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The life and death of a Derry hero

Remembering former club captain Ryan McBride, five years on from his tragic passing.

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EVERY TIME Mairead McKenna drives up the Lone Moor Road, sometimes to her late partner’s nearby family home, she can see the words: ‘The Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium.’

It is a reminder that the Derry City legend, who died suddenly five years ago this month, is gone but not forgotten.

“The name of the stadium means so much to me and Ryan’s entire family,” she tells The42. “To see his name up there, recently for the first home game, all the new graphics and things of him are up, that’ll never get tiring. To walk in and see pictures of him and his name. For me and the family, that’s definitely one of the proudest things.

“When I’m down round there, visiting family, I would never drive past and not look at the name. 

“From a family point of view, to have his name there [is important] because Ryan was the last in his family that could carry on the McBride name — that meant a lot to Ryan. He would always say it and the fact now that no longer can happen, having that name means so much to us personally.”

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McKenna says that she along with others had to “put up a fight” to rename the stadium after the much-loved former club captain.

“People just wanted it [to stay] the Brandywell,” she explains. “That’s what it’s always going to be. When I’m going on a Friday night to the match, I’ll turn around and say ‘I’m going to the Brandywell tonight’. I don’t say ‘The Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium’. But it’s where it matters. For live coverage of a match, that’s where it’s said, or if you look up Google Maps, anything like that.

“He was more than just a footballer. It was hard to take some of the things [that were said] because we just thought it was a given [with regard to the name]. There’s a special story behind it. Never take it personally because I know they all love him. It was never a personal attack on him or his family. I think when people sat down and listened to the reasoning for it, maybe they would think differently. 

“In the end, we got it. It’s up there now and we could not be prouder.”

McBride was just 27 when he passed and his death rocked the Irish football community and in particular, his hometown.

“It was only after his passing that I realised how big of a figure he was in Derry,” says McKenna. “And the impact he had, throughout Ireland as well, the tributes and messages and everything we received.”

a-view-of-ryan-mcbride-brandywell-stadium-ahead-of-the-game A view of Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Karen Pyne is currently Derry City’s Supporters Liaison Officer and has volunteered with the club for over a decade. She remains close to McBride’s family and remembers the former player fondly.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” she says. “You’re waiting for him to walk out of the tunnel, chest out, the big number five, to just come out, and he’s not there. It’s like: ‘What has happened here?’”

She continues: “The night I got the phone call to say that he’d passed, I actually threw my phone across the bedroom. But that’s neither here nor there. The whole community was shocked, the football community was shocked. Derry was just in shock, the whole town, even further afield. When you look back on the reports of his passing, oh my God, it went so far — everybody was just shocked and saddened to hear about it.

“We sing about him every week in the Brandywell when we’re home. But his ex-teammates and people like that, my heart breaks for them too. Especially Kenny Shiels — Kenny was the manager at the time. How can you ever recover from something like that? Knowing that he was at training that Sunday morning and by the Sunday night he was gone. The town was just numb.”

Among McBride’s defining characteristics were his dependability and generosity, particularly when it came to dealing with the club’s younger fans.

“I would have ran what we called City Cubs, which was just a wee supporters club for youngsters of primary school age,” remembers Pyne. “So launch day, the City Cubs would have got a wee pack or whatever, the players would have come along and Ryan was always first there. It was all about the youth and seeing their wee faces because to the youngsters, they’re superstars, they’re like Ronaldo or whoever.

“When I first met Ryan, he had just signed for us. He was very quiet and he wouldn’t have really spoken. Over the years, he started coming out of his shell, just chatting away like a normal person.”

“He was quiet until you got to know him,” agrees McKenna. “Just all about his family and friends and Derry.

“Very funny and witty, he always would have got you with a one-liner, and you never had a comeback. 

“I wouldn’t have seen that side as much, on the football pitch, but everybody says, once the captain’s armband was on and he crossed that line, he was a different person — in team mode, you couldn’t mess with him.”

McBride made over 100 appearances for Derry between 2010 and 2017. While many players in the League of Ireland either come through the club’s underage setup or get picked up after being released by a team in Britain, McBride was not discovered until quite late on and was playing in the relative obscurity of the Derry and District League. He finally joined the Candystripes two months after his 20th birthday — a time when many would have given up hope of enjoying a distinguished career at League of Ireland level.

“There was a fella called John Quigg and he said to [then-Derry manager] Stephen Kenny: ‘There’s a fella you need to come and see,’” remembers McKenna. “It actually started off as pay-as-you-play. There were games Ryan was going to and not getting on, but he was more than happy. I remember him being in my house that night, getting the call to go to his first away match. We were squealing around him, but though he was delighted, he was quiet and unassuming, but you just knew he was so happy with it. That was the start of it.”

ryan-mcbride-celebrates-scoring-a-a-goal Ryan McBride celebrates scoring a a goal. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“He had offers to go elsewhere,” adds Pyne. “But Ryan said: ‘No, I want to play for Derry.’ He was just so proud.”

By the time of his death, McBride had consolidated his status as a fan favourite and was captain of the club — despite not initially being an obvious choice for the latter role.

“It was [then-manager] Peter Hutton who called him in at the time,” says McKenna. “I remember speaking to Peter afterwards at a family party and saying why he chose him.

“He wouldn’t be the person that would stand up and shout in the changing rooms, which you might expect of a captain, but it doesn’t need to be like that. He said enough and did enough on the pitch.”

However, it’s naturally the personal memories that stick out most for McKenna.

She went to secondary school with McBride’s sister Caitlin and knew him long before he had become a renowned footballer.

“Derry is a small enough place so when you’re out and about, it just went from there,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I don’t think anybody would have thought it would last eight years.”

One of her favourite memories is a trip to Australia to visit McBride’s cousin who had moved there.

“They would have been best friends as well,” she explains. “So we were the other side of the world and just walked into a bar and surprised him. 

“That was the December before he passed away. So that always sticks out in my mind that we got to do such an amazing holiday. So much so that when we came back, he wanted to move. He was like: ‘I’m going, I can play football over there,’ this and that.
I’m just glad we got that massive holiday — it was something he wanted to do so much.”

McKenna also acknowledges McBride’s tragic passing gave her a perspective on life that she would otherwise not have had.

“Not that you think ‘it’s never going to be me’. But sometimes you think: ‘Did this really happen? Is this our life?’ You deal with it, but it definitely changes you as a person.

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“I remember afterwards thinking: ‘Never take anything for granted. Love every day.’ But you can’t live like that. Life happens again. Work happens again. But I definitely have a different outlook. You realise what’s important basically. You just realise life is very fragile and you could be here today, gone tomorrow. Ryan went to bed and never woke up.

“I’m just back from a trip to Paris. That was booked three weeks ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have done that [in the past], but now I just think: ‘Why not?’”

Pyne adds: “My last memory of Ryan was bringing the mascots out and it was actually my nephew who went out with Ryan on the last match. He was Ryan-mad.

“I took the picture of Ryan with [Derry teammate] Ronan Curtis, Ronan’s two nephews and Ryan’s face… He just looks like a big giant in it with the chest out.”

Half a decade on from his death, McBride’s legacy remains strong, with a foundation set up in his name by many of those closest to him.

“Ryan was all about youngsters in the community and he grew up kicking the ball against the wall like most of the youngsters that live around the town,” says Pyne. “He was just all about developing community football, so the foundation has secured summer camps, easter camps from maybe [ages] 5 to 14.”

The foundation also has received assistance from a number of famous faces — Oisín McConville and Phil Coulter are among those to have helped out, as well as many current and former Derry City footballers, with some of these well-known individuals giving talks on topics such as mental health and addiction.

“The main dinner dance that we would hold once a year is massive for us and helps fund our school programmes et cetera. The last two years have been difficult [due to the pandemic] and we have a lot of plans that have just been put on hold because of that. But they’ll definitely be happening in the future.

“I wouldn’t say it was a distraction but more of a focus afterwards because it was people very close to Ryan — me, his dad, brother-in-law and sisters. People from close to Derry as well, so we probably all had a connection with him.

“Everybody who had a story about Ryan basically. So all of us wanted the foundation to do really well for Ryan because, at the end of the day, it’s his name on it.”

Despite five years now having passed since his tragic death, there is no sign of McBride being forgotten in the public memory. His life was even remembered in a recently released picture book, ‘The Brandywell Boy,’ aimed at primary school children.

“To me, he was more than a footballer,” says Pyne. “He was a great friend. And the family, my heart breaks for them. 

“A gentle giant, an unassuming, down-to-earth person who would have done anything for anybody and the club. His life was Derry City football club and that’s all he wanted.”

One recent incident in particular highlights the love that continues to exist for McBride.

“The other week was World Book Day and many boys were dressed up as Ryan,” recalls McKenna. “These were children that might not have remembered Ryan as much. You could be talking six or seven. They were obviously young when [his death] happened. You hear stories from many of the parents and brothers. Then obviously getting the book through the schools, the many people that wrote to us.

“So on our Foundation Page, we shared all the pictures. And there they were, standing dressed as Ryan with a beard and everything with their books — seeing things like that just make you realise how special he was.”

You can learn more about the Ryan McBride Foundation here.

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Paul Fennessy

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