David Jeffrey: the friendly, fearsome and innovative giant of Northern Irish management

David Jeffrey: the friendly, fearsome and innovative giant of Northern Irish management

“SIT DOWN AND STOP ACTING LIKE A PETULANT CHILD.” Christopher Stalford had heard enough. For 10 minutes, Sinn Fein representative Jim McVeigh had held the floor of the Belfast City Council meeting, protesting at the actions of his DUP colleague Ruth Patterson. Now, the deputy Lord Mayor had finally interjected. 

Throughout Mr McVeigh’s objections, Mrs Patterson had been rendered agog. Given the opportunity to speak, the representative for the Botanic district had quickly donned her Linfield scarf, before asking the attendees to commemorate the outgoing David Jeffrey on his 17 years of managerial service. In Northern Ireland, it seems, 31 trophies isn’t enough to stop you being a political football. 

It had been a tumultuous year. In 1962, with the IRA calling off its campaign of guerrilla warfare along the border, a general election saw the Ulster Unionist party gain a majority at the polls. The North might have had the lowest death rate in the United Kingdom, but tensions between Catholics and Protestants would soon reach boiling point. The resentment would soon foment into sustained political and social upheaval for much of the proceeding three decades. 

All of it would have been incomprehensible to David Jeffrey, who was born the very same year on 28 October. The son of Ken and Isobel Jeffrey, he had only one interest as a young child – to emulate George Best and play for his beloved Manchester United. A young David would while away the hours on McDowell’s field near the family home in East Belfast, playing against himself in imaginary games of football. “I used to get two jumpers out and kick the ball, sprinting as quick as I could to try and save the ball.  I used to play matches on my own. I just loved the game,” he admitted to an audience of schoolchildren at a BBC event in 2016. 

Jeffrey graduated quickly from the park to play for local side The Cubs, with his father observing games from the touchline. His love for the sport was so strong that, when he failed the 11+ in 1963, he wasn’t unconcerned by the dimming of his academic prospects. Dundonald High mightn’t have been the best school for learning, but it had the area’s best football team. 

Eventually, Jeffrey’s defensive nous attracted the attention of Manchester United, who invited him to Old Trafford for a trial when he was 14. Manager Dave Sexton saw enough, offering him a three-year contract as a schoolboy.

Two years later, his dreams of a professional career were dead. By then, Jeffrey had made inroads into the reserve side in Manchester, but manager Ron Atkinson informed him that he would be let go. Distraught, he returned to Northern Ireland and joined Linfield, earning £12 a week as a semi-professional. 

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What seemed like a cruel blow would turn into a blessing. For the next 10 years, Jeffrey became the focal point and captain of one of the best Linfield teams in memory, scoring the goal that secured a historic victory against Shamrock Rovers in the 1985 European Cup. With manager Roy Coyle equalling Belfast Celtic’s six consecutive league titles in the 1980s, Jeffrey departed the Blues as a bona fide legend. After a brief spell with hometown club Ards, he accepted Shea Hamill’s offer to join Larne FC as a player-coach. 

In an experience that he would later call “extremely formative”, Jeffrey gained an insight into the skills necessary to become a successful manager at the highest level. His understanding of tactics and finances blossomed, as did his knowledge of how to handle the media and deal with the delicate personalities of the dressing room. When Trevor Anderson invited him to become Linfield assistant manager in 1996, he didn’t hesitate. 

Less than a year later, Jeffrey was given the manager’s job in his own right after impressing in a caretaker role during a 2-0 win over Ballyclare in the Floodlit Cup. It didn’t seem likely then, but Linfield were about to embark on one of the most successful periods in their history. Joining Jeffrey in the hot seat was Brian McLaughlin, who would stand by his friend’s side for the next two decades. Joining from Larne, meanwhile, was opposition scout Barry McClung. Together, they led their new club to three trophies in their first season. 

The accolades kept flowing, with Jeffrey’s first league title arriving in 2000 as well as a triumph in the League Cup. A further treble was won in the following campaign. By the end of 2002, Linfield had won 10 trophies under the cueball manager. Not a bad total for five years, but it was about to be bested. 

The Setanta Cup was the progeny of the similarly-titled broadcasting giant, which had pumped hundreds of thousands of euros into the first All-Ireland Football Championship since the 1980s. Linfield started the tournament poorly, and their recovery to make the final against Shelbourne was dampened by the disastrous events of what would eventually become known as ‘Morgan Day’. 

Heading into their league match at the Oval on 23 April 2005, Glentoran and Linfield were neck-and-neck in the standings. A win or a draw would see Jeffrey’s side clinch the trophy. The Glens, meanwhile, simply had to beat their opponents if they had any aspirations for glory. 

After Davy Larmour had smashed in an equaliser to bring the scores to 2-2, Linfield seemed on course for yet another title. That was before Chris Morgan – a former Blues player – stepped up to guide home a late winner. The title was headed for Glentoran, but the manner of the victory was too much for some of the Linfield fans to take. In scenes that would shame both clubs, supporters spilled onto the pitch, throwing stones and bottles as they clashed violently in full view of the children and families who had come to see a sporting event. 

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Against such a backdrop, few commentators gave Linfield a chance of beating Shelbourne in Dublin. Here were a team of almost 30 professionals, playing in a superior league and without the shadow of the events at the Oval looming over them. Over 2,000 fans may have made the 100-mile trip to Tolka Park, but few harboured hope of an upset. 

When Glenn Ferguson and Peter Thompson gave the visitors a two-goal lead, however, they believed in the impossible. Glentoran might be the champions of Ulster, but Linfield were the best team in the whole of Ireland. It remains Jeffrey’s crowning achievement. 

Back home, there were more titles to be won. The league, the cup, the League Cup and the Antrim Shield all crumbled under Linfield’s incessant blue wave, with Jeffrey rightfully taking his place amongst the pantheon of Northern Ireland’s most accomplished managers. What, however, made him so special?

Despite his bruising physical appearance, Jeffrey was an innovator and a thinker. Renowned for his tactical preparation, he approached the management of a semi-amateur club with the professionalism of a coach in the Premier League. It was under his auspices, for example, that Linfield introduced a third night of weekly training to focus purely on their players’ technical skills. 

His attention to detail was captured perfectly when he was approached to become Ballymena United manager in 2016. According to Belfast Live, Jeffrey met the club chairman “armed with four A4 pages of information on the team and a raft of questions on the nuts and bolts of the club’s vision and ambitions for the future.”

Jeffrey was as friendly as he was fearsome. An eloquent, honest speaker in media interviews, he could morph instantly with incandescent rage, particularly if confronted with an egregious refereeing decision or what he perceived to be a slacking player. With his eyes bulging and bald face reddened, he was a man you simply did not want to cross. 

He wasn’t all bluster, though. After his side beat Dungannon Swifts on penalties in the 2007 Irish Cup final, Jeffrey embarked on what had become a routine lap of honour. As Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ blasted out over the speakers, the Linfield manager couldn’t resist the urge to throw a few unseemly shapes. The video, which is on YouTube to this day, is well worth a watch. It signified Jeffrey’s ability to twin the carrot with the stick. A disciplinarian with laser focus, yes, but able to manage his players with the sensitivity and humour when necessary. 

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In a province often riven by its sectarian divides, Jeffrey proved himself to be a man of admirable moderation. That might be expected of someone who, after returning from his abortive stint in Manchester, pursued a full-time career as a social worker in his local community. These days, Jeffrey works with vulnerable older people in Larne, but his inclusive and compassionate streak has been evident for longer than that. 

In 2005, the lifelong member of the Orange Order allowed the St. Mary’s Camogie team to train at his club’s Midgeley Park facility, after the club from the Catholic teacher training college had searched in vain for a floodlit venue for their Purcell Cup clash against Queen’s University. 

Whilst Linfield might have – however fairly or unfairly – faced accusations of sectarianism in the past, no such slurs could be ascribed to it during Jeffrey’s reign. After a 2005 match versus Derry City – a team widely supported by the local Catholic community – which had seen Blues fans attacked, Jeffrey told the assembled media, “It’s not a case of us having one or two token Catholics. Half our squad are Catholic. Half are Protestant. All are footballers.” The efforts tallied with the wider measures taken by the club in recent years to weed out some of the more unsavoury elements that have plagued Northern Irish football in the past. 

Jeffrey has also placed on record his disapproval of the sectarian chanting that has historically – whether real or imagined – played in a part in dissuading the Catholic community from attending Irish league games. This was evidenced most when, in a match against Ballymena United, he took issue with what was perceived as religious abuse directed to his Catholic players by sections of the Showgrounds support. The claim was protested vociferously by the home club, but it signified Jeffrey’s willingness to stand for his principles. 

Furthermore, when Paul McAreavey and Aiden O’Kane, who hail from the staunchly nationalist areas of Ballymurphy and Ardoyne respectively, signed for the club in 2003, both were impressed at the professionalism of the club they signed up to. McAreavey recalled in an interview with The Herald earlier this year, “David Jeffrey really impressed me. I went to Linfield and it was a different world. Everything was down to a tee. It was the most professional club I played at and I include Swindon [one of his former clubs] in that.”

It has been argued, however, that some figures within the club had grown irritated by their manager’s profile. Despite winning six domestic doubles in seven years, Jeffrey’s tenure was called into question after embarrassing videos from a private club event surfaced online. In it, he can be seen singing along with Linfield fans as they chant “Thank You for Jimmy Callacher”. At the time, Callacher was a Glentoran player who had been heavily linked with a move to their bitter rivals. With the transfer not yet official, the club publicly reprimanded their manager, who apologised unreservedly for what he had misjudged as ‘innocent banter’. It wasn’t the only time that Jeffrey had ruffled establishment feathers. In 2014, he criticised the Irish FA for failing to give the local game the attention that it “warrants, needs and deserves”. 

“Sometimes you just sense things,” Jeffrey admitted to BBC Northern Ireland in 2014, when asked about the reasons for his eventual departure from the club to whom he would bring a record 31 trophies in seventeen years. “I made the decision in the interests of the club, and in the interests of myself.” Privately, however, there was a sense that if he hadn’t of walked, he would’ve been pushed. 

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It didn’t help that, during his last season at Windsor Park, the club had languished temporarily at the bottom of the table. The nine-time Northern Irish Manager of the Year had finally, it seemed, run out of ideas. After losing a league match to Ballinamallard in early 2014, his mind was made up. “A big chapter of my life is coming to a close,” Jeffrey admitted in an interview on his departure from the club he had spent 25 years building. 

Comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from Manchester United in 2013 might seem grandiose, but it was no exaggeration. Jeffrey was every bit as iconic to the Northern Irish game, a title-winning scion who had led his side to six wins for every 10 games it played. The exit of a manager who won nine league titles, seven Irish Cups, six League Cups and an equal number of Antrim Shields felt sanguine and dismissive. With both Crusaders and Cliftonville edging out in front domestically, Linfield’s dynastic domination of the Irish league was finally over. 

The Blues still hadn’t won a trophy by the time Jeffrey re-entered the domestic game last year. Glenn Ferguson, the striker who had scored so many of Linfield’s goals during their mid-2000s heyday, was sacked ahead of what most football commentators considered to a be an almighty coup. “I never really imagined myself being back in a dugout,” Jeffrey admitted upon signing a three-year contract with the club last March. 

Nor did anybody else, with his intelligent and erudite opinions gracing written and spoken media alike during his brief sojourn away from the sidelines. After consulting with his family, however, it seemed like the only logical decision. “Maybe when Brendan wins that amount of trophies he can come back to Ballymena,” smirked the new Sky Blues coach in September.

Jeffrey had just led his club to a surprising fourth-place in the league, and was in a playful mood when asked to discuss the Celtic manager’s recent comments about his future. “After here if it takes me back to Ballymena United in Northern Ireland or elsewhere abroad or the Premier League, so be it,” Rodgers had shrugged when asked if he had considered his next managerial move. 

“That was very nice of Brendan to remember his home team,” a twinkly-eyed Jeffrey had responded. “Certainly he has been successful, but Brian McLaughlin and I have done six doubles in seven years, we’ve done the clean sweep, we’ve won an All-Ireland.”

Ballymena’s revival might have slowed a little, but few who have witnessed Jeffrey’s titanic impact on the Northern Irish game would bet against him securing his 32nd domestic trophy in short order. For a man who’s built the most glittering legacy in Northern Irish football, only the next game matters.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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