Devlin maturing into life and football's twists and turns
In another era, Ronan Devlin could have been a footballing star but what the Ballinderry man mostly got from playing was a fistful of regrets. Now manager of Cargin, he's taken some hard lessons with him – none of which come close to dealing with loss of youngster brother Aaron. He sat down with Cahair O'Kane…
RONAN Devlin turns forty in January.
His small, tightly-cut figure has dandered up from school and stands in the window of The Olive Tree. It’s ten-thirty on the button.
The Cargin manager’s teenage redness is almost gone out of his hair.
Too young to be a manager was his worry. It was alright coaching, but for him the man in the centre of the changing room had always worn more years on his face.
Take Brian McIver, who was 48 when he guided Ballinderry to the All-Ireland club title twenty years ago.
Devlin could, probably should, have been involved.
He was an Ireland U17 International Rules cap, a county minor, a three-year MacRory Cup footballer with St Mary’s Magherafelt, a star turn on the Ballinderry team that had just become Ulster minor champions.
Along with Derry minor captain Brendan Conway and Connor Wilkinson, Devlin was asked into the senior setup early in the year.
“I was just starting university and said to Brian ‘I’ll maybe leave it until next year’. Good call!” he smiles.
Everything about his playing days elicits wryness at best.
On underage teams, he was used to picking the ball up where he pleased and doing with it what he wanted. It came easily.
Then the cliff-edge came at the end of minor and he found that walking into a team that had just won an All-Ireland club title wouldn’t be all that handy.
Worse still, most of it was a team only starting.
The Andy Merrigan came across the river into Derry at the very beginning of the cycle. Ballinderry would only very occasionally let someone slip from the stranglehold over the next 12 years.
“Kevin McGuckin was 19, Enda Muldoon was 21. The best players were a couple of years older than you. There were no gaps for years.
“I came through with high expectations of myself. I might have seemed like a talented player at that age but not getting on messed with my head big time.
“Mentally, I really struggled as a player.
“How do you get on? Stropped. Was huffy. You’ve massive regrets about playing. When I look back, I’m gutted with myself.”
When he was 19, he got taken off in a league game with Bellaghy, came home and booked flights to New York.
Another year, he wasn’t selected for the 24 for a championship game and got up and walked out of the meeting.
When he finished university, he left for London and played a year with Parnell’s. Ballinderry never weakened and his road didn’t rise to meet them.
So he ended up playing more football for Moortown than he did for Ballinderry.
His father Eugene was one of six Moortown brothers from a fishing family from the Tyrone side of the county divide.
They’ve been known for several generations as the Dooks, from the Anglicisation of ‘Dubh’ (black), a moniker that Ronan and the rest of his generation of brothers and cousins have carried on.
Eugene played underage for Ballinderry but transferred back to Moortown in his last year of minor and was straight into the Tyrone setup that won the All-Ireland in 1973.
Ronan, Coilín and Aaron were reared at the far end of Kinturk, just inside Ballinderry parish, where Moortown was as close. They could all have gone left as handy as they went right.
“Our very first game, Coilin and I both, was for Moortown U8s up in Brackaville. An uncle of ours was chairman and he brought us up, put the wee red and white strip on and away we went.”
But once they were sent to Derrychrin school then the obvious option for football was Ballinderry.
Ronan would transfer back to Moortown in 2009 and spend four years in which they won promotion back to senior football for the first time in a decade, and then their first senior championship match for 20 years.
Ballinderry won three-in-a-row in Derry when he was away. He has “two, maybe three” county medals from the early 2000s but the only one he really counts is 2006, when he came on late in the final against The Loup.
Two, maybe three is also his best guess at how many senior championship games he started for Ballinderry.
Leaving wasn’t a regret because he got playing senior football.
But he’s glad too that he came back. Glad that he felt more useful in his 30s than in his 20s.
Glad that he was home in time to remember how Darren Conway would torment the changing room with shampoo.
“I remember Ronan McGuckin stepping into the shoes one night and the suds just going everywhere.”
Glad that there’s still the very odd Thirds game – one of which this summer was against Glen – and a few beers afterwards.
And glad that he, Coilin and Aaron all got to play together just once, in a league game down in Ballinascreen.
WHEN he comes through the front door at home, Ronan turns right and still sees Aaron lying sprawled across an armchair, playing Madden NFL on the X-Box.
Computer games was their thing. Mostly FIFA when it was the pair of them together.
The three brothers, who have one younger sister Anna, all bore similarities yet were far enough apart to be utterly distinctive.
Coilin and Aaron, both of whom played for Derry at different times, were that bit younger, so they socialised together.
Ronan is the oldest. He and Coilín have always been thick as thieves, but competed fiercely with other in everything they did.
Aaron was the glue.
On the field he was a blossoming star of club and county. The whole county was rocked on its heels when he passed away in July 2015 after a short, unexpected battle with meningitis.
Home is always where it hits hardest.
Donegal had just beaten Armagh in the Covid championship of 2020 when Ronan shared his thoughts on Twitter.
“Watching all these players, who would be the same age as him, makes me wonder where Aaron would have been right now. I think he'd have been mixing it with the best of them. The loss, in pure sporting terms, is still felt most at club level though. Irreplaceable at home.”
Ronan lives next door to his parents and with Coilin in a house in behind now. His two sons carry little seeds of Aaron’s personality that keep his memory flickering that bit brighter through the house.
Christmas is always the worst. Each year they’d get sucked in by the Sky darts and go out to the utility room where they had a board up. Eugene would throw a bit, Coilin the odd time, but mostly it was Aaron and Ronan’s thing.
It would get competitive and thick and they knew that before they ever started but they did it anyway.
“You miss all that. Anybody that has lost somebody would know a wee bit about it, but somebody young’s different. It was sore on all of us.
“It probably didn’t hit me until a few years later, big time.
“I mean until maybe a year ago, it was like ‘this is not sinking in’. Still there’d be times I’d be touchy about it.”
Ronan was six months into a new two-year post as GAA Development Officer for St Mary’s Magherafelt when the school won its first ever MacRory Cup in 2017.
“Mummy and Daddy talk about ‘his team’, they always felt ‘his team’ should have won it,” he says, referring to the 2011 campaign in which they agonisingly lost a gripping semi-final to a St Colman’s team that won back-to-back Hogan Cups.
“He was brilliant that year.”
After he left, Aaron would occasionally pop back into school, drop his head through John McElholm’s door and volunteer his services to help coach those a few years younger.
When the Convent finally got there six years later, Ronan found a quiet moment in the days afterwards.
“I’ve never told anybody this, but I took the cup a wee while by myself one day and just went and sat at the grave.”
Before Cargin played Naomh Conaill two weeks ago, his mother sent him a text.
‘Best of luck. I’ve the candle lit at the grave.’
He wonders how and where Aaron, who would have turned 30 in July, might have fitted into the Derry side that won Ulster in the summer. Somehow. Somewhere.
His death knocked the stuffing out of his peers too.
The primary school keeps his name enshrined in a football tournament down at the club each year, where the 3G pitch is in Aaron’s name and the ball wall wears his kneeling image from the Celtic Park surface that seemed destined to see so much more of him.
But it’s at home where he’s truly irreplaceable.
WHEN the careers teacher at St Mary’s asked the Deputy Head Boy what he wanted to do in life, the answer had to revolve around sport.
It was all Ronan Devlin knew and all he wanted to know.
Sport Studies became his course of choice in Jordanstown. His housemates, although they included future Derry goalkeeper Shane McGuckin, weren’t sufficiently bothered by playing university football, so he wasn’t either.
The same three Ballinderry lads that Brian McIver asked on to the senior panel in 2001 were cut from Derry U21s for going to club training instead.
Out with his degree and back from London, he took odd jobs – one of them selling cardboard compactors – before he landed a post coaching for Ulster Council. That led to a post going around the primary schools with Tyrone county board from 2010, which he did for seven years before ending up back home in St Mary’s.
He’s no longer the GAA development officer though. After two years, he left to do a PGCE in Coleraine under the tutelage of one Paul McFlynn.
When it was over, it just so happened Ruairi Convery was leaving the school for a new job in Dublin. Devlin slotted straight back in and is now a fully-fledged member of the teaching staff.
It hasn’t exactly lessened demand on his time. Cargin three evenings a week. Helping with the MacRory, Rannafast Cup and senior camogie teams. Underage in Ballinderry. A wife and two boys, eight and ten. Life’s full-on.
Those three nights in Cargin are very different to the four years he’d spent there previously. In that time, he got to be Damian Cassidy’s good cop.
“The coach is always the man that’s nice and bubbly around the place. Everybody likes the coach,” he laughs.
He looks back at his 20-year-old self and how much he thought whichever manager it was leaving him out of the team hated him, and thinks of how he’d cope with that problem now with the shoe on the other foot.
Communication is his answer, mainly, which he felt was a let-down but not the cause of his playing struggles.
But coaching is no more a straight line than management is.
When Damian Cassidy stepped down after three championships in four years to go back home to Bellaghy, Devlin was convinced to step up.
Their partnership had come completely out of the blue to him. Cassidy had rung his teaching colleague and former Donegal coach John McElholm to ask about him.
The next day, just at the Castledawson Roundabout on his way home, Ronan’s phone rang.
“I said to him: ‘Damian, I was maybe planning to play again next year. Can I have time to think about it?’
“He says: ‘Aye no bother, I’ll ring you tomorrow’. He gave me 24 hours, at best!”
Time pressure clears the fog. At 35, his playing role would have been the odd sub appearance, a bit of reserves.
When he tapped into the minds of locals that evening and the following morning, the same two things came back.
“Everyone told me go with Damian, you’ll learn loads off him. But when you mentioned Cargin it was ‘nah, they’re done and St Gall’s are done’.
“Four championships later…”
Four championships and now one win in the Ulster Club, a first in 23 years.
They were gone against Creggan and came back to win in extra-time.
They were eight points down to Aghagallon and came back to win in extra-time.
Six minutes into stoppage time against Naomh Conaill they were three down and found a goal to grab yet more extra-time.
There, they found themselves four down after five minutes but scraped and clawed penalties out of it, and won.
Three days earlier, the jagged lines that come with management were no different than the ones that he’d encountered coaching.
He and Fabian Muldoon, clubmate, former Ballinderry player and manager and now his sidekick in Toome, watched almost in horror as the whole thing threatened to unravel before them.
The session was almost done, barring the last ten minutes on a bit of their setup for the game. Run through that, shower, home and get switch off until Sunday.
“Everything went tits up. I mean it. The boys were bitching, they were at each other. It was tense.
“The game went on for just over an hour. It was heavy. That was the Thursday before the Sunday. We didn’t stop until we got it right.
“My stress levels that night were higher than any game.”
That’s the way it is. Days they win and he goes home deflated. Days they lose and he thinks they played well enough.
Management is only ever a fumble through a dark and crowded room.
Just four are left standing in it now.
You’re doing well if you find an alternative opinion to Glen beating Cargin and Kilcoo beating Enniskillen Gaels this weekend.
“Everybody’s expecting you to get beat. The bookies have us wrote off altogether, I think we’re 7/1 to win the game. Crazy. I didn’t look at Enniskillen but they could be the same or longer.
“Everybody thinks Glen and Kilcoo will be the final. They’re two good teams, they’re hard to stop.
“I just think Antrim football maybe gets a bad rep. There’s some good footballers there.
“They’re only down the road [from Maghera]. Some of these boys did cross over at St Pat’s a wee bit so they know each other.
“There mightn’t be as much in it as people think, in terms of them being massive favourites. I wouldn’t go into it with much fear. I’m looking forward to it.”
In a different time or with, by his own admission, a different attitude Ronan Devlin might know the feel of the road to an Ulster Club title better.
Life’s highway has tended to be more like Mullan Corner, the bad bend around which he lives in Kinturk.
Management was a road he didn’t see himself taking. Not yet anyway. It’s turned out alright so far.
Whatever happens in Healy Park tomorrow, Ronan Devlin’s getting better at dealing with the twists and turns.