By Damian Dolan
As a player, Darren Kelly once helped Derry City stun IFK Gothenburg in the Uefa Cup, and now as a manager he’s plotting a giant-killing of another kind, with Greater Manchester’s Hyde United FC in the FA Cup.
On Friday night, all eyes will be on the Evo-Stik Division One North club as they welcome League One MK Dons to Ewen Fields in the 1st Round proper of the FA – a tie being shown live on BBC 2.
With five tiers separating the teams, MK Dons will be overwhelming favourites, but Kelly believes that Hyde, a side and a club transformed since the arrival of the former Northern Ireland under 21 international 18 months ago, could be poised to produce the shock of the round.
“Nobody expects anything from us, but we’ll give it a good shot. I’ve a lot of belief in this squad,” said the 38-year-old from Derry.
“Quality-wise they’re going to be better, but in terms of effort, hunger, desire and commitment our players will compete no problem. I believe we can cause an upset.
“You’ve got to believe, and I believe we can achieve something. It’s live on the BBC so they must believe we can do something. We’re on the BBC because there’s a possible cup shock.”
Appointed Hyde manager in May 2016, Kelly helped bring some much-needed stability to the club on the back of three consecutive relegations. Armed with a degree in physiology, he set about changing the mind-set of the players and in his first season (2016/17) the club finished tenth, having started slowly only to produce a fantastic run of form from the turn of the year.
Ten victories and six draws from 18 league fixtures. They’ve carried that form into the new season and currently sit fourth in the table, five points behind leaders Bamber Bridge, but with three games in hand due to their cup run. They’re also unbeaten, and are a formidable foe on their 4G home pitch.
“The club’s been through a very difficult time. When I came in they were used to doom and gloom for three or four years,” says Kelly.
“They were used to getting beat, but you win one, then two and three, and it changes slightly. But you’ve got to do it consistently and that’s what we’ve done.
“It’s about changing the environment. That took me a while to do and it was hard work.
“I want to make it a positive environment in which players can be their best. I bring players in, show them that I believe in them and get the best out of them. “We’re on the right road. We stopped the rot and now we’re building.”
Kelly’s focus, though, extends beyond the first-team to the club as a whole. Eighteen months on from his arrival, the club now has a “fantastic” academy and a reserve side, as well as teams at under 17 and under 18 levels. For Hyde, and Kelly, Friday is the next chapter in an extraordinary FA Cup journey which began back on 19 August with a 4-2 win over Congleton Town.
Victories over Kendal Town, Warrington Town (after a replay), Boston Town and Scarborough Athletic followed to book the club’s place in the FA Cup 1st Round proper.
For Kelly, it’s a much-deserved moment in the spotlight, not to mention cash injection, for the club. Victory will bring in £18,000 in FA prize fund money, with 2500 expected to cram into what he anticipates will be a “bouncing” Ewen Fields.
“It’s huge for the club. It will set us up nicely, and I know I’m biased but I feel it’s deserved because of the tough times that the club, and the people, have been through,” said Kelly, for whom Hyde is his third job in football management.
Sacked from his first senior managerial post at Oldham Athletics after just 131 days, his tenure in charge of Halifax Town was even shorter with his contract terminated by mutual consent after a mere ten games.
Being a football manager is a perilous occupation at the best of times, but time is a luxury that few enjoy. However, Kelly’s success at Hyde is a testament to what can be achieved.
“When you’re sacked as a young manager it’s very difficult to get another opportunity,” he said. “Being sacked by Oldham knocks your confidence, but I’ve never doubted myself and I just wanted the chance again to prove that.
“I’ve been given time at Hyde and I’ve turned it around. Give me the time and I’ll turn any club around. You’ve got to give managers a chance and it will eventually come good, and I’ve proven that.”
As a player, Kelly came through Derry City’s youth system before enjoying spells with the likes of Carlisle United, York City, Portadown and, of course, Derry City.
Capped 11 times by Northern Ireland at under 21 level, he had four standby call ups to the senior squad (two under Nigel Worthington and two under Lawrie Sanchez), but he “never quite got there”.
While FA Cup romance eluded him, he did help Carlisle reach the Football League final at Cardiff ’s Millennium Stadium where they lost 2-0 to Bristol City in front of over 50,000, while with Derry City he was part of the side which beat IFK Gothenburg 2-0 over two legs in the Uefa Cup in 2006 (below), and then held Paris St Germain to a 0-0 draw at Brandywell, before losing 2-0 in Paris.
On Friday night, Kelly will be urging his players to go out and create some “amazing memories” of their own.
“I’ll be telling them to just go out and enjoy it, to compete and try and win their individual battles, and just enjoy the occasion,” he said.
“I don’t want the players to be playing with pressure. The nerves, the butterflies and the occasion will play its own part within each individual player.
“I want to reassure them that they’re just competing against a fellow human being and to just do their best, as that’s all you can do in life.
“Whatever happens after 90 minutes I’ll be as proud as punch of the players, because I guarantee they’ll give their absolute all and that’s all I can ask.”