By Niall Gartland
TERRY Devlin, remember the name. The 19-year-old Cookstown lad is one hell of a prospect on the soccer field and a few weeks ago signed on the dotted line for Engish League One club Portsmouth.
All being well, he’ll go on to have a long and fruitful career in his chosen sport though in an alternative time he could have been quite the Gaelic footballer.
Indeed, he played in last year’s MacRory Cup final in Holy Trinity Cookstown’s ill-fated showdown against a supreme St Mary’s Magherafelt side.
Soccer was the big pull, however, and in the space of a few short years he’s gone from Dungannon Swifts to Glentoran to Portsmouth. The sky seems to be the limit and his old manager at Holy Trinity, John McKeever, isn’t one bit surprised by his rapid development.
“Terry is the best lad, he’s a very modest cub, hard working academically and hard working on the pitch,” he said.
“He was very talented and if he didn’t throw all his eggs in the soccer basket over the last couple of years, he would’ve been on Tyrone’s All-Ireland U-20 team of last year, I have no doubt about that.
“Last year’s MacRory Cup Final was his last game of Gaelic football. After that he’s pushed everything into his soccer career.
“He showed potential from a very young age at both soccer and gaelic. He actually had a couple of opportunities to go across the water before Covid hit.
“He stayed home with Dungannon Swifts and then moved to Glentoran for a year where he developed really quickly into a first-team starter at midfield.”
McKeever’s connection with Devlin goes beyond the halls of Holy Trinity, Cookstown. Tommy’s father Terry is part of McKeever’s management team at Antrim side Portglenone, a relationship that stretches some years now.
“When I was over Cookstown when they won the All-Ireland Intermediate title, back in 2013, Tommy was part of the management. Terry came to all the matches, he was nine years old at that time and went to all the games.
“There’s a nice picture of my wee lad Conan with Terry when he was playing with County Tyrone in the Milk Cup five years ago. I truly always thought Terry would make it, that he would get an opportunity in England because of his dedication.”
Devlin came on as a sub early on in last year’s MacRory Cup final, but there’s a story behind McKeever’s decision not to throw him on from the opening whistle.
“Well the reason behind that is that Terry played a full game the day beforehand with Dungannon against Ballymena. His manager at that time was Dean Shields.
“Terry was contracted to Dungannon but Dean was very accommodating to us and allowed him to play for Holy Trinity, the condition being that he wouldn’t play a full game.
“If he hadn’t have played that match for the Swifts, it’s 100 per cent guaranteed he would’ve started the MacRory final. He came on after about ten minutes and that was the reason why.”
Devlin touched base with McKeever the week he signed for Portsmouth on a three-year contract. The club made a fuss about the transfer on social media – welcome to our new signing, complete with a video interview – and Devlin is more than happy with his choice.
“He was on the phone after flying over, he’d just completed his medical and was back at the hotel. He gave me a call and was very happy with the way everything had gone that day,” added McKeever.
“There’s been a lot of interest from a few English clubs but Terry and Tommy believe Portsmouth offer him the best opportunity to develop his career. They were very close to getting promoted to the Championship last year, they finished just outside the play-off spots, so they’re a developing club that will be pushing for promotion and I’m sure Terry will be involved.
“The fact they signed him on a three-year contract shows how much interest they have in Terry. It won’t faze him as he’s got two very solid years under his belt in the Irish league and he’ll bring that experience to England. He’s not going over as a 16-year-old, he’s an experienced Irish League footballer and he’ll be well prepared.”
McKeever also said that the soccer starlet is a fantastic ambassador for Holy Trinity College given all that he has already achieved in his young career.
“I remember Terry being academically very strong. He studied Sports Science in Holy Trinity and he was heavily involved in the PE department. At any tournaments or Gaelic matches, he was fit to help out or referee. He was a real leader for us, he’s a great ambassador for Holy Trinity and we as a school are exceptionally proud of his achievements.”
So what exactly does Devlin bring to the table on the soccer field? We spoke to lifelong Glentoran fanatic Ian Clarke, a recent director at the club, who says he was astonished by Devlin’s progress in his season at the club.
“It’s incredible, he signed on the last day of the transfer window last August alongside a few other young lads who seemed to have a future, but Terry got into the team very early in the season and never left it.
“He was runners up in the supporters vote for player of the year, he was just unlucky that Bobby Burns had such a great season for us.
“It was a hell of an achievement when you consider it’s a team with players like Jay Donnelly, Conor McMenamn and Aidan Wilson.
“As the season went on he just seemed to get better and better, the wee lad’s a machine, a fantastic footballer, and of all the players from Glentoran who’ve tried their hand across the water, there’s very very few who have a better chance of making it than Terry.”
Devlin excelled in an attacking midfield role and also starred in their memorable cup run in the Europa league. Clarke says no-one at the club was surprised that his stint at the Glens has turned out to be a short one.
“I think everybody thought it was inevitable, that he’d move. Last season he played 44 games for us and scored six goals from midfield. It’s incredible for a lad who seemed to go below the radar at the Swifts. He came in and we put together a very good run in Europe, and it was him, Bobby Burns and Rhys Marshall who really drove us on at midfield. The best thing I could say about him is that he played like a captain, there’s nothing the lad couldn’t do.”
The million dollar question is whether Devlin can carve out a long-term professional career for himself at England or elsewhere
Time will tell but Clarke is hopeful.
“It’s a lottery at times, it depends what club they go to, and how the club looks after them, especially at Terry’s young age as you’re going into a very competitive environment.
“The way they announced him, it struck me that they were presenting him as a first-team player, and the manager said they expect him to play a role for their first team this season.
“Some fellas just have it, and Terry’s one of those fellas. He’s physically strong, he’s quick, he’s talented. He’s the modern midfielder. I expect him to make it and expert him to play at International level as well. He was a fantastic addition to our team and we really will miss him.”
Devlin is following a path similar to that of fellow Tyrone man Niall McGinn. McGinn, now 35, played alongside Devlin last season at the Glens.
“Terry has all the attributes to make it in the professional game,” added the former Celtic and Aberdeen player.
“He’s got a lot of quality and to boot has a great attitude and tremendous work ethic. He has firmly established himself in the senior game with Dungannon Swifts and Glentoran and that will stand him in good stead.”
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