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Donall Farmer/INPHO Pat Devlin has spent nearly 50 years working on and off in the League of Ireland.
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'Did I think Damien Duff was going to make it? I always thought he had a real chance'
Pat Devlin reflects on a distinguished career in Irish football.

IT IS A typical Dublin day of grey skies and cool weather when Pat Devlin meets The42 in Monkstown.

There are few if any people currently working in the League of Ireland with more experience than the 66-year-old. Having started with Shamrock Rovers as a 17-year-old, it is nearly 50 years since his involvement with the highest level of domestic football in this country began.

Currently Director of Football at Cabinteely, he has coached a succession of League of Ireland clubs since taking up the role as player-manager of Bray in 1986. At the Seagulls alone, he has had four separate spells in charge, including a remarkable 11-year stint between 1995 and 2006.

During this period, has worked as an adviser for a number of top Irish footballers, including Damien Duff, Shay Given and Eddie Gormley, while he was also part of Steve Staunton’s coaching team during the former international’s stint as Ireland manager between 2006 and 2007.

Upon meeting, Devlin is friendly, offering a lift up from the DART to a nearby coffee shop. He speaks with pride of his involvement in bringing Neil Farrugia and Liam Scales to UCD during his time as Director of Football there, with the pair now part of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland U21 squad and recently linked with a move to Manchester City. Another  promising Irish footballer is mentioned and Devlin remembers his first encounter with him, when he witnessed the starlet punching a rival player following a confrontation. “I thought: he’ll do me,” the coach laughs.

While there is a sense of warmth and generosity about Devlin, he has also had bad experiences with journalists in the past, rendering him a little wary — he wants to get a sense of The42‘s angle on the story. Prior to meeting, he has read previous League of Ireland Legend interviews with Eddie Gormley and Dermot Keely, and seeks assurances that he will be presented in a fair manner.

Do I trust journalists? Not really,” he later smiles. “I’ll depend on what you’re going to write and how you make me look.”

The coffee shop is not far from Cabinteely’s training ground and the area where Devlin grew up, Dún Laoghaire. Living there, he subsequently fell in love with the beautiful game.

The young Dubliner started out with St Joseph’s Boys and began his footballing life as a goalkeeper. However, one day, a talented youngster by the name of Sammy Kelly, who would later sign for Blackburn, put 10 past him.

“There were young kids behind the goal hitting me with peashooters the whole time. I said: ‘That’s it for me in goals.”

He then opted to play wide right and moved from the 13B reserves to the 14A side. Playing alongside others who would go on to enjoy notable careers in the game, including Tony McGuirk and Eugene Davis, they won the U17 Leinster Youths Cup, beating Lourdes Celtic 4-1 in the final, with Devlin claiming a hat-trick.

Former Shamrock Rovers player Mick Leech Donall Farmer / INPHO Former Shamrock Rovers player Mick Leech was at the club when Devlin joined. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Eventually, Devlin and three other members of that Joeys team were recruited by Shamrock Rovers. There were no shortage of top footballers with the Hoops at the time, including Mick Lawlor, Frank O’Neill and Mick Leech.

Around this formative period, Devlin cites coaches and community figures including Brendan Harmon, Mick Lambkin and Tommy Tallant, as vital to his progression in football and life.

“I always remember a great story. We were short of money in those days. Brendan would call us in around early December. He’d say: ‘Now lads, your mum and dad have been really good to you all year long. I’ll give you all 10 shillings each to buy them something nice for Christmas.’ I often wondered who didn’t pay the money back. I know I paid mine back, but it was an incredible gesture at that time. A lot of the lads availed of it and we used to get a great laugh about who didn’t pay the money back.

“I remember one day Brendan said: ‘I didn’t give the money for it to be paid back, it was really a little reward for all the efforts the mams and dads put in.’ Beautiful. And that’s the way it was in those days. Football’s not just about getting out and playing, it’s about teaching values, discipline, being organised, being respectful. There can be no other way.

You’d like to think that down the road, some of [the players I worked with] will give something else back. They might give something else back to someone else. They might remember, in 30 or 40 years’ time, what Pat Devlin did for them. But maybe not. They might think: ‘He didn’t play my brother,’ or: ‘He didn’t play my cousin.’ Recently, I got a call from someone and they said: ‘You never played me in the 1990 cup final.’ I said: ‘What are you bringing that up for now?’ He says: ‘Because I never asked you.’ I said: ‘Why do you think you didn’t play?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I said: ‘You weren’t good enough.’

“You make a decision based on what you think is right for the club, for the team, but not for the individual. I’ve stuck to those principles. I’m not going to be everybody’s friend, but I’ve done things right.”

Devlin spent a year at Shamrock Rovers, before joining Leinster Senior League side TEK United. After two years there, he returned to the League of Ireland with St Pat’s in 1973, spending two seasons at the club, though the level of commitment required ultimately took its toll, as the priorities in the young player’s life began to shift.

“I was a qualified painter when I went to Pat’s. I was on building sites, doing this and that. I enjoyed it, but it was a lot. I got married at 21. Travelling around the country wasn’t a priority. So I decided to get back to TEK after the second year.”

LUCIO Celletti archeosport / YouTube

He would later join Dalkey United, before returning for a third stint at TEK. He also had a spell at Athlone, leaving not long before their famous European Cup games against AC Milan in 1975.

In the 1980s, as Devlin’s career as a player was winding down, his first forays into management began. He helped TEK get promoted, before accepting a job offer with Bray, around the time they joined the League of Ireland. His tenure in charge of the first team started badly, with a loss to Longford. But there was a swift improvement thereafter, not losing a single subsequent game, as they earned promotion to the top flight in the 1985-86 season on a shoestring budget.

We had great players in those days, totally committed. Getting them in off the training pitch was the problem. I had to score the winner before we went in, or we could be out all night. But we fully deserved to win the league and to this day, I’m still in touch with most of them, and that’s a testament to how well everyone got on.” 

Devlin assembled a talented team that included Dermot Judge — father of current Ireland international Alan — and John Ryan.

retroloi / YouTube

Bray would spend two campaigns in the Premier Division before suffering relegation and while they took three more seasons to regain their place in the top flight, missing out on goal difference on one occasion, the Seagulls still took part in a memorable 1990 FAI Cup final during this era. Up against amateur side St Francis in the first-ever cup final played at Lansdowne Road, a Ryan hat-trick saw them earn a convincing 3-0 victory.

Away from football, Devlin was also busy around this time.

My painting career came to a very quick halt. I got offered a job in the HSE at the time to look after disadvantaged kids. I set up a project for them and it was one of the first projects ever run in the country. I had my doubts in getting involved in it, but it was one of the most rewarding things I ever did.

“I go back to Brendan Harmon. One of the reasons I did it was because of what he had done for all of us. I took it on and I’m delighted to say that to this day, it’s still running. About 13 people were employed in it, and about 25 kids. It was fantastic, but it was a double-edged thing. St Joseph’s got the rent for the premises. I know the money they got went straight back into the place for the kids as well.”

SOCCER EMPICS Sport Club legend Ron Yeats was instrumental in Devlin joining Liverpool as a scout. EMPICS Sport

In tandem with all these other roles, Devlin accepted an offer as Liverpool’s chief scout in Ireland, having met with club legend Ron Yeats in Killiney Castle. It was during the 1980s, an era when the Reds were often the dominant side in English football. 

“They were over to see Ireland to play Scotland. I said: ‘I’ll do it for six months. Let’s see how it goes.’ I did it for six years and came across Kenny Dalglish, who had taken over [as manager]. We’ve become unbelievable friends since then. He’s just a very special person.

“When you meet people like that, they just leave that mark on you in life. Then of course, Hillsborough happened and Kenny decided to pack it in. I stayed with Liverpool, but it wasn’t the same.

“I signed a few players — Tony Cousins I sent over, a fella called Packie Lynch, Dave Collins — his son Nathan is now playing, he’s made his debut for Stoke. Dave was a colossus of a player. He ended up playing with Oxford and then came back home. Steve Staunton had just signed before I joined. So I had a massive relationship with Liverpool.

Then Graeme Souness took over. We had a little bit of an argument. He wanted me to do something [that I didn't want to do]. That was it then. He had taken over. I wasn’t fitting in. He went his way, I went my way and I was delighted.”

Devlin’s friendship with Dalglish, meanwhile, continues to this day.

“He came over and played Bray a few times, he brought Liverpool in, Newcastle, Blackburn, Graeme Souness to be fair brought in Blackburn. So we had great variety in Bray. Lots of things going on that other clubs would never have had with Celtic there [again] because of Kenny.

“Kenny never looked for anything, never looked for recognition. But what he did for our football community was quite amazing for a man of his stature. We were only a blot on the world football map. He helped us so much, it was incredible.”

Once Dalglish became Blackburn manager, Devlin agreed to link up with the Liverpool legend again, and a number of Irish youngsters subsequently joined the Ewood Park outfit.

“Duffer, Dave Worrell, Graham Coughlan, who’s now manager of Bristol Rovers… Thomas Morgan was one of the best players we ever had. It was a shock that Thomas didn’t make it [at Blackburn]. Most skilful player ever. Graham Cassin. Young Alan Judge.”

Pat Devlin with Kenny Dalglish Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Devlin’s relationship with Blackburn “fizzled out” following Dalglish’s departure as manager, though he subsequently worked with the Scottish coach during his Newcastle tenure.

These links ultimately proved problematic during Devlin’s time spent on the Irish coaching staff amid the Staunton era. One of the players he had helped bring to Newcastle, Alan O’Brien, was capped by Ireland five times between 2006 and 2007, with some critics suggesting the youngster was not being selected on merit.

We sent several players over from St Joseph’s Boys [to Newcastle]. I got some stick over Alan O’Brien. I always thought it was extremely unfair what they said about Alan. They said Alan was only picked because I was with the Irish international team. 

“I did represent Alan at the time. But nothing like that could ever cut across what I do when picking a team. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my son or someone else’s son, I would treat them with the utmost respect and do it in a responsible manner. Some people were very narrow-minded to think that you would bring someone on [for the wrong reasons]. Alan got on the international team because of what he did for Newcastle.”

Manager Steve Staunton Donall Farmer / INPHO Devlin worked with Steve Staunton during the former international's Ireland tenure. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Of all the players Devlin helped guide from underage level to the professional set-up, the individual who enjoyed more success than anyone was unquestionably Damien Duff. A stellar career saw the Dubliner earn 100 caps for Ireland, while representing Blackburn, Chelsea and Newcastle among others.

“I would like to think I deserve a huge amount of credit for what Damien achieved off the pitch. On the pitch, he deserves all the credit. What he had to endure going over there is not easy. He was a very quiet, young, shy lad with great ability.

“Did I think he was going to make it? I always thought he had a real chance. I’d seen him quite a lot, but you’ve got to understand, if you ring a man of the stature of Kenny Dalglish and say ‘I’m putting my neck on the line here, I want you to sign him,’ you better be right. You have to know your stuff.

“I went to see him playing in a game. The ball was knocked out to him. He took it down, beat a player, tucked inside and lobbed the ‘keeper. I said: ‘Wow.’ I’d seen him quite a lot before that, but [that made me think] this fella has a real chance.

“In those days, the kids weren’t allowed go away. He was on the international U15s. So we arranged a game, all expenses paid by Blackburn to go over and play the international team against theirs behind closed doors. After that, they would have seen Duffer.

[Ex-Leeds youngster] Alan Maybury was there. Nicky Byrne from Westlife was in goal. The rest was history. Duffer went to Blackburn at a really tough time and he was fantastic. Everyone liked him. He did everything he was told, was very professional. He got huge support from his parents, they were there all the time. He made it himself. And to get into that team at that time was quite incredible.

“I was fortunate enough to be involved in all his contract dealings and everything else. Man United had been interested in him, Liverpool had been interested in him, they were the two big ones at the time. We had met up with them all and decided to stay with Blackburn.

“Then we had to agree a figure [for a new contract], a release clause. Rio Ferdinand had gone to Leeds for £30 million. Here was this most promising young Irish player and we decided on a figure of £17 million. He was handed a massive contract.

“[Later] Damien was going to Colorado [for a pre-season tournament] and I was going to Dublin. His father was with me. We got off the flight in Dublin. His phone rings and he says, they’ve taken [Damien] off the flight. There’s an offer in from Chelsea. I had been working in the background on that and I knew, but I was waiting for the offer. They triggered the clause by paying the £17 million. So it was an exciting few weeks.”

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Fulham v Chelsea - Craven Cottage Nick Potts Devlin represented Damien Duff over the course of the former Ireland international's career. Nick Potts

Duff has always come across as a reserved, level-headed individual — essentially the antithesis of the stereotypical spoiled modern Premier League star. Did Devlin see him that way?

“In those days, he was totally different to how he is now. He was young and knew what he wanted. It was based purely on football. When you’re at that level and you’re a really talented player, the rest is not a bother.

“It’s only when you get older that these material things kick in, but at that age, it was just about playing. He was going to one of the biggest clubs in the world at the time. The investment was going to be extremely high. He won leagues and cups. It was a very exciting time and it was a no-brainer really. [Chelsea] were going to challenge the Man Uniteds, they were going to challenge who was there. And they did.” 

Duff, however, is far from the only exceptional young player that Devlin has provided guidance for.

The first player I was ever involved with for Bray was Eddie Gormley. I sold him to Spurs. Eddie was a tremendous prospect. If you were to say who was one of the best players you ever saw playing, it would have been Eddie. 

“We had Jason Byrne. We had Eamon Zayed, who Bray would have made more money on than anybody else, which is quite astonishing, but they did. I’m always trying to help out, trying to create an opportunity for players, whether it be at home [or elsewhere].”

But despite all his work with Newcastle, Liverpool and Blackburn, and the many other clubs he enjoyed stints at, Bray Wanderers will always be the team that Devlin is synonymous with. He helped the Seagulls secure six trophies – winning the FAI Cup (1990 and 1999), the First Division title (1986, 1996 and 2000) and the First Division Shield (1996). They had not won the FAI Cup before his reign, nor have they claimed it since.

“Bray was a love story,” he says. “Like with marriages, sometimes love stories end badly. It was an unbelievable time.

“I did everything at Bray. If the toilet roll needed to be changed, we did that. I remember sweeping snow off the pitch, painting the dressing rooms and power hosing them down. I never got paid a penny off Bray in all the years I was there, never took a penny. It was unfortunate in the end, I thought I was treated very badly. Other people will think maybe I deserved it, I got too cocky. Who knows? Only they can answer that. All I wanted was a stadium down in Bray. To go down, watch the match and see a proper stadium and not to see it sold. Maybe I voiced that opinion too much and it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They’re still going [as a club], which I’m delighted to see. 

“When I went in 2013, it wasn’t handled well. Not just me, but the supporters. People who’ve been loyal to the club for 30 years were treated miserably. Someone obviously thought they were doing the right thing, but it wasn’t. You don’t alienate yourself from the history of the club. You can’t change the history if it was there. Every club is built on their history. Rovers, Cork, Bohs — it’s a great history and tradition. The League of Ireland is made up of that. If you alienate yourself from them, you’re leaving yourself wide open. And they did. Whoever made those decisions, shame on them.”

Pat Devlin celebrates with fans James Crombie / INPHO Devlin celebrates with Bray fans. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Another bittersweet memory for Devlin is his time on the coaching staff with Ireland. While immensely proud to get the opportunity to work in this role, the experience quickly turned sour. Following the infamous 5-2 loss against Cyprus as well as an unconvincing win over San Marino, the media and footballing public turned against embattled manager Steve Staunton. Devlin was not spared in this unsavoury saga, with one article suggesting he was too inexperienced for the role he occupied. The piece in question was published on the morning the coach was travelling to Germany on business.

“I remember going in and saying: ‘Steve, they’re attacking me to get at you. Shame on them.’ I said: ‘I’m not having any of this.’ He says: ‘You get on that fucking plane, you’re not going anywhere.’ I said: ‘I’ve had enough of this nonsense.’ If I did something wrong, I [would have said] ‘fine’.

“Eventually, I got over it. But you can imagine going through that airport and every supporter getting a free paper. You’re there and you’re at the brunt of it and you’re saying: ‘Wow, what the hell have I got myself into here?’

The way Steve Staunton was treated was absolutely awful. People to this day would differ on that, but no one deserves to be treated like that. He was a legend. He was a fantastic guy. If people have differences with others, you can’t bring it in to the public domain and be that bitter and nasty. People should forgive and forget. Sometimes there are things that everybody is hurt by. You just can’t live like that. Steve Staunton should be an ambassador to Ireland, even to this day.

“I see people being appointed ambassadors by the FAI and I say: ‘Why is that man not there?’ I tell you why — it’s because there’s a difference of opinion with him and somebody else, and that’s wrong.”

These days, Devlin continues to immerse himself in football. Having left Bray in 2013, he enjoyed two seasons working alongside Collie O’Neill at UCD, a time in which the Students memorably qualified for the Europa League by virtue of their excellent fair-play record. The experienced coach also loves his current role with Cabinteely, which he was appointed to in December 2016, though the work involved is taxing at times.

“The only downside is that traditionally, they weren’t a professional team. They’re not used to the League of Ireland. They’re not used to the costs and expenses. It’s been a real headache. But the reward is that I do think the league will change in the next year or two and they’re there or thereabouts. And they want to continue this adventure. I think they’re in a great position, but it is hard work for us all. Not really having any facilities for training and coaching, it’s quite difficult. But we’re getting by, we’re competing well and it’s going very well.

“A new problem has arisen now with players doing exams, doing their Leaving Cert and that on top of injuries — we just don’t have the depth to cover that. We just take that on the chin and move forward.”

Colin O'Neill Oisin Keniry / INPHO Devlin worked with Collie O'Neill during two seasons as UCD's Director of Football. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Devlin, meanwhile, is not totally satisfied with the current state of the League of Ireland, pointing to inadequate facilities and inept youth structures at certain clubs, though he is hopeful that a new FAI board can implement widespread change.

“In 50 years, am I disappointed where the League of Ireland is at now? I would have like to have seen more progress. I understand we’re way down the line in terms of sponsorship. But has the money been divided up so that we could improve facilities? No.”

He continues: “The one thing I love about England — they’re not parochial. If I go to Blackburn tomorrow, I know I’ll have a very good seat. I ring up Liverpool, I know I’ll get a good seat. And you’ll get a great welcome and you’re looked after. Over here, it’s the opposite. If you’re gone, you’re gone.”

Moreover, after all his years of experience, Devlin has come to the belief that effectively relying on English clubs to develop Irish players is no longer a viable solution.

Duffer is one of the unique ones. How did Thomas Morgan not make it? Shay Given, he was let go by Celtic. Then we signed him for Blackburn. Unbelievable story that is. Now what’s the best for them? It’s to get their education. If you’re still good enough, you’ll get the chance [afterwards].”

Reflecting on his career, Devlin says that he has “loads” of regrets and is still “learning” about the game to this day.

“Could it have been any better in Ireland for me from a footballing point of view? No. Would I have liked to win more trophies? Yeah. But I never had the budget to win trophies. When we won trophies, we won it with pure hunger, desire and passion, and a level of skill.

“With regard to myself, have I any regrets? My health wouldn’t be perfect, it could be better. But I get up every day, I move forward and I love every single day of the football. We’ve got 70 kids coming. My involvement would be getting them in the gate and getting them home safely. We go in and we train with the first team. Having that hunger and desire and that ability every day — once that doesn’t go for me, I’m a really happy person.

“I got great rewards from every young kid that rings me and asks for a bit of advice. I wouldn’t have got where I was today only for a bit of advice. 

“I’ve been accused of being an agent. I have a sports management company that I’ve done for many years. We advise players from 15 up to 22. We do contracts — we bring in solicitors who do that. But I just love being in a position to help young players make a career for themselves. Some people say ‘you’re making a fortune’. I wish I was. I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve earned. If I just got the money people really owed me, I’d be an awful wealthy man. But I do enjoy it and the wealth I have is that adventure I had. 

“I was very lucky to have a wife that supported all that and a daughter and son who also supported that. Without that, I wouldn’t have achieved anything, because if you didn’t have that flexibility, you’d be going mad. You couldn’t cope with it. But we did.”

Mick Doohan 20/5/1999 Andrew Paton / INPHO Bray captain Mick Doohan lifts the FAI Cup in 1999 after defeating Finn Harps. Andrew Paton / INPHO / INPHO

Before parting ways, Devlin half-joking says: “Don’t screw me [with the article].” He also has time for one more story. It was during the 1990 FAI Cup semi-final. Bray were highly unfancied up against the famous Derry team, who had won a domestic treble a year earlier. The Seagulls had spent weeks preparing for a game that was likely to define their season. The outlook was not promising. Bray were 1-0 down. One of their players, Mick Doohan, had made a bad mistake for the opening goal. Derry’s main man Jonathan Speake, who Devlin had constantly warned his players about, was dominant and had put the Candystripes ahead.

At half-time, Devlin knew something drastic was needed to get his side going. He told assistant boss John Holmes his plan. Devlin would move to punch Doohan on account of the player’s error and Holmes would intervene just before he could do so. It didn’t go as planned.

As the players arrived, Devlin stormed into the dressing room and began roaring at Doohan. As he went to punch him, he slipped on the wet floor and ultimately lay prone on the ground, right under the unimpressed six-foot-three-inch defender. The entire dressing room erupted with laughter. Bray won 2-1.

Gavan Casey is joined by Ryan Bailey and Andy Dunne to look ahead to Saturday’s Pro14 final, look at whether Joey Carbery’s move has paid off and Jack Conan talks about how his body is holding up.:

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