He was our man. He was the man that, when you had the big bullies from the big clubs coming up to us, we’d say, ‘You know what, we’ve got Ryan and Ryan will help us’. And that’s what he did, writes Liam Mackey.

The phrase ‘close-knit community’ could have been coined to describe the League of Ireland, yet it’s not quite so small a world that everyone actually knows everyone around the game.

I didn’t know Ryan McBride. I saw him play, of course, but I don’t think I ever spoke to him and certainly never spent any time even on the periphery of his company.

And yet, now, in the aftermath of his sudden death at the age of 27, I realise I knew him all along. And, if you’re lucky, so did you — even if you happen to be someone who has never had the slightest interest in the domestic game.

Speaking earlier this week of the impact on the Derry City players of the loss of their captain, the club’s chief executive Sean Barrett said: “They’re just youngsters. Their leader has basically left them. He’s the man that they all looked up to.

“He was our man. He was the man that, when you had the big bullies from the big clubs coming up to us, we’d say, ‘You know what, we’ve got Ryan and Ryan will help us’. And that’s what he did.”

I think we all know that man. Or it might be a woman. We might know him or her as a team-mate, yes, or it might be as a family member, a friend or a work colleague. The solid, strong, unwavering, reliable type.

Someone who will always have your back. Someone you can turn to when you need a helping hand. The kind of person who has enough strength to spare that they can lend you some when your own is running out.

I count it as one of the blessings of my life that I’ve known a few people like that in my time.

And, having read all the tributes to him, that’s why I feel I knew Ryan McBride too.

What I can’t pretend to know — though most of us, from our own experiences, can certainly try to imagine — is just how heart-breaking this time must be for all those who loved him: family, close friends and his comrades in the Derry dressing room.

According to the vernacular of the game, footballers — a bit like cats and dogs — appear to age differently to the rest of us. Where a 20-year-old can still be regarded as “a kid”, a 30-year-old is already “a senior pro” and — especially if he or she’s a centre-half — soon to be accorded “veteran” status.

And, because of the comparatively short-lived duration of a player’s career, it’s not at all long after that before, doubtless to their discomfort, they find themselves being referred to as ‘ex’ this and ‘former’ that.

But though he has been consistently described in glowing testimonials from those who knew him best as “a leader” and “a warrior” — and, let the record show too, “an absolute gentleman” — the awful fact remains that Ryan McBride, if no longer one of the ‘youngsters’ donning the Candystripes, was still, at 27, a young man.

And what made the news of his death at that age an even more profoundly shattering experience for so many was that it came just a day after he’d been out on the pitch, helping Derry beat Drogheda United 4-0, as the Foylesiders maintained their perfect start to the Premier Division season.

But does his team’s early-season success matter at all now? Of course it does.

Whenever tragedy strikes in sport, it’s a common reflex for people to say that sport itself is put “in perspective”. And, of course, that’s incontestably true in the sense that no loss on the scoreboard can ever be remotely comparable to the loss of a human being.

But it’s not to say, as I suspect some seem to seek to imply, that sport is somehow a trivial matter.

In the case of Ryan McBride, everything about the way he applied himself to his football spoke of how important it was to him, how it even helped define who he was and his place in the world.

That he was immensely proud to wear the shirt of his hometown club and was brave, committed and wholehearted on the field of play, is encapsulated in the now widely viewed clip of that phenomenal tackle which took out two Cork City players for the price of one in the heat of battle one night at Turner’s Cross. (And, yes, as far as I can see, he got the ball first.)

But what most of us can’t see are all the hours, weeks, months and years of effort which he devoted to making himself the player he became. Nor can we see all the hopes and dreams which must have inspired him and, no doubt, kept him going in the face of setbacks and disappointments along the way. Trying to be the best you can be at something you love – this can never be trivial stuff.

Today in Turner’s Cross, where Cork City and Dundalk renew their great rivalry, and at grounds all across the country, tributes will be paid to Ryan McBride. The FAI have asked clubs to observe a minute’s silence before kick-off, and it’s also expected that, thanks to an initiative by supporters right across the league, the fifth minute of every game will be marked by applause from the crowd.

And then, in an instant, the football will take centre stage again, not because it’s “more important than life and death” — to paraphrase Bill Shankly’s blackly humorous line — but because the very fact of the inevitability of death, especially when it comes all too soon, makes it even more important that we cherish life and live it to the fullest. That, like Ryan McBride, we give it our best shot.


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