with a reputation for his strength and conditioning work.
“I’d have to give Richard a lot of credit in that department,” says McBride.
“We hadn’t worked together before but he came highly recommended, and he definitely knows what he’s doing in terms of strength and conditioning and coaching. He’s brought the boys on loads.
“It’s a balance in the modern game. You can bulk up too much. It has to be the right type of strength and conditioning. You have to be lean and be able to run. It’s a running game now. There’s not much place for players of my style…”
A fine player he was. He made his Derry debut in a National League game against Kerry in 1995, a couple of months after playing in the county’s All-Ireland minor final defeat by Westmeath.
He properly burst on to the scene in 1997 and was a regular by the time of that year’s Ulster final. He’d lose that one to Cavan, but get his medal the year after thanks to Joe Brolly’s late goal against Donegal.
His final year in the red and white saw him captain the Oak Leafers to their famous Ulster Championship victory over Tyrone at Healy Park in 2006, and he filled the jersey with distinction every time he wore it in between.
Management fills the breach, and he enjoys it, but as so many including Johnny McBride will tell you, it’s just not playing.
“Even when I was a player, you don’t appreciate being told how much to enjoy it when you’re on that side of it.
“All of a sudden, you’re on the other side of it and you can’t turn back and change all these things you’d have liked to have done in your career, or things you think you maybe should have done differently. Everybody thinks like that.
“I enjoy [management], especially your own club. There’s maybe difficulties in that but there’s obviously a big plus that it means that wee bit more.”