Newry City prepare for their biggest step.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Newry City prepare for their biggest step. thumbnail NEWRY midfielder Thomas McCann is tackled by Carrick's Mark Surgenor during Wednesday’s Premiership play-off at Taylors Avenue.

DARREN Mullen hopes to add three or four quality players to his squad this summer but insists the nucleus of the team will remain local.

Having beaten Carrick Rangers 6-3 on aggregate in the play-off Newry City are now fully focused on facing the likes of Crusaders, Linfield and Coleraine in next season's Premiership.

The man behind the club's rise from the Mid Ulster League to local football's top table, in what has been a whirlwind five years, will be up against experienced Premiership managers such as David Jeffrey, Stephen Baxter and Oran Kearney - and he can't wait for it to start.

With just three months until the new season gets underway Mullen is well aware there is a lot of work to be done and that includes forming a possible pay structure at the club. Currently the Newry footballers pay £5 a week to play for the club.

"We're probably way ahead of ourselves on the pitch than we are off it and we know there's a lot of work to be done, we'll have meetings over the next couple of weeks to try and sort ourselves out," said Mullen.

"At some point in time things have to change and we have to become as professional as possible on and off the pitch and that's a conversation we'll be having in the next couple of weeks."

The unique aspect of this club is the fact that the players are all from the Newry, Mourne and south Armagh areas, something that has created an unrivalled unity within the squad.

In fact, Chris McMahon, Jimmy Walker and Conor McCaul are still with Newry City since the club reformed five years ago.

While Mullen insisted the local theme will remain he didn't rule out signing players from further afield.

"There won't be a mass overhaul of the squad as obviously the finances aren't there to do that but also because these lads deserve a chance to play Premiership football," he said.

"They've worked very hard to get there as a group so if we can make sure we can keep most of our players and if we can add three or four quality additions then it'll stand us in good stead.

"The higher up you go the pool of local players that play at this level becomes smaller.

"The base of the team will always be local and that's the way I want it. We want to make sure we have young lads at the club coming through the youth teams.

"It might be a case of adding players from further afield, you never know. We have a few targets so we'll sit down over the next while and try and get a few players in."

Looking back at that incredible night at Carrick Rangers' Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena it was clear to see the emotion from the management, players and fans spill out once that final whistle blew as Newry were back in the Premiership for the first time since 2011.

That dream seemed a long way off at the beginning of the Championship campaign as Newry only won one of their opening seven fixtures but an incredible 19 game unbeaten run saw the club shoot to the upper echelons of the league.

Thankfully the hard work put in by those on and off the pitch at The Newry Showgrounds has paid dividends.

"I probably still haven't got my head around it to be honest," continued Mullen. "It's something that will take a while to sink in.

"There's been a terrific buzz around the club for the past five years because we've been on the rise.

Nobody could have predicted the way things have turned out and I've said it before we've made something that is incredibly difficult look relatively easy.

"To go on the run we went on was phenomenal and at that stage you're thinking we could maybe be in with a chance here."

No one can deny the club a place in the Premiership after putting six goals past Davy McAlinden's side over the two legs but it would have been easy to think this wasn't going to be Newry's year after they found themselves 2-0 down before staging their incredible comeback.

As part of his preparations for the second leg Mullen decided to call upon the help of Banjo Bannon, who gave the squad a confidence boosting talk, and Newry City fan Johnny Ferns.

Those of you who follow Mullen on Twitter may have saw Johnny's, shall we say, unique pep talk but it worked out perfectly for the manager to help settle any pre-match nerves "He's a real good lad," said Mullen. "If anyone watched the game at home we looked very nervous in the first 10 minutes and I just wanted to do something to settle the lads.

"I contacted Johnny the morning of the game and asked him if he wouldn't mind doing a video for me and it lightened the mood. It worked in that aspect and it's good for Johnny as well because he's became an internet sensation!

"It was just something different and you're always trying to think of something different to throw in there to try and motivate or relax the players."

The celebrations continued long into the weekend for the club and Jimmy Walker may have drew the short straw as he hosted the after party last Wednesday night.

"We had a good night in the Brass Monkey after the game and The Canal Court last night [Thursday] so it's times like this we deserve our celebrations and it's important that you celebrate as a team," added Mullen.

"I think 22 of the players stayed in Jimmy Walker's house after the game so I'm sure that was a fun house to wake up in!

"Sometimes you can labour in defeat when things don't go too well so it was important that we celebrated in the right manner. That'll continue because we have our awards night in the next couple of weeks too and that'll be something to look forward to."

The Mullen family connection remains strong at The Showgrounds with the manager's brother Neil in the squad, following in the footsteps of their uncles who also pulled on the blue and white stripes.

Mullen was delighted to share the promotion celebrations with his wife Diane and daughters Erinn, Eve, Cára and Grace and described it as the pinnacle of his footballing career.

"It makes me very proud," he said. "I'm a proud Newry man. My grandfather used to take me down to the games when I was a kid and my uncles played for Newry and I played for the youth sides.

"It makes it that much more special when it's your home town club and to see the joy on my wife and kids' faces and see them on the pitch and having my brother involved and other members of my family down as well was terrific.

"My mother's nerves weren't fit for it and she didn't want to come down. She was waiting for me when I got home.

"It's great for the players as well because their friends and family were there as well. It's that much more special when your friends and family are supporting your team."

The Newry boss held his hands up and admitted the he didn't think his side would achieve promotion from the Championship in just one season.

Pointing to their terrific league run, their memorable Irish Cup game against Linfield at Windsor Park and their win against Dungannon Swifts in the Mid Ulster Cup, Mullen was pleased to see his side's passing style reap the rewards.

"Linfield beat us 1-0 and we were very unlucky," he stated. "We beat Dungannon Swifts in the Mid Ulster Cup so after a while you realise that the lads have a good opportunity to go up and, as I said, I don't think anyone can deny us a place as we played very good football.

"For the past five years we have been renowned as a good passing team but even the other night against Carrick we knew it wouldn't be a pitch that you could pass the ball around all night but we played in the right areas and went long when we needed to so we got our tactics right."

Newry City fans will never forget their manager putting the pieces back together after the decimation of the club in 2012.

Before Mullen could actually begin to assemble a starting 11 he was involved in the majority of the off field issues surrounding The Showgrounds during that dark time.

Mullen reminisced that he didn't even have a goalkeeper a week before their Mid Ulster journey was about to begin until Peter Murphy joined the club, and admitted he wouldn't like to go through that process again.

"It was difficult in that aspect but it's like everything else once you're doing well and you're successful people want to join you and we added to the squad as we went along," Mullen recalled.

"There's only three of the lads, Chris McMahon, Jimmy Walker and Conor McCaul, who have been there from the very start so we have evolved and adapted as we've risen but to do it so quickly is a brilliant achievement for everybody involved.

"You have to have high aspirations and ambitions but the reality of it was we were decimated, we needed to gather ourselves up pretty quickly and thankfully we did that.

"Getting back to the Premiership was a vision and a dream that I always had in my head. Back then it was something I wanted to push for so it was a bit surreal the other night and it's still sinking in.

"The messages and publicity we have got has been terrific so it's great to see the club making headlines for all the right reasons."

Looking ahead to the club's 2018/19 campaign, Mullen said that facing off against some of the country's most successful managers will help him improve but he isn't shying away from the "difficult" days ahead as the Premiership is where he wants Newry City to be.

The club played Linfield and Cliftonville in pre season friendlies last summer and those experiences gave the Newry manager the desire to make those types of fixtures "the norm".

That's not even mentioning the derby games against Warrenpoint Town - a first in the Premiership.

"We'll have the Warrenpoint derby now and that will be great for the local area," he added. "I was part of the coaching staff when Pat McGibbon was in charge and we played Warrenpoint.

"There was a huge crowd down and it's something to look forward to rather than fear.

"In fairness we have had a lot of people from Warrenpoint Football Club coming down and supporting us.

"There's a good link there with both clubs as a lot of the players have played for both Newry and Warrenpoint so I'm sure there'll be plenty of slagging before and after that game but it was another incentive for us to go up and it's one we'll look forward to."


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