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FEATURE: Born to play - the story of Jim McGroarty

The Lettershandoney man who played for Stoke and returned to lead Dungiven Celtic to nine titles

FEATURE: Born to play - the story of Jim McGroarty

All Jim McGroarty ever wanted to do was play football. There was no substitute for the excitement. It lit a flame that still burns to this day. He squeezed every drop from a playing career that also saw him play three seasons in England and bank a lifetime of memories.
His knees eventually told him 'enough was enough' and when Crusaders changed their mind on an operation, it was time to take stock.
“It was too much money and I was over 30. They were not going to take a chance and you couldn't really blame them,” Jim recalls.
His football career was far from finished. Like when Stoke chose not to renew his contract, Jim McGroarty was at a footballing crossroads. But he was far from finished.
He would later manage Limavady United. Before that, the Lettershandoney native steered Dungiven Celtic to nine trophies during the club's golden era.
When Patsy McGowan signed McGroarty, for Sligo Rovers on his return from Stoke, he would play in the League of Ireland on a Sunday, after managing Dungiven - where he now lived - on a Saturday.
It was a hectic time. They trained on Tuesday and Thursday nights, opposite Sligo's Wednesday and Friday schedule.
He managed the Ballyguddin side for best part of 25 years. The only blip came during his time playing in the Irish League, when mixing both, under the same governing body, wasn't permitted and the Dungiven reins were passed on to Brian Ward.
Ward was one of three Brians (the other being Brian Kealey and Brian McIvor) to score in the club's 3-1 win over Derry City to land the NW Intermediate Cup in 1984 – their first trophy in intermediate football.
“The boys must have drank for a week,” McGroarty remembers.
The club had made the ambitious move to elevate themselves to intermediate football in 1978. McGroarty is very grateful to them for putting him through his coaching badges. He holds an A licence, achieved over a year with visits to assess his progress.
During the 1990s, Dungiven lost three Intermediate Cup finals, but enjoyed two runs in the Irish Cup that included a 4-0 defeat at Crusaders.
As a player, McGroarty lost an Irish Cup final with Glenavon, to a late Glentoran penalty in 1988 and was on the Sligo Rovers team that fell 2-0 to Dundalk in the 1981 FAI Cup Final in front of 12,000 fans.
He tapped into this experience during Dungiven's cup runs.
“If we had a home tie. I would get boys in at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning and go through all the set pieces,” he outlines.
The players would then have breakfast together, all paid from their own pocket, before relaxing and returning to Ballyguddin for the game later in the day, with everything fresh in their mind.
“It worked,” McGroarty feels. “You were playing the top teams from the amateur league in Belfast or the intermediate leagues in Ballymena.
“A lot of the games were tight, the score was 0-0 and one of the set pieces you worked on that morning...you could get it in the last five minutes and somebody stuck the ball in the back of the net. You are trying to add a bit of professionalism.”
On away days, the Dungiven players were asked to wear a collar and tie. It was about turning up at senior clubs, well-dressed. It was a statement of intent.

***

When you quiz Jim McGroarty on the secret to Dungiven Celtic's success at the start of the millennium, the word modesty perfectly describes the unspoken narrative coming down the line. He plays down his role in the success that was to follow.
In addition, he is not one for name-checking. He'd have to mention 'about 20 men'. There is a genuine respect he has for the collective force the players delivered. They are not just words. The tone in his voice reinforces pride this era brought him. He is a football man through and through,
After knocking on the door, silverware was a regular visitor to Dungiven during the 2000s. Four intermediate leagues and cups were won under his watch.
The breakthrough came with the 2002/03 league title. The following season, they secured the double in a year to remember that saw the reserves and thirds win their respective leagues. McGroarty also remembers the generation before.
“There were a hell of a lot of players over the years, who were really good footballers. They never won a league and some of them didn't even win a trophy,” he said.
It was followed by a core of young players, who fused into a winning formula as the attitude began to change.
“First of all, they wanted to play football. Second of all, they wanted to do well and thirdly, they wanted to play for Dungiven Celtic. When you put that together, you don't have a lot to do as a manager or a coach.”

Jim managed Dungiven to their first Intermediate League title in 2002/03

Even snow wasn't an obstacle in preparations. On one occasion, two balls were sent to a shop 'up the town' to get sprayed and returned 'Massey Ferguson red', McGroarty recalls.
“It allowed us to train away in the snow, that's the sort of commitment we had. We had a good bunch of lads, it took a few years and we built the team up and, apart from a couple, the rest of the players were from around the town.”
Another important ingredient in Jim's cocktail for success was having players battling for places. With '16 to 18' players jockeying for 11 jerseys, the manager had the players in the palm of his hand.
“If you have a boy who plays for you on a Saturday, without caring how he plays because he knows he will be on the following weekend – that's never going to work.”
“Even Seamus Harkin - who is now Chairman - and the younger boys at the time. They didn't want to go and play for the reserves. They wanted to be on the bench for the seniors and get a few minutes. That's the type of young boys you had at the time.”
Getting into the first team was all that mattered. And McGroarty was beginning to get a kick out of management, as the trophies began to roll in.
“You train hard on a Tuesday night, you set your stall out on a Thursday night how you are going to play on a Saturday and if you see it all coming together in front of you, that's what being a coach and manager is all about.”
With nine trophies to his name, he jokes about a return to the club.
“Maybe, I'll take it into double figures,” he laughs.
Jim McGroarty's enthusiasm, even now, is infectious.

***

Jim is the oldest of a family of four. Growing up, as a avid Manchester United supporter, he was infatuated with George Best.
He donned the same boots and jersey, as he played around the fields of Slaughtmanus.
“It could've ended up 20-a-side,” McGroarty jokes. “If you weren't quick or strong, you maybe touched the ball once. Parents were out at dark to get you into bed, for school the next morning.”
He mixed soccer and Gaelic football for much of his career. One of the earliest memories was of winning a league, championship and nine carnival cups - all in one year - with the now defunct St Mary's Mullaghbuoy.
The newly formed St Mary's Slaughtmanus won the 1988 intermediate championship. Jim was on the team and managed them to the 2014 final, a one-point defeat by Castledawson.
He remembers coming on as a sub for Derry minors at Omagh in a 4-8 to 1-8 defeat to Armagh. McGroarty bagged 1-5 in a tempestuous encounter that saw him end up in hospital with a suspected broke nose. He wasn't on his own.
“Harry Joe McWilliams was buried up against a post and Frankie Trainer had a broken nose, he was hit from behind.” Jim adds.
When Derry won their second Ulster U21 title in 1976, Jim was on the squad that included Joe Irwin, Gerry McElhinney, Colm McGuigan and Alfie Dallas.
By then, his soccer career was beginning to develop.
He first played competitively with Tamnaherin Youth Club in the Saturday morning league. At that time, he also played for Foyle Harps in the 'Summer Cups', which was growing in popularity with prizes up to £1,000 for the winning team.
After impressing a 3-1 win over Buncrana in the final, at Maginn Park, he was spotted by Finn Harps and signed for the first of three times by Patsy McGowan.
At the age of 16, Jim's talents also attracted Glasgow Celtic's scouts, but his 10-day trial was cut short by injury after a week.
“I caught a boy's studs and with a swollen foot, that was end of that trial. It was a great experience too...I played at Parkhead and at Ibrox.”
At that time, the squad would've trained behind the goals at Parkhead.
“There used to be a five-a-side,” McGroarty remembers. “Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain and Paul McStay were there. I got to play five-a-side with them, which was good.”
By the time Stoke came calling, he was in a better place. The experience and lessons from Celtic were invaluable. He knew the level that was required.

***

When McGroarty signed for Finn Harps, it was at the end of the 1975 season.
He got a handful of games, but he was stronger the following year and became a regular. At the end of the season, he played in an exhibition game for the Harps against an invitational select.”
“I couldn't believe it...I was on the same pitch as Frank Stapleton, Liam Brady and Johnny Giles. I was nearly a full international team, but I didn't know that Stoke City were at the game and they asked me over for the trial.”
This time he impressed and signed a one-year deal in October 1977. Going over to unknown territory didn't come into the decision-making process. Jim's decision was easy.
“I would've swam over and I would've played for nothing. I always wanted to be a footballer.” McGroarty said, with an enthusiasm that hasn't dwindled over the years.
“George Eastham was the Stoke manager and he scored the winner in the 1972 League Cup final 2-1 over Chelsea...a lovely man.”
McGroarty made his first team debut away to Oldham. At the team meeting in the hotel before the game, Eastham gave their new signing the responsibility to marshal the defence on any Oldham free kicks outside the box.
“Can you line the wall?” the manager asked.
“I can boss, I used to be a bricklayer,” was Jim's instinctive answer, and he remembers the rest of the team 'killing themselves' in laughter.
When McGroarty later went to apologise, Eastham was having none of it.
“You don't need to apologise. I like boys with a bit of character,” he said.
Playing professional football was a dream, but a step up in class.
“When you go to training every day, you can't be taking your foot off the pedal or looking over your shoulder,” Jim explains.
“You have to knuckle down, the boy beside you is looking for your jersey and up the line, you are looking for somebody's jersey.”
During McGroarty's time at Stoke, there was a change of manager, as Eastham was replaced by Alan Durban. He brought Howard Kendall in as player coach.
“Kendall was the best player I played alongside,” states McGroarty, of the man who would lead Everton to First Division (twice), FA Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup honours
Jim's contract was renewed every season for three years, before he was given the bad news that his time at the club was over.
“When the last contract was up, they didn't resign me. There was not a lot of security in it. It is a rat race, you have to accept it and not rest on your laurels - you have to get on with it,” he said.
“I wasn't back in Ireland two days until Patsy (McGowan) was on the phone and signed me at Sligo Rovers and I would then move back to Ballybofey when he later joined Finn Harps.”
By the mid-1980s, Derry City moved from the Irish League to join the League of Ireland. The Candystripes expressed an interest in snapping up McGroarty, be he declined.
“I didn't go back to the League of Ireland. I was scundered with the travelling. You'd have to go Derry for training and even when I was with Finn Harps, it was like an away game.
“If you went to Waterford or Cork, it was an overnight stay in those days, but you had 20 players packed into a 14-seater minibus. If you were lucky, you got a seat and if not, you are lying on top of the kit-bags.”
It was time for a change. His three years at Glenavon saw him come close to winning a cup, but they lost (1-0) to Glentoran. Defender Andy Russell clawed a ball off the line with his hand and Jim Cleary dispatched his spot-kick to the top corner of the net.
“I missed a sitter in that game,” McGroarty recalls.
After Glenavon, he moved to Crusaders for the final leg of his career. Eventually, the knocks caught up with him and injury forced his hand.
It was time to plough all his energy into Dungiven Celtic. Once a competitor, always a competitor. And the players bought into his philosophy of management. His experience, coupled with his desire for success, was the catalyst for what was to follow.
With nine titles to his name in his time as manager with Dungiven Celtic, would he return to make it the perfect 10?
“Never say never,” he concluded.

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- Terence McMacken takes a stroll into the history of Dungiven Celtic.  Click here...

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