JIt was a moment before Darvel’s historic Scottish Cup win over Aberdeen on Monday which Mick Kennedy calls “very interesting”. The manager had given a jaw-dropping team talk, which went viral on social media, and his side had finished their warm-up, but tension still lingered in the dressing room. Then, Cher’s Believe started on a player’s speakerphone.
“There was a tiny bit of nerve, you could feel it,” Kennedy says. “But then one of the boys, [veteran defender] Darren Miller, started singing and the other guys started joining in. Kennedy came out of his own locker room to find all the players sitting in their seats singing the 1998 anthem. “It got on my nerves. It was a bit strange, to be fair.
A moment of spontaneous community karaoke wasn’t the only odd occurrence that night. Darvel’s 1-0 victory over Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen, seven-time Scottish Cup winners and a side five divisions above Premier League side West Scotland, made headlines across the country. “For sure in Scotland it’s probably the biggest upset ever in a competition,” Kennedy says, “and that makes it a bit more remarkable.”
Darvel’s players were filmed losing him in the locker room afterwards, intoning Believe for the second time in perfect fashion. They then left for a night on the tiles in Glasgow. “I don’t know exactly where half of them are,” Kennedy said the next day. His morning had been more low-key, visiting the local primary school, speaking to the delighted residents of the Ayrshire town, trying to ‘put things into perspective a bit’.
Kennedy attributes the secret of his team’s victory to belief; trust in each other and in their ability to succeed. He says he spent preparing for the match insisting everyone on his team shared the belief it could be won, before passing that belief on to the players. On match day he did not mention Aberdeen once. “I felt that if we wanted to have a chance to win the game, we had to totally impose ourselves in the game and it was all up to us,” he said.
Darvel has come a long way in a short time. It wasn’t until 2020 that the club converted to a senior team after 132 years of playing in the youth leagues. Owned by the chief executive of Brownings the Bakers, Darvel has since improved its players and infrastructure, won back-to-back titles and is well-placed for another promotion to the fifth tier of Scottish football this summer, one step away from the professional leagues.
Belief has been key to Darvel’s story, but Kennedy’s principles go deeper than that. What is striking about the manager’s post-match remarks is his description of the club’s culture defined not just by togetherness, but ‘love and respect’.
The L-word is not something that commonly appears in the managerial lexicon, but Kennedy thinks it is paramount. “My beliefs in life and football coincide a bit,” he says.
“My most important job every year, as I see it, is to make sure that I surround the boys on the team with good people with good hearts. I encourage the guys to understand each other’s lives, to s ensure that if anyone needs support in football or outside of football – whatever your challenges – this [you can] always see people who respect you, love you, care for you, and will do whatever they can to ensure that you can meet these challenges head-on.
“I deliver that message all the time, maybe more than I do football tactics and philosophy. It’s absolutely ingrained within the group.
It’s love that drives players to go the extra mile, according to Kennedy, to believe and achieve “success that people think is unimaginable.” His side pulled off such a feat against Aberdeen, and a fifth-round draw against Falkirk is next. Alexander Fleming remains perhaps the most famous thing about Darvel, but he’ll be looking over his shoulder now, figuratively speaking.