You managed Newry City from 2012 to 2023 and won four promotions in five years to return the club to the Irish Premiership after a difficult period prior to your arrival. How do you reflect on those five years and your time in charge of the club overall?
“It is only now that I have left the club (after resigning as manager in 2023) that I realise the enormity of what we achieved in those first five years and over my time at the club as a whole.
“When I became manager at the club, the club was having to start again from the bottom tier of Northern Irish football after experiencing financial difficulties that led to the club shutting down and having to reform.
“So, to be able to rebuild the club and win multiple promotions in order to return Newry City to the top table of football was a rollercoaster of a journey and a brilliant time when you look back on it now.
“Mind you, I would not like to have to go through it all again nor would I recommend it to anyone (laughs) because although the journey was rewarding and worth it in the end, it was a monumental task that required a lot of sacrifice to succeed.”
Looking back now, what do you believe was the key to winning so many promotions within a short space of time?
“The key for the club was to get a team back on the pitch as soon as possible after the difficulties that the club was in.
“Given those circumstances, I believe that I was the best person for the job because of the experience that I had gained working as a youth coach within the academy and as reserve team manager prior to the circumstances that saw the club have to start again.
“I do not say that I was the best person for the job in an arrogant way, I say it from a point of view that with my experience of working with our young players, I knew what we had coming through and I knew what we needed to do in order to build a team to be ready to compete.
“I set about recruiting local players who could play at the level required and combining them with our talented young players to build a team that we could rely on.
“We won our first promotion in year one which was a great start, but we did not win promotion in year two.
“That second season experience taught me a lot because I knew that I needed to rebuild the team again and get the right people in which is always more challenging, the higher the level you play at.
“From there, we went on to win another three promotions in the years that followed, and we had the right players at the right time for each of those promotions.”
You left Newry in 2023 after winning promotion back to the Irish Premiership and securing safety in the league during your last season. How pleasing was it to leave the club on a high after securing safety at the highest level of the game?
“We won promotion to the top flight earlier in my tenure and we were relegated after one season on the final day which hurt.
“So, everyone at the club was determined to get back to the top flight and go one better by staying up.
“After relegation, we regrouped, and the club showed faith in me to use that experience in a positive manner to work ourselves back up to the Irish Premiership which we did by winning the Championship in 2022.
“Then, once we were back in the Premiership, we managed to build up our squad and learn from previous experiences to stay in the league which was always our aim.
“We also won the Mid Ulster cup during that period of time, so it felt like the best possible time for me to leave the club on a high and in good shape to continue on the right path.
“After a decade in charge, it felt like the right time to go when the club was in a good position because the job of a manager is relentless.
“Even when you go on holiday, you are still thinking about the next game or the next season, who you want to recruit and the plans that you want to put into place, so I wanted to spend quality time with my family and recharge the batteries.
“That being said, I am a Newry man through and through who still goes and supports the team now, so I wish the club every success because I am a supporter first and foremost.”
As well as managing Newry, you were a scout for Premier League side Everton for five years, in a dual role. How did that come about and what was it like combining both roles?
“I was studying for my UEFA pro licence, and I sent emails to Everton and Liverpool asking if I could go and watch their training.
“Believe it or not, I actually grew up a Liverpool fan, but I heard nothing back from Liverpool and had an invitation from Everton to go and watch them train at Finch Farm.
“From there, I met the chief scout for Everton in Northern Ireland, Paul Hamilton, who used to be at Rangers as a player in his younger days. He told me that they wanted more scouts within Northern Ireland, and I was offered the opportunity to join the club in that capacity.
“Then, Paul departed Everton for Queens Park Rangers and I was offered the opportunity to become Everton’s chief scout for Northern Ireland.
“It was an honour to hold that role and I did so for five years, in total. I thoroughly enjoyed watching and assessing many games for Everton because it taught me a new way to watch the game because, as a scout, you are analysing every aspect of a player’s game from their off-the-ball movement to their attitude and ability.
“As such, the role also helped my coaching development and Everton were great to work for but after five years, I had to give the role up to focus on managing Newry in the Irish Premiership because every minute of mine was precious when managing at that level.”
Finally, Darren, after a break from the game, are you hoping to return to management again soon?
“I am enjoying the break from management at the moment so much so that I took four months to myself without really thinking about football.
“I am now working on a coaching initiative in conjunction with the Southern Area hospice which is where my wife works.
“I coach a number of different teams who in turn make a donation to support the hospice and the palliative care that they provide for those in need.
“However, I do want to return to coaching within the Irish League whether that be as a manager again or as a first-team coach under a manager.
“I am not someone who has a massive ego so I could work alongside another manager and assist them or if the opportunity arises to manage again then I would definitely consider the offer carefully.
“I love football and the competition that comes with it so I want to return to the game at some point however I am in no rush because I am thoroughly enjoying my time with family at this moment in time.”