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Working the 11pm-to-7am shift while winning promotion

Tim Clancy reflects on a memorable season that saw Drogheda crowned First Division champions.

Drogheda United manager Tim Clancy celebrates with assistant boss Kevin Doherty after clinching promotion against Cabinteely.
Drogheda United manager Tim Clancy celebrates with assistant boss Kevin Doherty after clinching promotion against Cabinteely.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHETHER IT’S PLAYING or coaching in football, Tim Clancy has always had a tendency to punch above his weight.

Hailing from County Meath, after stints with local club Trim Celtic and renowned Dublin schoolboy outfit Belvedere, he signed with Millwall in 2003.

Clancy’s time there coincided with one of the most memorable periods in the club’s history. Most notably, in 2004, they reached the FA Cup final for the first and so far only time, losing 3-0 to a Ruud van Nistelrooy-inspired Man United.

Yet Clancy never played a minute of first-team action at The Den. Instead, it was non-league football where he made the breakthrough at senior level, lining out with Walton & Hersham, Weymouth and Fisher Athletic over the course of a four-year period.

Having initially become accustomed to reserve-team football with the Championship outfit, Clancy was now being introduced to a more physical game where results really mattered.

“A lot of it would have been fairly decent standard, because in the UK, players get to late 20s and early 30s, and start thinking about other careers,” he tells The42. “You could pick up 400-to-600 quid a week playing non-league, a good top-up wage and you get really good quality players coming down.”

Clancy says he played over 100 games at non-league level and believes the experience put him in good stead for the remainder of his career.

Looking back now, the former player feels that initially, he didn’t necessarily exhibit the discipline required for a career in professional football.

“I left school just after my 18th birthday, I went from a small town in Trim to the outskirts of London,” he explains.

We maybe enjoyed ourselves a bit too much. It was a good thing in that we didn’t feel homesick, but we probably weren’t as professional as we could have been and it took me a while to realise that it was a job and it wasn’t just playing football like we did back home for enjoyment.”

The non-league experience helped to change his outlook and to appreciate the mentality required to sustain a career in the game.

“It was the only time in my career until my last year at Bray that I actually was part-time in football. And even at that, we were part-time for one year at Fisher Athletic and then we went full-time the second year.

“Certainly, I look at it as I went back down a level to get myself experience and whatnot, and then prepare myself if I ever get a chance to play professional football again that I’d be ready and a lot more tuned in to what I should be doing.”

In 2007, Clancy got another opportunity to play at a higher level, as Kilmarnock signed the Irish defender.

Source: SPFL/YouTube

He would enjoy this period, testing himself at a good level and coming up against sides of the calibre of Celtic and Rangers. In addition to just over four seasons at Killie, he had subsequent short stints at Motherwell, Hibernian and St Johnstone. Yet while making over 100 league appearances amid the best spell of his career, there were also plenty of low points. Of the eight years he spent in Scotland, Clancy says he missed around three and a half through injury. And particularly given these limitations, the Irishman feels he achieved all he could have.

“There were certain players that you look at with their physical attributes and their ability that they probably could have played at a higher level. That must be frustrating for them. But I don’t get that feeling. I feel like I got everything out of my playing career that I possibly could have.

I was never going to be good enough to play in the Premier League or the Championship.”

His time across the water ended after a serious injury suffered in the last training session of the season, thereby continuing his luckless streak.

“My contract was up,” he recalls. “I had complications with the injury where I needed three operations.

“The wound wouldn’t close, so they ended up taking the stitches back out after 13 weeks, which affected the recovery of the achilles. So I missed maybe 10 months of football.

“In my last three seasons in Scotland, I had 12 operations with regard to serious injuries — rupturing my achilles, I took the tricep off the bone as well on my arm, I had a couple of screws put into my shin another time.”

In 2014, Clancy accepted an offer from the then-Shamrock Rovers boss Pat Fenlon, who also coached him at Hibs, to return home and play in the League of Ireland. Fitness issues continued to mar his progress though, and he only made a handful of appearances for the Hoops. He then had a short stint at Sligo before spending the last 18 months of his playing career at Bray.

“Any time I did try to get fit again, I was breaking down, so I knew that my playing days were numbered.”

The stop-start nature of his career meant Clancy had plenty of time to consider life after playing. Coaching had been something he had been considering from around his mid-20s, and he completed his Uefa A Licence in his early 30s.

And Clancy was just 33 when he ended his playing career after being announced as the surprise choice of manager for recently relegated Drogheda.

“When the opportunity came up to go into management, it was probably earlier than expected and not exactly an ideal situation to go in. I’d rather come in under someone with experience and learn as a coach for a couple of years, but it was one of the 20 jobs in the country, so I certainly wasn’t going to turn it down.”

tim-clancy-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Tim Clancy pictured towards the end of his playing career at Bray. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Despite his lack of experience, Clancy guided the Drogs to the play-offs in his first season in charge, before suffering defeat to Finn Harps.

“I went in very much blind at the start of the season in 2018. I didn’t know a lot of the squad, or the players in the league.

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“When Kev [Doherty] came in, it was very good, because he had more knowledge of the league than I did.”

Clancy impressed in that first season to the extent that then-First Division rivals Shelbourne approached him about becoming manager, yet he turned the Dublin club down.

“I was very young and short term in my management career. I hadn’t got a lot of experience. I just didn’t feel it was right at the time. Drogheda allowed me to develop and once they see an improvement each year, they’re very supportive.

I sat down and spoke with [the chairman] Conor Hoey and he had a vision for where the club was going. Hopefully [it would be] back to the Premier Division, but to do it in a way that the club will be financially stable and a lot more secure than it possibly would have been in the past.”

After the manager signed a new contract, Clancy and co again fell narrowly short in 2019, losing 2-1 on aggregate against Finn Harps in the promotion-relegation final.

So following two near misses, it felt crucial that Clancy’s third year at Drogheda would yield a coveted Premier Division spot.

The First Division is often derisively referred to as the ‘graveyard’ of Irish football, owing to the lack of coverage it generates and the scant resources that teams operate on. Additionally, with the financial outlook even grimmer than usual owing to the coronavirus crisis, success seemed more pivotal than ever this year.

The season began reasonably well for Clancy. Wins over Cobh Ramblers and UCD occurred either side of a loss to Longford Town. The Covid-19 pandemic ensued though, and the Drogs went just under five months without playing a competitive game.

“I was looking at other clubs and we didn’t have programmes, and lads were doing three or four gym sessions a week. Because we didn’t know with Covid how long the lockdown was, we just asked them to tick over and do their own stuff and then we came in for the second so-called pre-season.”

150 days after their last First Division game, Drogheda demonstrated impressive resilience. Up against Shamrock Rovers II, after 28 minutes, they found themselves 2-0 down and reduced to 10 men, yet the team eventually managed to rescue a 2-2 draw and secure a point that would prove invaluable. The heart they showed on that occasion was a sign of what was to come.

Their promotion took no shortage of perseverance, as all the hard work the players undertook during the lockdown ultimately paid off handsomely.

jake-hyland-lifts-the-first-division-trophy Drogheda United captain Jake Hyland lifts the First Division trophy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Despite a gruelling end-of-season run-in, Drogheda won six of their last seven games to secure promotion. But notwithstanding this dominant form, the First Division went right to the wire. With the final game away to play-off-chasing Cabinteely, Clancy’s men needed a win to be sure of promotion, with second-place Bray Wanderers trailing them by just a point.  

“The last week of the season, the three wins in seven days was a huge moment for us,” he says.

“We showed we had a very fit squad. Also, we used a lot of players this season and we had a really good bunch of young players, and not just to add to the squad, but to play major roles. We had a goalkeeper, David Odumosu, who played every minute of every league game this year, he’s only 19.

“And we had Brandon Bermingham, who scored four goals and who’s played 16 or 17 games this season, and he’s still 18. And James Clarke, he’s only 19, they’re both getting games this season.

And then, the young players we had in the last three seasons, Conor Kane, Mark Doyle, Jake Hyland, they had a lot more games under their belt and a little bit more experience. We brought in a different type of defender in regards to Derek [Prendergast], Hughie [Douglas] and Jack Tuite — more out-and-out defenders than we possibly would have had the last few years, and that certainly helped us as well.”

And having secured promotion, keeping Drogheda in the top flight will be a similarly tough task.

“For us to compete next season, I’m hoping to be able to get a budget at the club from the chairman to allow us to sign experience.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty there. I don’t know what players I can target and sign, and what players we keep. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep the bulk of the squad who want to stay with us. We might lose one or two. But once I know the budget and if I’m able to bring in five or six players with some experience, that will help us in the Premier Division. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s something that we certainly relish.

“In regards to myself, I’m happy where I am, because I’m able to make the mistakes, and learn, and develop.”

And the Drogheda players are not the only ones likely to be feeling exhausted after the intensity of the run-in. Throughout the season, Clancy has balanced managing the team with work outside of football.

“I work in Musgraves, the main distributor in the country for all the SuperValus and Centras, so I do a night shift from 11pm until 7am, Monday to Friday.

“With Covid, people are getting laid off and whatnot, so it’s great to be in a job that’s very secure.”

And does he find balancing these two taxing responsibilities a little overwhelming at times?

“I’m married with four children, so I don’t have the luxury of just being involved in football. In my playing career of 15 years or so, I never played at a level where I was going to earn massive amounts of money and never have to work again, so it’s just a natural progression.

“No matter what you’re doing, you’ve got a family to look after and provide for. I’ve been lucky enough now to get a job. It’s a fairly reliable, stable job. It is pretty tough sometimes where you’re going to work at 11 at night and you’re getting in at seven in the morning. You sleep then until maybe 12 or one o’clock in the day and then you’re heading off to training. Leaving the house at four o’clock and maybe getting in at half eight to get your dinner and head to work again. But it is what it is. It’s just a part of life.”

Clancy is still only 36, and ideally won’t be maintaining this unenviable schedule in the long-term. He cites the likes of Michael O’Neill, Stephen Kenny, Ian Baraclough and Paul Cook as managers who have gone on to enjoy bigger and better things after enjoying success in the League of Ireland, and the dream would be to eventually emulate their trajectory.

There are opportunities that could come up should you do well over here. But that’s the thing — you have to do really well in this country first. Before you even think of going anywhere else, you have to try to keep progressing. If you do well, opportunities will certainly come up.”

For now though, Clancy says he is focusing on “controlling the controllables” — a favourite phrase of his former boss at Sligo, Dave Robertson.

“Once you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of your career and ask yourself: ‘Did I do as much as I could out there, or could I have done more?’ Once you’re quite happy and content with how you applied yourself throughout your career, you’ll have no problems then.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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