Brendan Crossan: Darren Mullen - A manager for all seasons

Darren Mullen leaves Newry City at the end of the season
Darren Mullen leaves Newry City at the end of the season

AFTER 10 years at the helm, Darren Mullen stepped down as Newry City manager on Tuesday night. At the start of the season, he knew this would be his last year in charge of his local club.

It’s hard to fathom the amount of emotional energy Mullen expended on behalf of Newry City Football Club during those years.

Of course, there were rewards along the way – the after-glow of which will last for a life-time.

Most of those 10 years, however, have been spent far away from the media’s gaze. Thousands of hard yards were churned up in the Mid-Ulster League, the Premier Intermediate League, the Championship and finally the Holy Grail of local football – the Irish Premiership – was reached.

It’s always a neat narrative of the media to land the lion’s share of the credit at the door of one person.

But, in Newry’s case, it is absolutely true.

Without Darren Mullen’s drive, people skills and imagination, Newry City would never have come back to life after it shut its doors in 2012.

Mullen spearheaded a group of interested locals to revive the club. He remembers the first meeting the group called in the Newry Showgrounds, a place that had fallen into disrepair, and the people in attendance having to move to another part of the room because there was a leak in the roof.

From that first meeting with the rhythmic dripping of water from the ceiling, the first inklings of momentum were felt – but reforming the club still seemed pie in the sky.

But Mullen and people like Raymie Burns, Mickey Keenan, Jervis McCaul and Gary Boyle kept at it, they kept calling meetings and testing the water with the Mid-Ulster League, they talked to local players about the possibility of joining and drew up a club constitution.

A human co-operative had to be established before Newry City’s rebirth – and Mullen was at the forefront of it.

At the start of the 2013/14 season, Newry City returned to competitive football against Bourneview YM in the Mid-Ulster B Division, and they built from there.

Yes, the club still had the Showgrounds as their home but it was a base that needed to be fit for purpose again.

What the volunteers effectively did was build something out of nothing.

Mullen and Newry City’s journey over the last 10 years has been a triumph of ceaseless graft, heart and ingenuity.

It mightn’t always have felt like that in the day to day running of the club, suffering many hard defeats along the way while trying to make ends meet - but to haul a club up by its bootstraps and win a string of promotions to senior football on a shoestring budget is a magnificent achievement.

Has there been a bigger achievement in local football?

It takes more than knowing your way around a tactics board and the next trendy formation.

More importantly, it takes stamina, leadership and vision and the ability to grab a hold of a group of players of varying degrees of ability and persuading them to buy into it and making them believe that they can compete with the bluebloods of Irish League football.

You can have nothing but respect and admiration for managers and coaches that are constantly battling a rising tide at the wrong end of league tables everywhere.

And yet, there is often an inescapable, thinly disguised snobbery in football at all levels where those managers scrapping at the bottom of the table are somehow not quite as good as the ones competing at the top.

We can get carried away with what football analyst Shane Keegan describes as “scoreboard journalism”, where we don’t get beyond the result of a game.

Those people who buy into the misleading narrative that all the best managers are at the top of the league forget that good players make good coaches.

Mullen guided Newry City into the Irish Premiership twice in a five-year period. The first time they suffered relegation at the end of the season.

In this campaign, they preserved their hard-earned senior status with a game remaining, thanks to a two-all with Ballymena United.

When you consider the resources and the financial budgets of some of the top Irish League clubs and you glance at Newry’s, you could easily make a case for giving Darren Mullen the Manager of the Year award.

Of course, of all years, it might sound slightly mean-spirited towards Tiernan Lynch of Larne, a man who undoubtedly deserves it - not just for guiding Larne to their first Premiership title in their 134-year history but because Lynch displayed stamina, leadership, resilience and vision and was traipsing up and down the main street of the town in the pre-Kenny Bruce days asking local shop owners to sponsor the ailing east Antrim club.

After giving 10 years to Newry City, it was the right time for Mullen to step away, especially leaving them in the Premiership and leaving behind a club with an insatiable volunteering culture (take a bow ‘Gaff’ and Dorothy) that he helped initiate back in 2013.

Nobody would begrudge him the opportunity of seeking a new football challenge as life can become slightly claustrophobic at your local club after such a long time.

But whatever Mullen does or wherever he goes, that club or organisation aren’t getting a manager who can only work at the lower end of the league.

That crude perception doesn’t get beyond the man at all.

Mullen’s next suitors would be getting someone who is heavily qualified in every nook and cranny of the game, can paint pictures for those around him, bring people with him, and make a friend out of adversity.

Did someone mention a managerial vacancy at Cliftonville?