Darren McCurry: “I like being the man to save the day”
At 13, Darren McCurry's life was turned on its head by the death of his mother. But he's learned to take life as it comes and to find ways to keep smiling. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane...
DARREN McCurry is hopping around Edendork field like a dog in heat. The issue of two league points seems grave to everyone else, but he’s off looking for whatever craic can be salvaged from the seriousness.
He has six points of his own in the bank, including the stunning sideline ball that defined the day.
Kerry have just won a late free and as Tommy Walsh clambers back to his feet, there’s McCurry chirping on his shoulder, his grin as wide as the Blackwater.
As Walsh tosses the ball up for Sean O’Shea to kick, McCurry leans in.
“Do you want me to hit that for you, lad?”
“He never blinked and kicked it over, and I just said ‘good score lad’. I love the banter on the field. Who wants to go out like zombies and not speak? When I’m feeling real confident, I’d say things like that. I’m just having the craic.”
In the greyish landscape of inter-county football, where personality and individualism are almost black marks against a man’s name, McCurry bucks the trend.
Playing football without his confidence is like Samson coming back from the barbers with a Cathal McShane.
It is the source of his powers.
He can only recall being shy of it once in his life. And when the downturn came, it was such a hit that he left the Tyrone panel despite being absolutely convinced that six months later, he’d be watching them win the All-Ireland.
“When I made that decision to leave, I made it based on Tyrone winning the All-Ireland. I was willing to give up an All-Ireland medal. That’s how serious I was about leaving.”
When he decided to quit before the final league game against Mayo, he hadn’t started since the opening day defeat in Kerry. Across the last three games he was involved in, he got just 43 minutes on the field.
“I went back to play the club and I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t taking men on, wasn’t shooting where I should be.
“When I’m confident, I’ll take men on and shoot from anywhere. I was missing free-kicks, which never happens.
“I’m a confident guy. There’s a very fine line between confident and arrogant, but I don’t like arrogant people.
“I’m confident in everything I do. Once you lose that, you lose yourself and you have to go and find yourself again.”
He took the summer to Chicago. Ten weeks out playing a bit of ball, doing very little work and seeing a bit of the world with his girlfriend, Ria McKenna, who joined him for the second half of the trip.
Between that and three weeks in Sydney visiting his brother Gary over Christmas, the travelling bug that was starting to nibble has been sated.
But sure enough, there he is in the bar of the Croke Park Hotel on September 2, 2018. Hands reach in from everywhere to tell him how he’s feeling, but his own mind doesn’t subscribe.
Sat in the lower deck of the Hogan Stand, where he has Justy McMahon “going stone mad” behind him all day, it’s a very small part of McCurry wishes he was out there. Mostly, he sees the flaw in the plan.
“Of course I could have stayed on the best, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I’d been playing. I wasn’t getting the best out of myself. I just had to get away.
“People think I’m lying when I say this but going down that day, it was class, being there to watch it for a change. I’ve never really experienced that, watching people I actually know on the field.
“That got my hunger back. I remember watching it thinking I could do something. It gave me the fire in the belly. I needed that day.”
It was never to be anything other than temporary. The day he returned to championship football, you knew he was back.
Just as Derry were threatening a monumental shock in Omagh last summer, he arrives off the bench and on to Frank Burns’ diagonal ball.
Breezes inside on to the 21’, cuts inside and just guides the ball with his instep into the bottom corner. Stops dead in his tracks facing the stand, pulls up the leg of his shorts and points to his quad muscle.
“What was it about? Just ‘look at the size of that quad’,” he laughs when asked of his celebration.
“That’s when you know I’m on top of my game, when I do something like that. I knew I was gonna bury it.
“That’s what I love, coming on, they’d scored the goal, two points down.
“I like being the man to save the day.”
‘Dazzler’ insists that, contrary to a claim by Joe Brolly a few years back, he didn’t coin his own nickname. It came instead from Conor Gormley.
“He started it after the quarter-final against Monaghan in 2014. He used to say “start the mixer, Dazzler, start the mixer!” That was my dance move up in the middle of the Buzz Bar after big games.”
He chases Dublin in his dreams. League games against them have been more of a boost than a sap in recent years, although Tyrone’s mixed-up spring fell through the cracks in Salthill last weekend.
McCurry firmly believes he’ll catch the Dubs some day.
“Every year I go out, that’s the goal. If I don’t believe that, how can I get up for work at 5.45am and stay out training until 10pm?
“That’s what gets me up in the morning, chasing those goals. I always believed I’d win one and I won’t stop until I do.”
It is a likeable confidence.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
AT 13, his world was turned on its head.
Darren’s parents had separated when he was at primary school, but the family stayed close.
He lived with his sister Megan, brother Gary and their mother in Edendork, while Christopher and their half-brother Ryan lived with their father, Joe, in Dungannon.
His mother, Eileen (nee Coleman, a native of Coalisland) suffered from epilepsy. Like any child, his understanding of the condition was limited.
While he was away for the weekend in Bundoran with father, his mother died after taking a fit during the night and swallowing her tongue.
He misses his mother dearly yet, as was evident when he saw her image standing in the kitchen window of the house as he kicked that sideline ball against Kerry.
Family means a lot to him. Protecting his mother’s memory is everything. Playing football is the best way he knows how to do that.
“She loved the craic. She didn’t drive, we didn’t really have any money, but she did everything she could to get me out to the field and would have gone to the games.
“We had a big garden with Gaelic posts. She used to go stone mad at me breaking all the tiles on the roof from kicking the ball off it!
“She did what she could to give us the best.”
As he stepped into that already famous sideline ball in front of the Tyrone dugout, home was where the heart was.
“Where I was hitting the free, I could see the house in my eyeline. It’s the bungalow just at that end as you turned into the field. That’s the home house.
“The uncle is beside it, across the road is my auntie and then the Granny’s house, and my brother lives right behind the field now.
“It was mental, I was walking up to hit the free-kick and she popped into my head.
“At that minute I thought ‘she’s there’ and I knew it was going over the bar.
“After the game, Ria [his girlfriend] showed me a photo from before the game and the rainbow was shining right over the top of the house. Some things are meant to be, I think.”
After their mother died, Darren and Megan moved up to Dungannon, while Christopher went the other way. Just starting out as an apprentice plumber, he took on the house in Edendork, something which Darren says he owes ‘Crippy’ a lot for.
McCurry had always had a close relationship with his Dad and besides the day job, Joe played a huge hand in his formation as a footballer, taking the youngster out to practice and kicking balls back to him for hours.
At school, Darren had a mild speech impediment, but in adulthood he says it only affects him when there’s a camera in his face. Over a 90-minute chat, it’s completely untraceable.
“When I was younger, it would have been a wee bit worse, but now it doesn’t really happen. I never really notice it unless I’m doing an interview the odd time, maybe a word or two.
“It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Not in the slightest. There’s far worse things in life could be wrong with you.”
Getting on with it is an attitude that has served him well.
Instead of letting these things consume him, it’s his navigational tool for life.
“It is probably the biggest driving force in what I do. Mum was the big driving force behind everything.
“I almost blanked it out and kind of just got on with it. I probably closed it off and I’ve never really looked back on it.
“It was hard but I used it as motivation to make her proud, to say that I could do it for her. And to show that if something does happen in life, you have to get on with it and use it as motivation rather than a negative.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
DARREN McCurry is one of only a handful of tradesmen on the Tyrone squad.
When he left school, he went to Dungannon Tech to study sport. Hated it and had to beg his father to let him quit after two months and start into plumbing.
“And the first couple of months, I f***ing hated plumbing!”
He quickly grew to love it. With his father and brother Christopher, they run the family business, MCC Mechanical.
A lot of the time is spent rooting around on his knees or bending pipes or trailing bathroom suites about the place. It can be heavy enough going.
The GAA’s most famous plumber, Ciaran McDonald, once said that he never needed the gym because the day job was enough.
McCurry wouldn’t necessarily concur, but then you have to look at where he’s come from.
He was 18 when Tyrone were in the midst of an injury crisis in 2012. A call came via the club chairman asking if he’d go up to Clogher for a trial game.
“At least I thought it was a trial, I only found out after that it was an in-house match and a few of us were only there to give them a game.
“I was marking Conor Gormley and I’d a stormer, I kicked about 1-5 off him. Mickey took me off with 10 minutes to go and shook my hand, said ‘I want you on the panel’.”
Not yet filled out, the teenager weighed 10-and-a-half stone at the time. He knew all about it over the next six weeks.
“Conor got me back two weeks later. He was holding a tackle bag, I came running at him and he just melted me, left me on my back,” he says, roaring in laughter.
A championship debut came at him like a speeding train a few weeks later. Roscommon in a qualifier. Whipped off the bench after 43 minutes, he kicked four points.
When they were sent to Killarney the following weekend, Stephen O’Neill was still carrying his calf injury. His failure to pass a late fitness test was still a surprise. McCurry got fifteen minutes notice of his first start, and when he lined up, Marc Ó Sé came across.
“I’ve never marked anybody as good since. I know I was young. It’s something no defender I’ve marked since has ever done, when I made a run and the ball went past me, he pushed me on another 10 yards. I was light anyway.
“He was just so crabit. I’d have loved to have got another go when I was filled out and ready for him.
“I kicked a point, should have had another and set up the goal. Gormley fisted the ball into the net and I hit him a shoulder in the back,” he says, laughing at himself.
“He grabbed me and I’m thinking ‘ohh, I’m in way over my head here’. There was a commotion, Mugsy was in wrestling with him on the ground and I just remember how strong Ó Sé was.”
McCurry took to the gym when Peter Donnelly came in but over the next two years admits he became obsessed with it, and that it came at the expense of practicing his skills.
The late miss against Mayo in 2016 saw him lay off it again, but he’s hit them hard again this winter. One night a week in the gym has become three. He’s eating far more.
It shows. He gone up from 12-and-a-half stone to just under 13, and has been playing the best football of his career in the opening three months of this year.
He’s enjoying a new deeper role, where he can go and locate the ball rather than waiting for it to find him. McCurry admits, too, that his dislike for defending has always counted against him.
“Of course I hate it. But it has to be done.
“It was a very weak point of mine. I didn’t want to defend, I didn’t think it was my job to defend, and I wasn’t good at it.
“It’s a lot mental. If I want to get to that boy to tackle him, I’m fast enough and fit enough. That’s been a massive part of my game this year.”
Now 27, McCurry says “everything I do, every decision I make, every single day revolves around playing football”.
The 16-and-a-bit hour days hardly seem to take a fizz out of him. He is like a loaded spring, the positivity and energy and devilment hopping out of him.
He wants to play for Tyrone until he’s “35 or 36” and says he could still be playing for the club at 40, “no problem”.
“I love it. I’ll be long enough retired. You only have one life.
“My body’s in great shape. I’ve loads of years yet. Old? I’m not old. I look about 20 and feel about 22!”
At that, he disembarks with warm words and hugs for the staff, darting up the road to pull on jeans and come straight back for a Valentine’s Day date with Ria, whom he’s been with for ten years.
His worth to Tyrone has always been greater than the market recognised. Proving people wrong is a revelry for him.
Everything he does, it’s with a smile on his face, an assurance in himself and the mischief looking out of him.
It’s who he is, and who he’ll never be afraid to be.
For that, the footballing landscape is a little bit greener.