(Photo by Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
DERMOT Drummy had just picked up a fare and was navigating his way out of Heathrow when he took a call that would change his life.
Eight months earlier, in late 1996, the full-time cabbie and former Hendon winger had played in an Arsenal charity match alongside legendary Gooner Liam Brady.
Drummy had been Brady’s boot boy at Highbury and, afterwards, the pair got chatting about old times – and new.
“Liam was head of youth development at Arsenal,” said Drummy. “So, I asked him if I could come in and perhaps do a bit of coaching – just to see how things were set up and get a few tips. He said he’d give me a call if anything came up.”
Drummy returned to the day job, assuming the plea had fallen on deaf ears. It hadn’t. And that day, as Drummy made for the M4, Brady called, offering his old mate a part-time job coaching the under-12s.
Two decades after rejection by Arsenal, Drummy was back at Highbury. Now, nearly 20 years on, the 55-year-old is managing Crawley Town with a reputation as one of the most respected youth coaches in the country.
The black cab is long gone. The wisdom once dispensed to bored businessmen instead absorbed by future superstars.
Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Fabrice Muamba: all of them count the genial East Londoner as a profound influence in their development.
“Dermot was a great coach and a great guy,” said Muamba, who met Drummy shortly after arriving in England from the Democratic Republic of Congo as an 11-year-old.
“A lot of us came through from that Arsenal youth system and that speaks volumes. He helped me so much, not just as a player but as a person, too. I am very grateful to Dermot and I really can’t speak highly enough of him.”
The careers of Drummy’s illustrious alumni were a far cry from his own modest playing days. By his own admission, Drummy was a “failed pro”, a talented player who lacked the self-belief to make the grade at Arsenal.
Released at 19, his professional career amounted to just five games on loan at Blackpool, before a Non-League odyssey that started in Hendon and ended, 15 years later, at St Albans.
At Hendon, he partnered Iain Dowie in attack. His flamboyance – one favourite trick was to drop his hands and pretend to pick up the ball, only to burst into action when the defender inevitably stopped – won terrace hearts.
At Wealdstone, he was the skipper, senior player and all round go-to guy. It was also where he met Gordon Bartlett, the long-serving Stones manager who remains a good friend to this day.
“When I arrived in 1995, he was reaching the end of his career,” recalls Bartlett, who has remained in charge at Wealdstone ever since.
“He had a lot of respect, a great attitude. I would have loved to keep him around, but he wanted to keep playing. He left shortly afterwards, but we’ve kept in contact ever since and it’s no surprise to see him doing so well.”
For his part, Drummy says Bartlett was “the first manager I’d had that used to talk to me, not at me. He didn’t go round kicking the doors and that’s something I’ve taken on board”.
That compassionate approach would serve Drummy well as youth football evolved from a school of hard knocks into the oft-maligned academy system of today.
“He was very patient and very understanding,” said Andre Blackman, the Crawley left-back who first worked with Drummy at Arsenal aged 13.
“He treats players like adults, makes sure you understand what he wants without being aggressive. As a coach, it’s the fine details he opens your eyes to.”
Later, it was Chelsea’s youngsters who would benefit. Drummy joined the Blues as an under-16s coach in 2007, progressing to become academy, reserve and under-21 manager.
In 2010, he brought the FA Youth Cup to Stamford Bridge for the first time in 49 years. In 2012-13, his team reached the NextGen Series final, beating Barcelona, Ajax, Juventus and Arsenal along the way.
In 2013-14, his side lifted the Under-21 Premier League by defeating Manchester City and Manchester United.
So esteemed was Drummy at Stamford Bridge that Jose Mourinho even trusted him to coach the first team during international breaks.
Last year, Brazilian side Bangu asked him to be their manager.
Of course, managing Crawley is very different from nurturing kids.
Surviving in League Two is a whole new challenge.
But, having once paid hard-up players out of his cab earnings as a young player-manager of Ware, Drummy is hardly wet behind the ears.
And, according to Bartlett, those ten years spent cruising the streets of London are just as vital as learning under the likes of Don Howe and Arsene Wenger.
“Management is about personality,” he said. “It’s not about dealing with youngsters. It’s about dealing with people. And Dermot is a people person.
“He was a cabbie for almost a decade and you can’t make a success of that without the gift of the gab.
“You have to be personable, you have to know how to chat to people and judge someone’s character.
“People will want to do well for him. That is as critical on a football pitch as it is in a factory or an office.
“If you’ve got that, you can succeed in any walk of life – and Dermot has it in spades.”