Oldham’s new manager Darren Kelly looking to future but respecting the past

The Derry man got the top job at the League One club from relative obscurity, then the controversy began

On Plato Street the taxi drivers were Asian. Along past the new mosque and Portuguese takeaway and up the hill towards Boundary Park, a huge flag of St George flies from a rooftop across from B&Q.

Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, stood here in 2001. When the tram from Manchester stops and an inspector says "tickets please", a third of the carriage empties. Post-election, post-industry and in many cases post-employment, this is Oldham, or a corner of it.

In another sits Darren Kelly. This is the 35-year-old Irishman who 12 days ago came out of nowhere to become Oldham Athletic's new manager.

Actually, Kelly came from Sunderland, where he had been a coach, briefly, in their academy. More pertinent – to some – was that Kelly comes originally from Derry, which became a story when it was noticed that his Twitter timeline featured Kelly referring to Martin McGuinness as “legend”.


Locally there was a fuss for a few days and the man who appointed Kelly, Oldham chairman Simon Corney, offered to refund season tickets to any objectors. Then on Monday morning, matters escalated when a letter arrived at the old stadium containing a death threat to Kelly and others at the club.

Three men have been arrested. For legal reasons Kelly is unable to discuss the threat. But he can talk more broadly and, while there is no reason for Darren Kelly to apologise for who he is, there is probably a reason to explain – to the people who follow Oldham Athletic – who he is.

That would be the case regardless of his family background – Kelly’s comparative anonymity in professional football would demand that – but the McGuinness comment adds urgency.

The fact that Kelly’s uncle Michael, aged 17, was one of those shot dead on Bloody Sunday 1972 provides context.

“Very plain,” the standard northern emigrant’s answer, is how Kelly describes his early life. “I was a young lad brought up in the Creggan – Dunmore Gardens, lower Creggan. We were very close. My mother, Peggy, went out to work, I was brought up by my grandparents, who I idolise. I idolise my mum. She was a worker, still is. My gran, Kathleen, brought me up. Her son, Michael, was shot on Bloody Sunday.

‘Focal point’

“My mum was one of 13, I’m an only child. My grandparents’ home was the main focal point, where everybody came to.

“My gran, her son being killed on Bloody Sunday, the time she had with me helped her try to forget about the other things, the fact you have to get on with life. I understood that, but my aunts and my uncles told me that as well. For any parent to lose a child, there’s nothing worse.

“I was protected a lot by my gran and granddad. She lost her son – he was 17 when he was shot. I wasn’t allowed to go to any marches or anything like that, not that I wanted to. My gran just had that fear. She did not want what had happened to happen again. She was very protective of me, very nervous and not just with me, with all her grandchildren. I wasn’t allowed to leave the street.

“My aunts and uncles, they protected me, they looked after me like I was a little brother. I looked up to them immensely. I had such a great upbringing in Derry.”

When asked about his father, Kelly replies: “My father played no part in my life.”

Kelly’s uncle John is heavily involved in Bloody Sunday commemorations and it was this year’s when a tweet and picture were sent.

“Bloody Sunday was about civil rights,” Kelly says. “There were other marches that were political, whether Republican or Loyalist, but that was about civil rights.

“In terms of the Martin McGuinness picture, I’ll happily explain. That was a Bloody Sunday commemoration march. Martin McGuinness is the deputy first minister who shook hands with the queen. This is someone who wanted to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

“I was never involved in the past but what he represents now is that he is one of a number of people trying to bring peace to a place that has known nothing but violence. That this picture is brought up to mean something it doesn’t feels like a stirring of unrest. It doesn’t need it. There’s a lot of pain across Northern Ireland because of the Troubles. In England too.

“To be honest, I feel the way it’s been brought up is totally unfair. I should be being unveiled as a manager of a football club, rather than being labelled as something ‘IRA’, that is so far from the truth. It’s wrong. Wrong.”

Where this leads remains to be seen. Kelly met supporters at Boundary Park on Thursday night and says: “I feel like I’ve done a lot of talking.”

By now, however, he is on to his remarkable appointment as a manager of a League One club having never managed before. It is, he accepts, quite a leap for both parties. But the more he explains, the less of a shock it is. Kelly did his first coaching badge – Uefa B – at 20 and completed his Pro Licence qualification last summer. In one respect he has been preparing to be a manager for years, in another he has been preparing to be Oldham Athletic manager since February when Lee Johnson left for Barnsley.

Kelly was one of 70 applicants then. Oldham decided to stick with caretaker Dean Holden until the end of the season.

Having begun his playing career at Derry City, moved to Carlisle United, then Portadown, towards the end Kelly had been coaching at York City. He then got a position at Sunderland’s Academy.

Initial application

Kelly was content but hungry. He started travelling to Oldham home games and to other League One matches. He had contact with the Oldham board via his initial application and would send them “basic” reports on what he had seen. Unknown, behind-the-scenes, Kelly was campaigning to get the job.

“This process has been about five months,” he says.

In football this is not the done thing. Did he not feel uncomfortable?

"No, no one knew who I was," he says. "It's not like I'm Brendan Rodgers. If he was out of work and went to games, then people would start talking. I came to Oldham v MK Dons for example – MK Dons won 3-1 – and I looked at what Oldham did without the ball that day. How they reacted when they conceded. To be fair to Dean [Holden], he's done a great job without huge resources and staff, there were a lot of injuries.

“The board here knew because I’d send them reports. In life there’s no point talking about things if you’re not going to do them. If you really want something, you have to go and do it. How do you know you’ll get a ‘no’ until you’ve asked?

‘Funny game’

“Football’s a funny game. Even in my role now CVs are going to be sent in. I wasn’t going along to cause any disruption. I wanted to be prepared. I didn’t want to not know. And I am prepared.”

This could happen to him – “It’ll keep me on my toes. Nothing hits harder than life. Are you going to sit down and crumble? I’m beyond motivated.”

Kelly uses “thinking outside the box” a few times in the course of an hour and his unusual determination to make an impression on Oldham Athletic clearly worked. He went through three interviews and at the end of the third was offered a two-year contract.

“They told me in the boardroom,” he says. “You’re always surprised when you hear the words – after all I’m just a little Creggan lad. But I’m very driven and I feel like I have to think outside the box.

“You’ve got top players who will always have it easier. I was no Rio Ferdinand, I was a head-it and kick-it centre-back. I could see how the position of centre-back was changing and I knew I’d slowly peter out. I’m a football geek, constantly thinking, but I’m a realist.”

The realist in Kelly does not prevent him declaring “promotion” as an aim for a team who have just finished 15th. He says Oldham possess “the nucleus of a good team”.

He wants to acquire more pace and his team will attack. With players on holiday, the first training session is June 29th, the first league game August 8th.

“I’ve had to explain myself and rightly so,” is how Kelly finishes. “I’ve to prove myself. I can talk a good game, probably. But I can back it up. I’m itching for August.”

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer