*Darragh Leahy with his son Darius and the FAI Junior Cup. Photograph: Joe Buckley

ARGUABLY one of Newmarket Celtic’s greatest signings has been the addition of Darragh Leahy to their attack.

Celtic go in search of a first Munster Junior Cup this Saturday when they face off with Regional Utd in the familiar surroundings of Jackman Park at 5pm. Securing the provincial title to go alongside the FAI Junior Cup would be a historic feat.

Key to their run has been the arrival of Shannon native Leahy. He may be a striker but it is workrate and ability to upset the entire opposing team rather than his goalscoring abilities that has endeared him to the Celtic fanbase and ensured his name is known by all opposing teams before they go into battle.

Speaking to The Clare Echo in advance of the Munster decider, Darragh revealed that he was told by several people in his home town that he wouldn’t make the Newmarket eleven, never mind have a successful season. Anyone that knows the twenty six year old will testify that he is an incredibly loyal character and if belief is shown in him he will back it up while he will do his damnedest to prove people wrong if they write him off.

Darragh had his doubts after he was initially approached by Paddy Purcell to join the squad. “Last year when I got suspended I went off and played rugby for most of the season, then I came back and we (Shannon Hibs) nearly beat Avenue Utd in the Clare Cup semi-final. Steve Austin got onto me first and said Paddy Purcell was going to give me a ring and would I take the call, I said no at the start because I wasn’t sure what I’d do. Paddy did ring me eventually, he called to my house with a cup of coffee in hand, he didn’t have one for me like”.

This player-centred approached has been a fundamental style of Purcell’s management. “He talked a lot about when he was playing soccer and made his first big move, he said I was better than the level I was playing at, to be honest I didn’t really believe him I genuinely really didn’t, he kept talking and Paddy has a good way with words, he said to come out, give it a try and that I’d enjoy it, to be honest I have because it’s been unbelievable, there’s always twenty people at training and everyone is there for the one thing, there’s no saying I won’t be at training there’s none of that, everyone is expected to be there which is a great standard to set”.

Although he has been part of underage gaelic football panels for Clare, the set-up at Newmarket Celtic has been a different level. “It’s very professional for an amateur soccer team but there’s a lot to do with the management but also the players because everyone is buying into the same thing. I’ve been with other managers who have tried to do similar things but if you don’t have a group of players that are there for the one thing and you’ve people going out drinking before a game, they are all massive factors in it, for winning teams anyway”.

Darragh Leahy gets to the ball ahead of Jason Cross. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Their standards have ensured Darragh managed to forgive Paddy for not bringing him a cup of coffee when they first met. “They are so organised, O’Brien has everything organised, Paddy is so easy to talk to, he talks to every player differently but he knows how to take to everyone, Austin’s coaching is just class, it’s at another level, I’ve never witnessed it because it’s my first year with him but all the Newmarket boys said it’s been a massive step-up to what they’ve missed in the last few years, no disrespect to any of the other managers but he just brings a different level and it’s the enjoyment too, everything is done for a reason, he is texting in videos every couple of hours of the day that this is what we should be doing, watch this, he’s probably annoying people but it’s brilliant to have”.

Both of his brothers, Gary and Aaron have become keen followers of the side, this season which wasn’t expected. “Gary would have always, I knew he was going to but Aaron I didn’t think so but he’s been at every game, he was shouting instructions on at me or shouting at the other defenders trying to put them off, they were so happy for me”.

That Aaron was the manager of Shannon Hibs made the departure from the club more difficult for Darragh. Broaching the subhect was not easy. “He was going on holidays, I wasn’t going to text him for ages and ages, he was going on holidays but I said when he was away that was the best time to do it, I was thinking he’d be able to enjoy his holiday but I didn’t want to ruin it either. Paddy said he wanted to ring him because he was involved with Aaron when he was playing with Limerick, Austin text Gary, they knew Gary would be happy but Aaron was the stubborn one, it took me a while to text him, I don’t think he texted back for a couple of weeks but my mother had dinner one evening so we all had to sort it out, he was upset at the start but he is very happy now”.

Their mother, Brenda has also been ever-present at matches but has been somewhat occupied keeping tabs on Darragh’s son, Darius. “I think she just does laps of the pitch! My young fella comes to the games, most people would hate it because you can’t watch the game and have to chase him but she loves it, she sprints around after him, I’d say she smokes about forty boxes of fags in a game anyway,” he quipped.

Gary has served as one of Darragh’s main motivations for taking the opportunity with Newmarket. “My brother Gary, everyone knows how good he is at soccer, he had loads of opportunities to go play with better clubs, win things, play with better teams and compete in all these competitions but he never did it, I said I was going to give it a go and see what happens, I thought I’d be back by Christmas, I had said to myself I’d be back with Hibs by Christmas but it’s been so enjoyable, the trainings have been unbelievable, the boys and everyone out there are just sound, I’ve got great friends from Ennis playing with the team, it’s unbelievable”.

Other motivation has come in the form of the nay-sayers. “There’s a lot of people in Shannon who doubted me and told me not to go, they said Newmarket were a finished club, not to waste my time going out there, that I’d only be going to sit on the bench and that I wasn’t good enough to play with them, I just wanted to prove all those people wrong. I did that at the start, the Avenue game was a big one, then as the FAI and Munster Junior games rolled on, every time we were playing a big team I was told I’d be found out but as far as I’m concerned I’ve got the better of nearly every one of them, all the back fours, the keepers, the whole lot”.

Some of these doubters aired their views via text, he recalled. “A couple of them were texting me, I won’t mention names but they will find out soon after we win the Munster Junior. I have screenshots, I have loads of screenshots, there was people coming up to me on the street saying ‘this fella said that, this fella said this’. My brothers were very good at backing me, they weren’t happy that I was leaving but they told me to go for it, a lot of people I text said I’d be able to give it a rattle, now look, FAI champion”.

Prior to joining the club, a connection existed with his uncle Daniel Cregan married to long-serving club secretary, she a sister of A team players Eoin and Cathal. Claims from Cathal in a recent interview with The Clare Echo that he was Darragh’s first victim after he received a split lip at the age of four when hurling together may not be entirely accurate, Leahy admitted, “If you talk to a few other people in Shannon there might have been a few before but nothing intentionally, the rest is history after that”.

Darragh Leahy congratulates Tadhg Noonan. Photograph: Natasha Barton

This has helped his transition but he believed the workrate he demonstrates on the field also aided in a seamless move to the Celtic attack. “If you work on the pitch everyone will enjoy what you do, if you battle for everyone on the pitch and don’t give up then everyone will get on with you straight away, they know you are there for the same thing. I’d say a few people were worried that my commitment and attitude wouldn’t be there and that I might have got sent off but as far as I’m concerned it’s been my best year disciplinary wise”.

He added, “My game was always wrecking people’s head, hassling and being a nightmare for people, I’ve always had that, I knew that was never going to be the issue but I never thought I had the football to be out here but as the year goes on when you’re playing and training with better players everything just improves, everything does”.

Work ethic is one of the most attributes to bring to the table, the former St Caimin’s Community School student maintained. “You’re playing junior soccer so there are really good players but everyone is going to make a mistake, have a bad touch or something so if you are there to capitalise, if I did a bit more work on my finishing I’d be a good striker but if you work hard everyone will work hard behind you, I play up top so if my midfielder sees I’m running, hassling or win a corner off a dead ball, it’s just a massive boost for the team. I watched the Fairview game, there was a ball in the corner, I was at the other side of the pitch, I just sprinted across and ended up winning a corner from it, it looked like they had a really good possession but that is just something to drive on the team”.

Captain Eoin Hayes when speaking to The Clare Echo described Darragh as an “enigmatic character” given that he could appear to be foul form but can just spring to life when the whistle goes. “Once the whistle goes I’d be a different animal, I’d be more of a cheery person walking down the sidelines, I act like I’m not interested to be honest, sometimes I wouldn’t be interested but once the whistle goes you have to work and put it in, it takes you away from whatever else is going on in your life, any issues or problems, once the whistle goes you forget about it for the hour at training, that is the best way to play sport and it is the best thing about sport, whatever sport you play when you put the work in it is unbelievable when you can just forget about things and when you have days like these it is just class”.

Becoming one of the fan favourites has been a bonus, “If you were listening to them last year they were probably calling me a lot worse when I was playing with Hibs, they seem to enjoy me now. In a couple of years’ time if I leave they will probably hate me again but that is the joys of soccer”. A love for the club is typified in the Chairman Jody Halpin, he felt, “Saturday when we won, he didn’t even stay out because he didn’t sleep for the week before and he was absolutely wrecked, he was home by 8pm”.

Now working as a plasterer, evening jobs associated with this has resulted in him missing a couple of sessions during the year but he certainly makes up for it. “It’s good, it keeps me fit, I’m on my feet all day, it is a tough trade so the arms would be ready, it’s like strength and conditioning but you are getting paid for it”.

With their formation, Darragh tends to be a lone striker with Eoin Hayes and David McCarthy not too far behind, yet on his own Leahy has managed to upset every opposing back four and their goalkeeper to boot with his antics. He admitted to not being overly familiar with the junior players he is facing off with. “Most of this Newmarket team have played against all the better teams, they know about them all but to be honest I’ve never heard of most of these players, I wouldn’t follow soccer that closely so I’ve never really heard of these players, it is the best way to be because I don’t give a shit about them either, no disrespect to them, they are all really good soccer players but it doesn’t matter who it is if it’s the Shannon Town C centre-back or the St Michael’s centre-back I will still play the same way and do the exact same thing to upset them”.

On the sporting scale, the journey with Newmarket Celtic “is definitely up there” on his proudest moments. “On a personal level when we won the 2014 intermediate with Wolfe Tones in gaelic football, the size difference is completely irrelevant, my father died that year so on a personal level that was special but this on a sports level hasn’t sunk in what we’ve done and it won’t. It might be in fifteen years time when my young fella is playing soccer and he is looking up and he is telling all his friends that his Da won an FAI medal, not many in Shannon have an FAI medal and there is probably better soccer players than me that don’t have one, it shows how big a competition it is”.

He then referenced a photograph taken by Joe Buckley of him and Darius with the FAI Junior Cup, “It’s class, Joe took a lovely photo of me and him at the Cup, I walked onto the pitch with him, they are photos to look back on in years, they are unbelievable to have”.

Trying to soak up the magnitude of their FAI win at the final whistle wasn’t easy. “I just ran, after jumping on Stephen Kelly we took a step back, I soaked it in and then my family came up, my child and my missus (Michaela) came then, they had put up with a lot of shit during the soccer year, she has been unbelievable, going home after match that Darius has been at is special, I’ve watched the videos and he’d be pointing to the screen saying ‘Dada Dada’, it’s class”.

After Kelly dispatched the winning penalty, he ended up being at the bottom of dozens of bodies, the experienced defender never shy of a few words was quick to encourage his teammates to get off him. “I thought he was dead, I swear to God, I thought he was dead, I got up and he was still underneath me,” Leahy recalled of the scenes. “Whatever about he has done in soccer, what I’ve found about him in training has been unbelievable, not the way he trains but the way he talks to everyone, we’d do a warm-up and he’d say that was excellent work, you’re looking at him saying ‘we’re only after doing fucking high-knees’ but the young lads listen to him, he pulls people for a word, when you’re playing and see him coming on in the last twenty minutes is just a boost in itself”.

The Cronan Warriors, Darragh Leahy and Jack Kelly. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Founded in 1955, Darragh is fond of the view that Newmarket Celtic couldn’t win an FAI Junior Cup until they added two ‘Cronan warriors’ to their starting eleven. “It’s mad that there’s two Cronan boys there, we grew up together myself and Jack (Kelly) in Cronan, we spent our whole lives together playing with Newtown, a couple of years with Shannon Hibs and now we’ve won in our first year with Newmarket. When I said I was signing, he was still humming and hawing about it but when he said he was it made it so much easier for me because the Newmarket boys have grown up together and won an FAI together so it was the same for us, two Cronan warriors doing the job”.

They’ve completed the first step by winning the FAI Junior Cup but Darragh is determined they will back this up by claiming provincial honours. “I think we have to, everyone has said if we won the FAI that we wouldn’t win anything else and that is the season done, I think if we win everything it shows how good a team we are, I don’t think we realise how good we are yet. Look at the amount of new players that came in, young fellas, on the starting team you have Shane Cusack, O’Grady, David McCarthy, Hayzo, Conor McDaid and everyone else is new, it just fits perfect, it’s mad how quick the team has jelled together, fair enough jell together beat Avenue to take the Clare Premier back but to gell together and win an FAI and have a chance to win the double, it is unheard of”.

Brian O’Connor will line out for Regional Utd this weekend, the Shannon man is a former schoolmate of Leahy’s and their journeys this season show some similarities. “We actually won a primary schools football together in St Conaires, we’ve been in school together our whole life, we grew up together too. We’ve actually been texting the whole time, he was probably told he was wasting his time going out there but we’re now playing each other in a Munster Junior Final”.

So far, Darragh Leahy has had the last laugh on all the doubters and he’ll certainly have the last word.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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