The volunteer spirit of Newry City hoping to drive them to another Irish Cup upset

Volunteers Dorothy Taylor and Sean Gaffney - the backbone of Newry City AFC
Volunteers Dorothy Taylor and Sean Gaffney - the backbone of Newry City AFC

“Now we go to Glentoran on Saturday. If you have it in your head now that it’s just a day out, a nice breakfast and a trip to the Oval then there is absolutely no point in us going there.

“People have said to me: ‘Go and enjoy your day.’ I’ll only enjoy it if we win. I honestly believe we can go there and cause them problems with the pace we have in the team. We make sure our training tonight is sharp, good tempo and we lift the mood.

“Remember this is a quarter-final of the Irish Cup that loads of teams would love to be playing in.” – Newry City manager Darren Mullen addresses his players at Tuesday night’s training session

YOU walk through the wrong doorway at the Newry Showgrounds and you're immediately hit by fresh paint fumes – probably the skilled brush-strokes of Ernie Campbell.

You’re surrounded by Newry City’s unmistakable blue and white.

The night is perfectly still and bitterly cold as the floodlights from the back pitch behind the stadium shed just enough light to guide you to the training session.

It’s four days since the team’s morale-sapping top-of-the-table defeat to Annagh United and four days away from their Irish Cup quarter-final showdown with illustrious opponents Glentoran.

Darren Mullen, the club’s first team manager, has arrived later than normal for tonight’s training session due to it being his wife's birthday, but he still has oceans of time before things start.

“The Belfast lads are late,” he informs his backroom team who are milling around the back pitch ready to go.

The Belfast lads are Fra Brennan, Odhran Casey, Noel and Brian Healy. Sometimes Ryan McGivern hitches a lift with them at Hillsborough.

A few players that have arrived early start a game of one-touch ‘Rondo’ in the middle of the grass pitch that's recovered well from the recent bad weather before more arrive and together they go for a gentle jog.

There’s plenty of GAA influence in Newry's ranks.

Affectionately known as ‘Engine’, veteran Darren King won a junior championship with Forkhill a couple of year back and is still punching his weight since making his Newry debut over 17 years ago.

John Boyle kicked a bit of ball with Down as did in-form striker and Northern Ireland U21 player John McGovern of Ballyholland.

Built like a middleweight boxer, McGovern arrives a few minutes late after getting a massage.

The free-scoring 20-year-old is a story in itself. A couple of seasons ago, his father got in touch with Darren and asked would he take his son on.

As it happened, Newry were playing a pre-season friendly that afternoon. Darren said send the lad down.

McGovern played in the friendly and hasn’t looked back since that day, and is attracting admiring glances from a host of Premiership clubs.

Decky Carville (Armagh), Philly Donnelly (Monaghan) and James Teelan (Crossmaglen) are the others who played Gaelic.

As the players jog around the pitch, Teelan and Donnelly toe tap the ball and kick pass to each other.

Old habits die hard.

Irish League goalkeeping legend Mickey Keenan, who has been among the coaching staff since the club’s dramatic renaissance in 2013, is putting Stephen Maguire and Niall Brady through their paces.

“Before we got into the Championship, we used to start in the preliminary rounds of the Irish Cup back in August but Mickey always thought the competition started in January because he was playing for Portadown,” Darren says.

Gone are the days when goalkeepers didn’t have to work as hard in training as outfield players. Nobody works harder on this night than Newry’s net-minders.

Darren can't let tonight's session begin properly without addressing last Friday night's 3-0 home league defeat to closest rivals Annagh United.

The performance was so uncharacteristically bad, the Newry manager made a triple substitution after a half hour and has since sat through a re-run of the game.

With the players huddled around him, the manager advises his players to watch the game at some stage.

“It doesn’t make for wonderful viewing, but we need to watch it to rectify it. We over-played in the wrong areas.

“So we learn from it and we fix it. But remember, at the end of the day, we’re still top by a point with a game in hand. Everybody would want to be in our position...”

Backroom team members Gary Boyle, Damien McCorry and Damien Hillen know what they're about and already have the session set up.

The manager would sometimes join in but a freak accident a couple of months ago has cautioned against him trying to relive his playing days.

After Newry knocked local rivals Warrenpoint Town out of the cup, Darren had just finished giving an interview to the BBC.

As he turned he lost his footing on the steps and tumbled down the rest of them, suffering four broken ribs, a punctured lung and some internal bleeding.

That was on the Saturday but he didn’t go to hospital to get checked out until the following Wednesday where the full extent of his injuries were revealed.

PRO Laura Hillen and her sister Emma – two of the team’s biggest fans - attend most training sessions. Emma films parts of the action on her phone, hoping to capture some TikTok gold.

And their dad, Gerry, with Ted the dog - both of whom never miss a training session.


AMONG the many important metronomes of this community club are Dorothy Taylor and Sean ‘Gaff’ Gaffney.

Dorothy and ‘Gaff’ are more than just metronomes however. They are the blood and marrow of Newry City.

The club’s beating heart. The glowing epitome of a human co-operative that doesn’t boast the riches of other clubs and couldn’t be any more comfortable in its own skin.

Dorothy reckons she’s the only female kit person – or “kit manager” – in the whole of the Irish League. It’s a title she’s held for the last four years, although her association with the Co Down club goes back some 25 years.

Both Dorothy and ‘Gaff’ lean against the physio’s bench in the away changing room.

In typical orderly fashion, Newry's kit manager has laid out the special pink jerseys, replete with the southern area hospice logo, the strip the team has worn for every Irish Cup match.

The brainchild of vice-chairman Gary Wilson and Darren Mullen, the pair thought it would be a good way to acknowledge the “brilliant work of the southern area hospice”.

Dorothy says she would love nothing better than to keep washing the pink jerseys, pink shorts and socks and travel deeper into this season’s Irish Cup.

Match regulations decree that insulating tape that players use to keep their shin guards in place must be the same colour as their socks.

The Irish League’s most resourceful kit manager can get her hands on anything. It took a while but she tracked down pink insulating tape in China, via Amazon, at £10 per roll.

An essential part of her match-day arsenal is a small, pink see-through make-up bag that holds anything from “headache tablets, ibupbrofen, plasters, Rennies and Mars Bars…”.

“I start early on Saturday, match-day,” Dorothy says. “I check the kit three times. Tops, shorts, sub suits. I hang out the kits and have them ready for the boys. They all have their own ways, what they do before matches, who wants deep heat, who doesn’t have socks, who gets socks. You just look after them from Vicks to Vaseline.”

Dorothy’s husband passed away 15 years ago. Her son lives in Australia and daughter in Manchester.

In their absence, Newry City Football Club is her “family”.

“I love doing it. It’s my social life. I just love seeing the boys going onto the pitch.”

Sean Gaffney remembers first watching Newry as a seven-year-old back in 1952.

“I was away from it for a few years in the 1960s and I came back again and I’ve been working here since 1980,” ‘Gaff’ says.

For over four decades 'Gaff' has been tending to all aspects of the club. Doing things that would be missed by the untrained eye, but things that are so essential to the smooth running of the place.

When the club was wound up in 2012, Willie Young and ‘Gaff’ still went down to the Showgrounds to cut the grass and “keep the weeds down”, in the hope that some local volunteers would find the energy to somehow bring it back.

Darren Mullen, who had played and coached at the club in the years before it folded, was one such volunteer.

Raymie Burns, Mickey Keenan, Jervis McCaul and Gary Boyle were others who gathered in one of the clubrooms at the Showgrounds for a meeting to re-establish the club.

Darren remembers having to get people to move to the other side of the room due to a leaking roof.

He typed up a new club constitution in his bedroom and set about gathering up a team for new beginnings in 2013.

Their starting point was the Mid-Ulster Intermediate League.

Darren Mullen at the Showgrounds on Tuesday night ahead of their trip to the Oval tomorrow Picture: Brendan Monaghan
Darren Mullen at the Showgrounds on Tuesday night ahead of their trip to the Oval tomorrow Picture: Brendan Monaghan

Within five years, Newry City had climbed their own Everest by winning a place in the Irish Premiership.

It’s the kind of triumph that will never be eclipsed.

Staying in the top flight was always going to be the hardest part as the new Premiership minnows were competing against clubs with the kind of financial muscle the Co Down club could only dream about.

After a relegation, Newry are currently in pole position in the Championship standings and hope to be back in amongst the big boys next season.

“The football can get quite serious – but there is a lot of fun in here too, a lot of craic and good times,” ‘Gaff’ says.

Earlier this season, the club’s long-serving stalwart tried to quit his role.

When Darren got wind of the news, he politely conveyed to ‘Gaff’: ‘You’re not f***ing leaving”.

So ‘Gaff’s’ shoulder remains firmly at the club wheel.

“Gaff is as old as the grass out there!” Dorothy jokes.

“I come early on Saturday morning,” he says, “make sure the nets are up, corner flags, all that sort of stuff. Willie will have it rolled and marked out on the Friday. I make sure the balls are blown up and the toilets have plenty of toilet roll – all the stuff that people don’t even see.

Laughing, he says: “I’ve made a rule that the players all go to the toilet at the same time because I’ve missed more goals here than I can count because of boys needing a piss and me having to unlock the changing room doors for them.

“After the match we get the kits into the wash-room, put the nets and corner flags away and make sure all the balls come in because they have a habit of ending up in the other team’s kitbag!”

You ask him how he thinks Saturday’s Irish Cup quarter-final will unfold, he says: “We’re not expected to win – so we’ve nothing to lose. So why worry about them?

“As Jackie Charlton said one time: ‘We’ll name our team and let them worry about us.”

Dorothy interjects: “Put it like this: we’re practising penalties!”

It doesn’t seem like it on this cold, dark Tuesday night – but there’s a buzz around the town.

The local newspapers are all over this glamour cup tie, crowds are up every week, players and management are being stopped in the street, the million pubs in the town are talking about this exciting, young Newry team and how they’ll fare against Mick McDermott’s full-timers from the east.

Of course, promotion is the be-all and end-all for Darren Mullen’s men this season but the Irish Cup brings the kind of pizzazz that the league cannot touch.


AFTER a high-intensity game ends at the back pitch, so too does tonight’s training session.

Darren King is 36-years-young and looks as though he could play until midnight.

He made his debut for Newry back in 2004 and only left when the club went into administration.

He enjoyed a couple of successful seasons playing for his good friend Barry Gray down in Warrenpoint Town, but all roads inevitably led back to Newry City.

In his first season back, the club won promotion to the senior ranks.

Echoing the sentiments of his manager, ‘Engine’ doesn’t regard Saturday’s trip to The Oval as a day out or an exercise in trying to keep the score down.

“At the end of the day, Glentoran are the team leading the league that we’re aspiring to be in next year, and the reason we’re trying to get into that league is to compete with them,” King says.

“So we need to prove our worth now. If we were to approach this game like a David and Goliath you’d have yourself beat already.

“It’s about having belief in ourselves. I’d be very naïve to say we’re going to beat Glentoran but I’ve been in football long enough to know that anything can happen.

“From I’ve been at Newry, there have been a lot of good players but this is definitely the most dynamic team that we’ve ever had. The young guys have no fear, pace to burn, quality on the ball. It’s just me and big ‘Boyler’ at the back who are trying to steer them in the right direction.”

On this pitch-black Tuesday night, the Newry Showgrounds looks in really decent shape, but it’s not how the old place looks that conjures the feel-good factor ahead of Saturday’s big cup match.

It’s the people that keep coming here in all kinds of weather and give endlessly of their time.

The volunteers. They are the life-blood.

It’s people like Dorothy and ‘Gaff’ and Willie Young, the Hillens, Ernie Campbell, the coaches and dozens more.

They are the real architects of communities.

Good people doing good things and getting such a kick out of being part of something bigger than themselves.

“This is my family,” Dorothy says.

‘Gaff’ nods.

“We say it all the time in our team-talks, everything we do here is for the likes of Dorothy and ‘Gaff’ and all those volunteers,” says King.

“They are the engine room of the club. We are just the face on the pitch. All the work is done by those people.

“Ernie Campbell was in painting the ground. He gives up a day’s work to come here and do it voluntary. Marty McParland out putting new nets together… Every time we go out we just want to do them proud and do the town proud.”

This is Newry Football Club. A shared experience with deep emotional connections. A club pursuing excellence and one that believes in itself.

On Saturday afternoon at the Oval, all its volunteers will be living in the fullest sense...