A Tale of One City
9 August 2017
Most football seasons are instantly confined to memory, with one eye firmly fixed on the next one and the hope that it will be better.
But some seasons utterly defy this categorisation and provide the (often long-suffering) fans of a club with memories they never thought possible or likely when their team kicked off the previous August.
Last season was such a season for Newry City AFC, and, as fate would have it, the cameras of documentary filmmaker Ally McKenzie were there to capture the drama, action, tumult and, ultimately, ecstasy unfolding at The Showgrounds and beyond in its entirety, for the imminent feature release ‘Here We Are: The Story of One Football Club’s Resurrection’.
‘A bigger story’
The Newry story was one that was ripe for the celluloid treatment, the Bessbrook man believed when he pitched it - after Newry City went out of business in 2012, the re-formed club fought its way back to the third tier of Irish League football with two promotions in three years, with one more promotion set to elevate them to where the old club left off, the NIFL Championship – though the scope of the independent documentary he had planned quickly evolved and ended up as a near-hour long piece.
“Originally it was going to be a short 15-minute piece, like Copa90 do online,” said McKenzie. “They did one on Cork City that I had seen, and I thought it would be good to do something like that on Newry because they have a bit of a story there having gone bust and fought their way back.”
Having approached long-term Newry fan and Reporter Sports Editor Gareth McCullough, who came on board as the project’s producer, for insight and advice, and getting the green light from the club, the cameras started rolling during the 2016/17 pre-season.
“When we started recording, we were saying ‘there is much more going on here, there is a bigger story in that they are trying to get promoted again, so can we not touch on what we were talking about then focus on the overall story of trying to gain promotion,” added McKenzie.
After two months of filming – during which Newry rarely put a foot wrong - and a consultation with a British Film Institute (BFI) expert, McKenzie made the judgement call that the project would be a long haul one, despite the inherent risk that fate could prove unwilling to cooperate.
“Your personal life definitely does go out the window,” said McKenzie. “I never realised how much work it would be and I don’t think Gareth or the other cameramen realised.
“We just kind of took it week by week and saw where it was going to go. There were parts of the season where we thought it could be scrapped, because it did hit some pretty low points.
“I remember sitting talking to Gareth and thinking ‘we don’t have a story here’, and at one point thinking of different ways that we could spin the story – an underdog story of a team trying to stay in the league – but promotion was the main aim.
“I definitely didn’t realise how much work it was going to be. It was a marathon, that is the only way I can describe it.
Whilst McKenzie and his chief cameraman Tommy Harris – about whom the director is effusive in his praise saying that the film couldn’t have been made without him - developed a lively rapport with the Newry players, central to the documentary in all regards was the strength of the relationship McKenzie built with Newry manager Darren Mullen, the film’s central figure.
Whilst the season saw testing times - both on and off the pitch - for the Newry boss, he never was anything other than ‘candid and open’ and ‘never held back or said something off camera’, according to McKenzie, who agreed that the implicit and unwavering trust they developed proved key to ‘Here We Are’.
McCullough agrees that the relationship between the director and manager, which ‘developed very quickly’ in part due to the director taking on all interview duties, was ‘a big factor’ in how the film has turned out.
“Everybody got used to Ally, you wanted to have him being there in the background – ‘there’s Ally with a camera’ – and it got to that stage very, very quickly,” he said.
“A lot of that is down to Ally’s nature, but a lot is down to Darren being so open and honest, and knowing that it is going to be good publicity for the club. There was nothing off limits, really.”
McKenzie added: “I’d said to Gareth very early on that I wanted him to do the interviews, and he said no. He said ‘you’re the one who is getting their trust, and because you’re not coming from a journalistic point of view, you are completely independent’.
“Working with Darren and being able to get his trust like I did was a big thing, like being invited into his house to do interviews.”
‘Fear the whole way through’
Local football fans and Reporter readers will know that last season had a happy ending for Newry City AFC, following a playoff victory over Championship side Armagh City, and whilst it’s great in hindsight for the filmmakers – countless documentaries end up binned because of fate’s intervention – it didn’t always seem like it was going to be the case.
“That is the toughest part – knowing that you are going to have to wait for the outcome of the season to know if you have a documentary or not,” said McKenzie.
“It is the fear the whole way through that the story that you are working on isn’t going to work - that is a documentary though.
“If it is not going to work out, you need it to not work out in the right way. Playoff final and defeat still works because they almost got there. Whereas halfway through the season we sat thinking we don’t have a story here, and if they lose again I think we are going to have to make a call.
“We had our story going on behind it all, and to do it without a budget, and to get up every week for the love of doing it and for the love of telling a story is hard.
“From a football fan point of view as well you are an eternal optimist and an eternal pessimist at the same time. You always hope that it’s going to turn out well, but you never believe it will.”
‘Back in the running’
An awful December, during which the club lost five consecutive games, threatened to derail both season and documentary, though the New Year brought a season-defining Lazarus moment by the seaside, when Newry staged a stirring second half comeback to win 5-3 in Bangor, having been 3-1 down at the break. Both producer and director agree this was the season’s ‘eureka moment’.
“From a season point of view, from a football point of view that was a turning point, because they got themselves back in the running,” said McCullough.
“From a film point of view it is very obvious, very noticeable in the film - the juxtaposition of having these dark moments and then it’s like somebody flicks a switch.
“Obviously if they hadn’t gone on that run afterwards, we wouldn’t have had that juxtaposition.
“But to go from an extreme low, not necessarily to an extreme high because there was still a lot of work to do, but the high that upped the momentum.
“The excitement and tension that goes along with that will hopefully get people in the mood of ‘right, they’ve a chance here’.”
McKenzie added: “That match – if you were writing this as a screenplay, that would be your pivotal point.
“The way it worked out, it was bang in the centre of the season, it’s almost like it was meant to be for us. We went 1-0 up, and the next thing Bangor scored three goals.
“Darren’s head sank, all the boys were just deflated, and I genuinely think that if they had lost that game they would have just spiralled down.
“Then out of nowhere they won the game 5-3, and, as Gareth said, that was the turning point. Afterwards Darren said ‘we have lost five in a row, there is no reason why we can’t go and win five in a row’.”
‘A perfect moment’
An impressive run then saw Newry shoot back up the table into contention, but, whilst minor blips were overcome, overhauling Limavady United at the top of the table proved out of reach; however, a dramatic denouement, in the form of a promotion/relegation playoff by dint of finishing second in the table, was ensured after months spent fretting about how it all would end.
Everything went right in both matches against Armagh giving ‘Here We Are’ a euphoric finale – ‘a perfect moment’ to end the season’s story arc, which played out as if penned by the documentary makers.
“After the playoff was the first time it actually dawned on me,” said McKenzie. “I don’t really believe in all that, but it was almost like it was meant to be.
“Everything that happened was just meant to work for our story. Every single Saturday, Ray Byrne (assistant manager) would come over and say ‘what do you think, are we going to do it today?’
“I said to him that ‘everything I have worked on to this point has worked out - any documentary I’ve worked on, the ending we have needed has always happened, so it is going to happen this time’.
“He had a good laugh at that, but there is no way that the story could have worked out any better. If Newry had have won the league, it would have been great for the club, but for the drama it wouldn’t have been as good for us.”
McCullough added that only a playoff win with a late injury time winner or penalty shootout victory could have added more dramatic impetus, though they nor anybody involved with the club could complain.
“Considering the low point that we were sitting sixth at one point, and for the players to do what they did, it just worked out absolutely ideal,” he said.
With the season’s footage in the can, filming now ceded to an intensive editing process – going from ‘having the craic with 20-odd lads to being stuck in a room at stupid hours of the morning’ - though this was not without a tinge of emotion.
“As far as the playoff goes, filming that was the perfect moment,” said McKenzie.
“It was kind of emotional in a way as well, because you had a year of guessing what was going to happen, waking up thinking who are they playing this weekend, how are we going to tell the story of what is happening, are they going to get promoted, are they going to give us a story?
“To finally film it and to be in changing rooms celebrating – I broke a camera because I got that much champagne in it, the boys were spraying it everywhere – was just the perfect moment.
“Originally it was a documentary to get people interested in the Irish League. If I can go down to games, from being brought up with a Premier League background, and get completely invested in it, there is no reason why everybody can’t.
“The way we have been billing it to people is that it is the third division of Northern Irish football, if you can become obsessed with that it just shows how good the quality of experience is.”
‘Here We Are: The Story of One Football Club’s Resurrection’ will premiere in the Canal Court Hotel on August 19. Tickets are priced £10 and are available from the Newry Reporter office reception, County Cleaners on Monaghan Street and by contacting the film’s Facebook page: HerewearefilmNCAFC and Twitter: @HereWeAreNCAFCTo read more subscribe to our online Newspaper