Apparently someone said that Derry might struggle for scores when they got to Croke Park.
Nobody could say for certain exactly who made the claim but in the spirit of rogue journalism and perhaps eliciting an interesting soundbite, it was put to Rory Gallagher all the same.
“Well I don’t know who said that, so I don’t,” responded the Derry manager, clearly caught on the hop by the curious query after watching his team hit the net five times in their 5-13 to 2-8 win over Clare. On another day, it could have had seven.
To put the goalfest into some context, only Kerry, against Kildare in 2015, and Dublin, against Cork in 2019, had matched that tally or gone higher in a quarter-final.
“I don’t know how they could say that when we haven’t been in Croke Park much,” continued Gallagher, before softening his response. “I don’t know, listen, people are entitled to their opinions. It’s natural to think that with us, you know, we’re not a Dublin, we’re not a Kerry, we’re not in Croke Park consistently. We’re not a Mayo, we’re not a Tyrone who have been here and who have put up scores so I can understand perhaps the cautiousness and questioning from people.
“And look, every day you’re questioned and you’ve got to go out and prove it. Dublin are questioned at the minute despite some of them having seven or eight All-Ireland medals. I think what we did was we prove we can score but the next day we’ve got to prove the same again.”
If it all ends here it’s already been some season for Derry, Ulster champions for the first time in 24 years and through to a first All-Ireland semi-final since 2004. There’s no reason to think that this is the end of the line though for a high functioning, slick looking team that can play it pretty much any way you fancy.
From the claustrophobia of Clones and a grim - or tactically enlightening, depending on your persuasion - Ulster final, to a seven-goal shoot-out with Clare, they’ve embraced the extremes and come out on top on each occasion.
Truth be told, it was probably the fact that the Ulster final was distilled right down into a game of chess that led some to question whether Derry could open with the sort of exciting, expansive football that you need to win big games at Croke Park. And, of course, they still haven’t done that yet because, as Gallagher noted, Clare are “a very good side but they haven’t been at the business end of the championship” so there is still much to prove. But Derry can’t do much more than what they did on Saturday, striking two early goals to draw Clare out of their defensive shell and then adding three more. They may even be favourites on July 9th.
“Good players have to deal with different situations and they earn the right to be favourites,” said Gallagher. “The reason we’re favourites is because we did the right things at a very consistent level and a very good quality level. We’re not perfect but we’re improving all the time and we’re showing lots of good qualities.
“I thought we operated off a very simple philosophy of rewarding the man in the best position. Sometimes we make mistakes and wee errors, that’s natural, but we have some serious quality players. Derry really have some serious quality players and when they get those opportunities they should show it.”
Clare briefly flickered into life with 1-2 late in the first-half to cut what had been a 10-point deficit to just six. Derry’s response? To reel off 2-2 without reply either side of the interval. Gallagher must take credit for getting such a sweet tune out of all of Derry’s big name players. Veteran Chrissy McKaigue held Keelan Sexton, fresh off 2-6 against Roscommon, scoreless. Brendan Rogers was switched from full-back to midfield and thrived alongside the peerless Conor Glass. Gareth McKinless, who nailed Derry’s fourth goal early in the second-half, and top scorer Shane McGuigan must all be shoo-ins for All-Star nominations at the very least too.
To think Derry operated in Division 4 just three years ago before Gallagher was appointed in late 2019. That same year they lost a Round 2 qualifier to Laois at home.
“They’ve come a massive long way,” said the former Donegal manager. “But that’s probably more so to the outside world, once myself and the rest of the coaches and management team got our teeth into it, we knew we had a lot of good quality. Yes, it’s a big leap but it’s also, from our point of view, about fulfilling your potential and our job, our aim, and what we all want as part of the group is to get the most out of ourselves and enjoy it every step of the way.”
Colm Collins has completed nine seasons with Clare now and said he will consider his position, as he does after every campaign. He has worked wonders with the Banner, improving their Championship win rate from 24 per cent in the nine seasons before he took over to 46 per cent. They’ve gone from Division Four to Division Two also but this was a rare off day.
“Even if it was only an U-12 team and you took them out and they didn’t perform, you’d be cheesed off afterwards,” said Collins. “I don’t think the lads would have been happy with how they played. But you’re only as good as you’re allowed to play. Sometimes you can take away from the winning team but I’m in no way taking from Derry’s performance, they were really good.”