There was a moment before Darvel’s historic Scottish Cup victory against Aberdeen on Monday that Mick Kennedy describes as “very interesting”. The manager had given a tub-thumping team talk, one that has gone viral on social media, and his team had completed their warmup, but tension lingered in the dressing room. Then Cher’s Believe started up on a player’s speaker.
“There was a wee bit of nerves, you could feel it,” Kennedy says. “But then one of the boys, [veteran defender] Darren Miller, started singing and the other guys began to join in.” Kennedy came through from his own dressing room to find every player sitting in their seat singing the 1998 anthem. “It took the nerves right out of the air. It was a bit strange, to be fair.”
A moment of spontaneous communal karaoke was not the only strange occurrence that night. Darvel’s 1-0 victory against the Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen, the seven-time Scottish Cup winners and a team five divisions above the West of Scotland Premier Division side, has grabbed headlines across the country. “Certainly in Scotland this is probably the biggest upset in any competition ever,” says Kennedy, “and that makes it a little bit more remarkable.”
Darvel’s players were filmed losing it in the dressing room afterwards, belting out Believe for a second time in word-perfect fashion. They then headed out for a night on the tiles in Glasgow. “I’m not sure where half of them are located at the minute,” Kennedy says the following day. His morning had been more low key, visiting the local primary school, speaking to delighted residents of the Ayrshire town, trying to “put things into perspective a little bit”.
Kennedy attributes the secret of his team’s victory to belief; belief in each other and in their ability to succeed. He says he spent the run-up to the match insisting that everyone on his staff shared a belief it could be won, before passing that conviction on to the players. On the day of the game he didn’t mention Aberdeen ounce. “I felt if we were to have any chance of winning the game we had to totally impose ourselves on the game and that it was all about us,” he says.
Darvel have come a long way in a short space of time. It was only in 2020 that the club converted to a seniors side after 132 years of playing in the junior leagues. Owned by the managing director of Brownings the Bakers, Darvel have since upgraded players and infrastructure, achieved two consecutive titles and are well placed for another tilt at promotion to the fifth tier of Scottish football this summer, one step away from the professional leagues.
Belief has been key to the Darvel story, but Kennedy’s principles run deeper than that. Striking in the manager’s post-match remarks was his description of the club’s culture being defined not just by togetherness but “love and respect”.
The L word is not something that commonly pops up in the managerial lexicon, but Kennedy believes it’s paramount. “My beliefs in life and football coincide a little bit,” he says.
“My most important job every year, as I see it, is making sure I surround the boys in the squad with good people with good hearts. I encourage the guys to understand each other’s lives, to make sure if anybody needs support in football or away from football – whatever your challenges are – that [you can] always see people who respect you, love you, care for you and will do their utmost to make sure you can face those challenges head on.
“I drive that message continuously, maybe more than I do tactics and footballing philosophy. It’s absolutely embedded within the group.”
It’s the love that gets players to go the extra mile, according to Kennedy, to believe and to achieve “success that people think is unimaginable”. His team pulled off such a feat against Aberdeen, and a fifth-round tie against Falkirk is up next. Alexander Fleming may remain the most famous thing about Darvel, but he’ll be looking over his shoulder now, figuratively speaking.