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Facing Pogba at Old Trafford, the death of a defensive partner and a fresh start in Cork

Former Sheffield United defender Aaron Barry has swapped Derry City for Cork City for the 2018 season.

Aaron Barry prior to playing for Sheffield United against Manchester United in the second leg of the 2011 FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford.
Aaron Barry prior to playing for Sheffield United against Manchester United in the second leg of the 2011 FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

AARON BARRY AND Derry City team-mate Barry McNamee dared to dream last March after they coasted to a 4-0 victory over Drogheda United.

Four games into their Premier Division campaign and, despite a difficult start, the Candystripes had yet to put a foot wrong. The defeat of Drogheda followed two wins in Dublin — against Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers — and a 3-1 triumph against defending champions Dundalk at their temporary home in Buncrana.

A young team playing an attractive brand of football, the early indications in the 2017 season were promising for Kenny Shiels’ side. However, a league title challenge was the furthest thing from their minds when the players woke to devastating news the day after overcoming Drogheda.

“I remember after that game — we beat them fairly convincingly — and we were quite high on ourselves,” Aaron Barry recalls. “Barry McNamee stayed over at the house I was in and we were just talking, saying: ‘If we can beat Cork we’ve got a really good chance of challenging for this league’. But the next day everything was turned upside down in a way that we could never have imagined.”

Ryan McBride was a key player in Derry’s encouraging start to the season, as he had been ever since the imposing central defender debuted for the club in 2011. The 27-year-old scored the only goal of the game against Shamrock Rovers and headed in another against Dundalk. But after McBride went to sleep at home — a stone’s throw from Derry City’s Brandywell Stadium — just hours after the win against Drogheda on 18 March, he never woke up.

The death of a club captain and hometown hero hit Derry City hard. The squad resumed their season two weeks later but the period of mourning has lasted much longer, Aaron Barry explains: “I don’t think you ever get over something like that. It’s always there, but you just sort of get on with it. What other choice is there?”

He adds: “No one knew how to handle it because no one had been through it — luckily enough — before. We were all in it together, not knowing what to do. A couple of days after it happened we decided we were going to have to do something.

“We kind of called a training session, Kenny [Shiels] and ourselves, and I think that was probably the best thing we could have done. While everyone was still deeply in a mourning phase, we got out on the pitch and took our minds off it for an hour at least.

Aaron Barry congratulates goalscorer Ryan McBride Aaron Barry celebrates a goal with Ryan McBride. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It hit home again right away afterwards but I suppose the point is that trying to get on with things the way you normally would was the best way to handle it. Playing football was the best way for us to move on — or at least try to.”

On an emotional night in Buncrana, Derry City attempted to regroup for the visit of Bray Wanderers. The teams were level at 2-2 in the closing stages before Tim Clancy headed in the winner for Bray in the third minute of additional time. The result marked the beginning of a run of seven games without a win in all competitions for a team who understandably found it difficult to adjust to life without their inspirational leader.

“For me the hardest thing was feeling like you’d let everyone down after the game. There was a presentation beforehand and there was kind of a special atmosphere as well,” says Barry, who had partnered McBride at the heart of Derry’s defence since his own move to the club in 2014.

“We had won all our games and everyone expected us to beat them [Bray], but when you go out and lose it’s like the bubble has burst and you’ve let everyone down. We got over it eventually and kicked on, but it was a tough one that night especially.”

After experiencing some difficulty initially with their attempts to rebound from the loss of a key figure in such tragic circumstances, Derry gradually got back on track. They ended the season with a respectable fourth-place finish, a goalless draw away to eventual champions Cork City securing Europa League football for the club for 2018.

“I played alongside Ryan for the majority of my time at Derry,” Barry says. “He was just brilliant to play with, so easy to be alongside. I think we had one of the top partnerships in the league, for sure. When it’s taken away so suddenly it’s probably hard to adjust.

“I went through about five other centre-half partners after that until Darren Cole came in later in the year. There were young lads coming in and people being played out of position just to sort it out for the team.

Members of the Derry City FC Cubs who released balloons in memory of club captain Ryan McBride prior to kick off Members of the Derry City FC Cubs pictured before the game against Bray Wanderers in March. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

“Sometimes you don’t know how easy you’ve got it when you’re playing alongside someone like Ryan. I probably became a better player for it because it was then up to me to be the leader of the back four, alongside Ger [Doherty] in goal. He was brilliant as well.

“On the pitch Ryan was such a hardman — he’d go through a brick wall for you — but off it he’d be the quietest person in the dressing room. He commanded so much respect that no one would ever bother him when it came to banter or anything like that.

“As quiet as he was, he was actually a very funny guy as well. He used to come out with some brilliant one-liners. Ultimately he was just a gentleman, which was a reflection of how he was raised by his mother and father.”

Barry adds: “Who knows what would have happened if Ryan had been with us all season? Cork had an amazing year so it would have been very difficult to do anything about that, but there is an element of wondering about the possibilities.

“With everything that happened last season I think we can look back with a bit of pride at securing European football for the club. It was a good achievement in the end. Everyone can be proud of that.”

Aaron Barry first joined Derry City in January 2014 after spending four years in England with Sheffield United. Having been named on the bench for several games during the 2012-13 season — including the Blades’ defeat to Yeovil Town in the League One play-off semi-finals — the Arklow native appeared to be on the verge of a first-team breakthrough.

He passed the first few months of the following campaign on loan at Scottish Championship club Dumbarton — where he made 20 appearances — but an opportunity to make an impression for Sheffield United never materialised when he returned to Bramall Lane in the new year.

Karl Sheppard with Aaron Barry Barry challenging for a header with Cork City's Karl Sheppard. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

By then, Barry had his fill of reserve football. Roddy Collins pounced and brought him to the Brandywell when Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough agreed to cancel the defender’s contract.

“I felt I was doing well there,” Barry says. “I worked hard and I was getting better every day, but the honest answer is that the centre-halves who were there at the time were just that bit better than me. It was tough competition.

“While we were in League One for probably half of my time there, it was a Championship squad every season in terms of the ability that was there. The competition was intense. I was competing with guys like Harry Maguire, who’s now a fully-fledged England international.”

The highlight of Barry’s time in Sheffield came in May 2011, when the Blades took on Manchester United over two legs in the FA Youth Cup final. Played in front of a crowd of 30,000, the first leg at Bramall Lane ended in a 2-2 draw.

However, a Manchester United side that contained Michael and Will Keane, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison showed their class six days later at Old Trafford, as a brace each from Morrison and Will Keane secured a 4-1 victory.

The Red Devils may have forked out a world-record fee of €105 million to bring Pogba back from Juventus last year, but it was Morrison — now languishing in the relative obscurity of the Mexican top flight with Club Atlas — who really stood out, according to Barry.

“That cup final was huge for Sheffield United,” he says. “The club was relegated from the Championship that season so they really pushed the angle that our team kind of represented hope for the future. Because of that, the supporters really came out in force for it. The result didn’t go our way but it was a great experience to play in it.

Soccer - FA Youth Cup - Final - Second Leg - Manchester United v Sheffield United - Old Trafford The Manchester United team that Barry came up against in the FA Youth Cup final. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Pogba was really good, but the other guy — Ravel Morrison — even more so. He was outrageous back then. Talent-wise he was definitely up there with Pogba but he hasn’t been able to fulfil his potential, for whatever reason. He was their star, to be honest.”

Having established himself as one of the top defenders in the SSE Airtricity League, Aaron Barry’s time with Derry City officially came to an end in November. Aiming to strengthen their squad ahead of their defence of the Premier Division and FAI Cup in 2018, Cork City added the 25-year-old to their ranks on a two-year deal.

Barry rejected John Caulfield’s advances 12 months ago, but he felt the time was now right to make the move. The closest he came to silverware in Derry was their 2-0 defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic in the 2014 FAI Cup final, so he’s keen to start adding honours to his CV.

“I really enjoyed my time at Derry,” Barry says. “The people there who I was around for my four years were really good people. I made some friends who I’ll remain friends with for a long time. We had challenging times in the last couple of seasons especially, but I’ll never forget my time there and I’m really appreciative of the people there.

“Cork are obviously the best team in the country now. I know a couple of the lads down there — Conor McCormack, Stephen Dooley who’s just left — and they couldn’t speak highly enough of the team, the environment, the manager and the staff.

“I want to compete for leagues now. I’m at an age, 25, where I think I’m good enough to be doing that year in, year out. I felt like it was the best fit to go down. I’m raring to go. I’m coming to this club for one reason: to win things.

“I want to win both cups, I want to win the league, and first off I want to win the President’s Cup when we play Dundalk. My attitude is that I’m a winner in pretty much everything I do. I hope to carry that down to Cork and add to the winning mentality that’s already there.”

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Paul Dollery

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