Johnny McBride – A leader of men

By Ronan Scott 

TWO men, well placed to judge what sort of sportsman Derry and Loup man Johnny McBride was during his career, describe him as team player and great leader.

Malachy O’Rourke, the Fermanagh man who appointed McBride captain when the Loup won their first senior championship in 2003, said this of McBride:

Johnny is a great leader who never went missing when the battle was fiercest. A massive presence on and off the pitch, who will ask nobody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.”

The other judge of McBride’s character echoed O’Rourke. That man is Paul McFlynn, a club mate and close friend who played alongside McBride from school through to club and onto the Derry team.

McFlynn’s analysis of McBride’s character was: “As a player he was the ultimate team player who led by example. He demanded the best from those around him.”

The pattern of McBride’s career has seen him lead teams; to club success at underage level, to All-Ireland B schools titles, right up to winning club championships and on the big days with his county.

At every juncture of his career he was awarded captaincy by his respective managers.

For McBride, his role was always to pull those along with him.

The best way to lead is through actions,” he said.

The thing about Gaelic is that it is not an individual sport. You have to pull people with you. Some people have different attitudes to it. Some people take it very seriously, some people are relaxed about it. You have to get the balance so that on thse big days teveryone is singing off the same hymn sheet.”

That personality, and those leadership traits were evident from a very early age.

McBride said that he doesn’t know why he was so often named as captain but it happened regularly.

I always tried to do anything that I was asked. And you were an example for the manager as well. You tried to make his job easier. I learned that from an early age, if you are appointed as the captain of the team then you have got to make sure that you are fully behind the message that the manager gives.”

If you prescribe to the notion that a player is the product of his surroundings, then there is plenty of evidence that McBride is one such product.

He has been coached by some of the very best. In his later career it was John Brennan and Malachy O’Rourke at club level.

With Derry, Eamonn Coleman was the man who inspired him. And even at schools level he was coached by Henry Downey and Brian McIver.

What also shaped McBride was his journey. The teams he played for and the men he played alongside helped him grow as a footballer.

His football career began in primary school in Moneymore, where he was taught by Patsy Breen who had played for Derry in the 1950s.

Moneymore primary school led to the Loup where his brother, who is two years older, went first. So Johnny followed.

McBride said he joined the Loup by default because they lived in Moneymore but Moneymore didn’t have a club. As he was only nine at the time, and there were no teams younger than u-12, McBride had to play with the older boys.

Throughout my underage career I was always playing up the grades.

I was fortunate to win a double championship the whole way up.

We won an u-12 league. Then an u-14 championship, and a Feile. Then two u-16s, and minors and two Ulster minors.

We had quite a strong team.”

The experience of playing with and against those who were older than him was a challenge that he clearly relished, and he improved quickly.

I was playing for the club seniors when I was 15,” he said.

The leader was learning.

It was a huge period in the Loup’s history, a transition stage for the club. In the early 90s the club would move from junior to senior in the space of five years.

The success of the minors and the seniors suggested the future was going to be bright for the club.

McBride said: “It gave all of us in the club a belief that we were a senior team. There was a good ability level in the group. And younger lads came in that made us stronger.”

For McBride, it is important to explain what the Loup’s reputation was back then.

They wouldn’t have wild numbers but they are an awfully committed sort of bunch. They enjoyed playing against the odds. The Loup wouldn’t have had an awful lot of long term tradition. They won the juniors, came up and won the intermediate and have been up ever since. They now tend to be there or thereabouts.

People weren’t being disrespectful, but they would have underestimated the Loup. But the Loup felt that we were better than that. The characteristics were that we always stuck at it. Anyone who ever played us knew that they were in a game. The majority of the time we turned up, especially in the championship games.”

The Loup’s standing in that period could be a metaphor for McBride as a player. Talented, and fiercely determined. The taste of success during his teenage years made him realise what was possible.

It comes from the individuals. You need people who want to win.

Desire to win was a big thing. When you tasted it you wanted more. We had very good players as well.”

And he was playing for lots of teams.

He played his first five years of Schools football at St Pius X in Magherafelt.

He was made captain in second year, the year that the school first entered Ulster schools. They would go on to win Dalton.

At St Pius X he was learning about teams, about leading, and about winning.

I had Brian McIver as a coach. He was a man who was at a high level. Brilliant coaching. He was very good psychology-wise.

Things stick with you, like how to get the best out of boys, and how to speak to boys.

It was around that time that I learned how to get the maximum out of yourself. Regarding skill level, I learned that if you had the right attitude, you could always make a lot of it up.”

He means make up for deficiencies in skills. He was learning that hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.

McBride then moved from St Pius X to St Mary’s to do his A-Levels in 1993, the year of Derry’s All-Ireland win. His manager that year was Henry Downey, and the Derry All-Ireland winning captain made McBride captain. The pattern continued.

My first year in St Mary’s we won the All-Ireland B. In my upper sixth year we entered the MacRory and we lost to St Colman’s in the quarter-final.”

He learnt some important lessons from Downey that year.

You were being managed by the man who won the All-Ireland, and lifted Sam. He was an inspiration. In the way that he conducted himself. And he gave boys a glimpse of what was needed to get to that level.”

At the same time he was playing MacRory schools football he was also involved in those two Ulster Club title wins with the Loup.

But he was also playing for Derry minors.

You were running from game to game. Always playing in big games. That’s where the enjoyment was.

I remember playing Ulster Og Sport in Crossmaglen one day, and the very next day I played for the Loup in the league.

I can understand now why an u-15 wouldn’t be allowed to play for the seniors.

I played for four or five teams and never thought about it. You were going from match to match with dirty legs. You loved it.”

McBride’s county minor career saw him reach the Ulster final though Derry lost to Tyrone. In his second year, 1994, he played in the curtain raiser to that famous Down Derry clash at Celtic Park.

It was his third year as a county minor, 1995, he learned an important lesson.

In my last year we won Ulster and got to the All-Ireland final and were beat. I was captain of that team.

That Derry minor team, in 1995 was a strong team, there was Adrian McGuckin, Paul McFlynn, myself, Gerard Cassidy. Gary Doyle from Lavey, John Heaney, Niall Farren, Ciaran McNally, Joseph Cassidy was a big player at that time.”

They won the Ulster title and then met the fancied team of that year, Galway.

We beat a Galway team that year. They had all the likes of (Michael) Donnellan, (Padraic) Joyce, (John) Divilly, (Declan) Meehan.

We had Westmeath in the final and were hot favourites. It was the usual story and we were caught wanting. That is one that wrankles.

It’s a David and Goliath story. When you are overwhelming favourites you take your eye off the ball. You would give anything to do it all over again.”

What frustrated McBride was that he, as a Loup man, knew what it was like to be underestimated. Yet he couldn’t get that attitude through to his team mates. Interestingly, he accepted the blame.

In the Westmeath game, I would have loved to play a lot better. We were pretty poor performance-wise. We were a better team on paper, but we didn’t do it when it counted. For a lad at 17-18 and being in Croke Park, on All-Ireland final day, it is a massive occasion. You tend to take the memory of the defeat, rather than the occasion.

I would like to think that I did learn, but people always take their eye off the ball.

Coming from the Loup, we had always been underdogs in games and beating teams we shouldn’t have. We were well aware of the motivation that an underdog has. The issue is, you have to have 30 people thinking that way. The problem is that you might only have three or four thinking the proper way.”

McBride’s next transition was to u-21 and Sigerson football. Unlike a lot of the star players of the day, he did not head to Belfast but rather to Coleraine, a school that is not a bastion of Third level football.

It was there that McBride proved his incredible leadership qualities as he was able to help them pull off two big wins.

We played Sigerson with Coleraine. In my first year we beat Queens and in the second year we beat Jordanstown in a big clash. Now, and before it, Coleraine would not have challenged Jordanstown. I was playing against Lockhart, and the McEntees. They had a very strong team. We beat them in Jordanstown, in the Sigerson.

It was a massive scalp to take, when we beat Jordanstown.”

They managed it with a team of players who did not have the reputations of their Jordanstown counterpart.

There were lads who were struggling to make the county team. They maybe had something to prove. Jordanstown was full of county players.

Martin Bradley and Kevin Ryan from the Loup were on the squad. Adrian McCallion from Greenlough. Bomber McGleenan from Armagh. Plunkett McConville from Clonduff. Davy O’Hare played soccer, he was the goalie. John McVeigh from Newbridge. ‘Walter’ Niall McSorley from Omagh. Finty Martin from the Loup. We had a decent enough side. We were coming from the togetherness.”

At the same time of those Sigerson achievements, McBride was also helping Derry to make waves at u-21 level.

He played in three Ulster u-21 finals. They lost to Down in 1996, And he captained them to glory in 1997. They lost the 1998 final to Armagh, though McBride was suspended.

His progress through the rank was always going to lead him to senior intercounty football, and he was part of the senior team in 1997.

Brian Mullins was my first manager. You were in a changing room with a lot of boys who had won in 1993. Tony Scullion, Gormley, Henry, big Tohill.

I would say that at that time it was daunting. You don’t realise that you are making it. It was your ultimate dream to go in there, and for them to start calling you by your first name, it was a big deal.”

McBride adapted immediately, though he said that his motivation then was to make sure that he met the standard.

The fear factor drove you, of not being good enough, or the fear drove you to work harder and try harder. If you were asked something you done it. You just don’t ask questions. You do what you are told.”

He played throughout the 1997 campaign, the frustrating year when Derry lost the Ulster title to Cavan.

1997 was a game that we should never have lost. If there had have been a back door back then Derry would have had a chance as Derry had a serious team.”

The season should have had the effect upon him that he wanted to go out and win more. But McBride admitted that he was selfish.

1997 didn’t effect me enough. I was young and I thought it was going to happen all the time. But it didn’t. Teams that are successful are the teams that have fellas who realise at 20 that they can have a serious go. There were times when we could have been more successful.”

The Loup man said that hindsight has taught him some important lessons. The lesson he learnt from the late 90s was that players tend to forget about the team goal.

There were times when I look back on my career, and particularly when you get into management, you switch over. Players can be selfish. Players will be looking at a squad and a panel and be looking at whether you are on or not. There are times in my career that I would look at and say, I probably wouldn’t do that again.

As a player the first person you should be looking at is yourself, and what you did or didn’t do right. I could have done a lot more in my career. But I was lucky, I can’t have sour grapes.”

He would learn another big lesson in 1998 as he was cut completely by Brian Mullins.

When you got chopped you weren’t happy about it. I can remember having arguments with Eamonn Coleman. Maybe that’s the winning mentality that you want to be part of it. But when you look back you realise that he was 100 per cent right. Now when you get involved in management, and you look at players you can see what you did in your own career, and you ask yourself how can you change that lad’s way of thinking, so that he can see it the right way.”

Missing out on 1998 was a blow because that was the redemption year as Derry would win the Ulster title.

When I look back, it was my own fault. I was committed but I wasn’t doing enough work away from the pitch. If you look at Derry’s greatest players, they were doing serious work. Tohill and Downey were doing serious work. I wouldn’t say that that was because what they had won. Perhaps it was because they had experience of Coleman. And it was the effect that he had upon them.

They were devoted to it mentally.”

He said that he wasn’t about to get into an argument about it with Brian Mullins either.

I definitely did not get in fights with Brian Mullins. He would have killed you. If I was going to pick a fight it would be with Eamonn as he was a lot wee-er than me.

I was only trying to break in at that time.”

But after 1998, McBride was fully focused. The lesson was learnt. He had to work hard and dig in.

The problem with good teams is that they allow themselves that bit of leeway early on and then it doesn’t work. It’s too late by the time you realise. It’s gone past you and someone else has taken your place. Then scientifically everything moved on.”

But another chance for Derry would come.

They lost in the Ulster semi-final in 1999, lost a final to Armagh in 2000, but then in 2001 they would go on a run.

Those were the years that saw Eamonn Coleman return to the team.

Coleman was that sort of person who would leave you hating him. At the same time there was a lovable thing about him. He had the knack of getting the best out of players from just the way that he spoke to them.

You knew before any of the games what it meant to him. It was very obvious in how he spoke that Derry was his life.”

And McBride felt that he and Coleman had a good relationship.

He wouldn’t have missed me. He would have told me that I wasn’t fit enough. He got the best out of me. I played under all of Coleman’s reign. He was the sort of man who was able to get men going. You either have it or you don’t.

We always got on reasonably well. He was a likeable rogue. If he had something to say to you he said it.”

Coleman was a man who put the Tyrone Derry rivalry at centre stage, and in 2001 that clash was stoked up.

McBride had good experience of Tyrone battles.

In my early minor career, in 1993 Tyrone beat us. In 1995 we beat Tyrone. We didn’t come across them in my u21s. Then it was Cavan and Monaghan

At senior level we run up against then in 1997. We beat them under Mullins, 2-15 to 2-4. That was a big win for Derry. Tyrone beat us a few times. In 2003 and 2005 they got the better of us. In 2006 we beat them in Omagh.”

The 2001 battle with Tyrone was crucial. They lost to them in Ulster and then got a chance to make up for it in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

We had a good side in 2001. At that stage there was the argument about teams meeting again. It was the draw we wanted. Tyrone had a good team, but we knew that we weren’t far away from them.

It was high stakes. You revelled at the chance at having a go at them again.”

The win over Tyrone then set up a clash with Galway, and one that was so frustrating for McBride.

The Galway game was one that we should have won, I don’t like to take away from teams that win, But they hit us with a goal and three or four in the last seven minutes. They went on to beat Mayo by ten points. So that was a point when I wasn’t far away from an All-Ireland.

I was wing half forward, alongside Dermot Dougan and Paul McFlynn. I scored two points. But I really should have been in better shape and then I would have been a far better player. I was smart enough, but I didn’t work hard enough on my fitness until after I stopped playing (laughs).

I always had a good engine. You need to be able to cover ground, and I could have been lighter in my career.

I had plenty of fight in me, and wasn’t afraid. I always had a work rate. And I would work hard for the team. Finding those type of players is hard sometimes.

Not everyone can be scoring. It takes a lot of players. You can see the complainers, you can see the boys who work hard, you see the skilful players, you see the boy that needs the arm around the shoulder, you see the boy that needs to buck his act up. It’s the same on every team.”

The feeling among the team was of frustration.

We were awfully disappointed. There were people that day who were nearly thinking about booking accommodation for an All-Ireland final with ten minutes to go. Ffiteen minutes later we were sitting under the stands and we were out, and thinking ‘did that really happen’. We controlled most of the game.”

The hangover of that defeat hung over the team in 2002 and 2003.

Anthony Tohill departed as did some others from the glory years of the 90s.

Fortunately, in those years the Loup found some incredible form.

2002 the Loup won the Derry league. Patsy Forbes had did a good job in 2002. He put a bit of discipline in us. He organised the thing. The wee element of fear helped. Patsy brought that. He got us fit. We won the league and Ballinderry beat us in the championship final.”

But Patsy could only give one year. Then in came a man who would have a profound impact upon McBride.

Certain people can have a serious effect upon you along the way, and I would say that Malachy O’Rourke had a serious effect upon me. He had an effect upon me and how I thought about football.”

In 2003, Malachy arrived after being suggested by Martin McElkennon, whom Paul McFlynn and McBride knew.

He came in and psychologically he had the fellas in a completely different place.

Round the Loup, no matter what you say about any of the lads, if a manager is appointed at the start of the year, they have enough respect for the man that was there regardless if you thought that he was good or not.

I don’t like to see managers challenged, and that is not because I am no longer a player. If a club appoint a manager, I don’t think three months later someone should be challenging him in the changing room. You should be looking at who appoints the manager.

When I hear that happen in other clubs, I ask who lets that happen.”

They knew that O’Rourke was going to be different.

He wasn’t a shouter. He made the decisions, and he had a great way of putting things. It is getting the understanding.”

O’Rourke, as so many had done before him, made McBride captain.

What impressed the Loup man the most about this new coach was how he could control a team, and make them pull for him.

He thinks he understands how he did it.

He made that number 35 on the panel feel that it was just as important that he was at training, as his number one player. And it was not just lip service. If he wasn’t at training, then he was asking where he was at, and that he was and important presence in the changing room.

If Malachy had have been over Dublin he would have did what Jim Gavin did.

I am sure that if you speak to any of the Monaghan lads, you feel inspiration. Same as Henry Downey you are still in awe of him.”

So with that inspiration over them, the Loup went one better in 2003, and beat Ballinderry in the county final. Their neighbours, rivals, and All-Ireland champions, and the team they had lost to the year before.

The final was a game we deserved to win. The preparation going in made us feel that we were in the right place. I don’t think it was a case of having hope. There was more to it than that.

Winning it brought a feeling of disbelief. You were sort of walking on air. The Loup had won the ultimate prize. Especially with the strength that was in Derry, The Laveys, Bellaghys and Ballinderrys.”

And the season didn’t end there as the Loup would go on to win the 2003 Ulster Club title beating St Gall’s in the decider by 0-11 to 1-5.

Bolstered by that win, McBride returned to county football, as there was a desire there to make up for the loss in 2001.

He helped Derry reach the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004. Though they lost to Kerry.

We were drawing at half time. They were a bit too good for us.

They had a lot of good players. We were hanging in. It wasn’t like 2001.”

Then there was the 2006 season when Derry held All-Ireland champions Tyrone scoreless in the first half and knocked them out of the competition.

2006 we beat Tyrone but it wasn’t great football. Tyrone had won two All-Irelands, they were a big team.

I remember Paddy Crozier taking Coleman into the changing room,

That was a good side, we beat Tyrone but fell flat against Donegal.

That’s what disappoints you. You have to get it right.”

That would be McBride’s last season as a county footballer though.

Towards the end there was an apathy creeping in about Derry. Some players were nearly turning their nose up at Derry, and saying ‘what would you be doing up there’. Imagine that happening in 1993 or 1994.

The balance isn’t right. You look at games in the ‘90s and the games are packed, but now they struggle to get fans out.”

There was also the matter of club football becoming more important. McBride knew that he was nearing the end of his career. And he wanted to win another Senior championship as the Loup had lost finals in 2005 and 2006.

He and Paul McFlynn had spoken about what they were going to do.

I wouldn’t say it was a pact, but we spoke about where we were going.

We would have been close, we came up through the Loup and Derry together. Under Malachy, me and him would have been trying to bring that focus into the changing room.

At that stage, myself and Paul were not really making the (Derry) team. We felt that we had a few years left in us. I had played a lot of football. I was tired. I look back now and wish that I had continued.”

So McBride departed the Derry team and they made the push to win their second senior championship.

In 2005, 2006, and 2007 it looked like it was going to slip away. It was looking like we were only going to win one championship for what was a strong period.

But there were younger fellas coming in there like Aidan McAlynn and Brian Doyle, Decky McVey, Ciaran Devlin. That was a new Loup squad. They were integrated along with a few of us older fellas from 2003.”

The change came in 2009 when John Brennan arrived.

Brennan was notorious in club football for his old school style, on the surface his blood and thunder wins titles, but McBride explained that the Lavey man was an astute manager.

He had a different style to Malachy, but the winning was still there. John Brennan is a smart, articulate man.

It’s a skill to know who to play on who, who to take in and out. You can be well organised but those decisions (in games) are key to winning.

He has a great knack of who to put in and who to put out. He has a great knowledge, and a smart man.”

Marty McElkennon was also involved and McBride said his influence was crucial too.

Marty had us thinking the right way.

I knew that I didn’t have too many opportunities. There were times that year when we should have been gone. We were lucky to beat Newbridge in Slaughtneil. We could have lost games.”

In the final, it was a flicked goal from Enda McQuillan that made the difference against Dungiven. And at the final whistle McBride felt relief.

I can’t tell people that we played in five out of seven finals. If your name is not on the cup it doesn’t matter. There was a certain amount of relief.”

And so in 2010, McBride hung up his boots, and answered the call to go and assist Malachy O’Rourke in his third term as Fermanagh manager.

When Malachy asked there was no chance of me saying no. That was Malachy’s third year, that was the end of his time with Fermanagh.”

After that he managed Galbally, and he took the Loup for a season. This year he is over Errigal Ciaran though that is on hold for lockdown.

McBride the manager has similar ideas to McBride the player.

He likes to see players like himself who want to lead the dressing room.

The higher level teams. The best form of discipline is among the players.

I hear people who think that managers should go into a changing room and say that lads can have a drink or whatever. I am all for having a bit of craic, but it is not practical to manage like that.

You shouldn’t have to go in to a changing room and beat the drum, and ask about who was drinking. You don’t have to do that because in them right changing rooms the leaders are driving that for you.”

A problem that he sees in management is men who want to be friends rather than leaders.

I think a lot of managers want to rule by consensus, in that they want to be liked. But I don’t think that works.

You go into a club or county changing room and there will be influential players and you will want them on your side. But there has to be a distinction between players and management. The fellas that you think are your buddies are the first who will say you are crap at the end of the year. You are best going in and doing it your way in conjunction with your back room team. There is no point trying to keep people happy. A football team has 15 players you have a squad of 30, there are men who are going to be left unhappy. You are in the wrong industry, for want of a better word, if you want to keep everyone happy.”

Last year, McBride was in the news as he was in the mix for the Derry job.

He explained what happened.

My name was in for the Derry job, I spoke a couple of times to Stephen Barker. I was a Derry man and there didn’t seem to be too many looking the job. If there was no one else looking the job then I definitely had no problem doing it. Sometimes it is easy looking from other outside and complaining. But Derry football is only going to change if people want to change it.”

Things didn’t work out though and his overtures came to nothing.

He said that he won’t go in for another attempt to take the team.

I don’t think I will ever be near Derry.

I put my name in this time, it didn’t work out. They seem to want an outside manager.

I couldn’t see myself going again.

I thought Malachy is the man that Derry needed for a change of fortune.

Rory (Gallagher) is in there and I hope that he does well.”

McBride never went missing in battle, and when the opportunity presented itself, he charged forward to take part but was not wanted.

There is perhaps a feeling that the Oak Leaf county may have passed on one of its finest leaders.

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