Derry’s future tense but past perfect

Twenty years on from All-Ireland success the county is looking forward, as this year’s championship takes off against Down

Victory in the Division Two final shows Derry’s progress . Photograph: Inpho

Victory in the Division Two final shows Derry’s progress . Photograph: Inpho

 

The reference points are all in the receding past for Derry football.

Even tomorrow’s Ulster quarter-final against Down evokes memories of the great championship meeting between the counties, 19 years ago, which is actually the last time they met in a provincial championship.

It’s 20 years since Eamonn Coleman took the county to its only All-Ireland and 12 since the most recent Ulster title was won. The most decade saw a couple of league titles and All-Ireland semi-finals but the last year of promise for Derry was 2002.

That year the county won All-Irelands at minor level and club with Ballinderry. There is a link with those achievements in that Ger O’Kane who captained the 2002 minors plays tomorrow and Brian McIver, manager of Ballinderry, is in his first season in charge of the county.

Already he has achieved nailed down the most vital plank in any future platform. By returning Derry to Division One of the league, McIver has positioned the county in the best place for panel development.

With home advantage and contrasting momentum in comparison to Down who were relegated, Derry are also seen as having the best chance of any county in the lower division of winning a match against opposition from the top flight.

There is however caution in the county. Tony Scullion was on the 1993 All-Ireland winning team, captained the county to the 1995 league and won four All Stars. Currently an Ulster Council development officer, he is wary about presumption.

“Ask me next year after we’ve played football in Division One. I’ve never seen a gap like it between Division One and Division Two. Derry were first in Division Two and Down were last in Division One and if you talk to people in Derry, the majority of them think we’ll win. I don’t share that confidence that it’s a foregone conclusion just because Down got relegated.

“They’ve been playing better teams in the league because, not taking away from Division Two, I think Division Three was as strong as Division Two this year.”

As someone who enjoyed an extensive career with the county, he’s still not certain about what happened to turn the county from one of the leading football powers into one struggling to make an impact at the highest level.

“We may not have had the greatest ball players but the standard of club football is good and always has been. In the modern era though we’re on a down cycle.

“Some people in Derry feel that club rivalry is too intense and that the county side suffers but I don’t buy into that. Any lads picked are dead keen to play. We don’t have a big catchment area and most of the football’s in the south of the county and you could see that even when we won.”

Bellaghy’s Chris Brown was manager of the All-Ireland winning minor team of 2002. He believes that the county has been too complacent about the need to develop talent on a consistent basis.

“We knew one swallow never made a summer and while we’d a very good record at minor I knew it would take a project of five years or so to get the players we needed. Others seem to think that one All-Ireland minor title is all you need.”

There are four players from that 2002 side starting tomorrow and a couple, like O’Kane and Mark Lynch, have felt the pressure of expectation for many years at this stage.

On a topical note another of that minor team, Ciarán McCallion from Greenlough, played for London in last weekend’s historic success against Sligo in the Connacht championship.

Young players can be discouraged by setbacks in their under-age careers and Brown feels that a previous team he managed suffered in that regard. Derry won the 2000 Ulster minor title but in a controversial All-Ireland semi-final against eventual champions Cork, they were the victims of a controversial mistake.

Referee Gerry Kinneavy showed two yellow cards to Cork centrefielder Kieran Murphy but omitted to send him off and he played for the final six minutes in a match, which Derry lost by a point. The county’s objections to the result failed.

“I’m convinced that not getting justice in 2000 set us back. The players felt cheated and I think that undermined them or disillusioned them about the game.”

Scullion believes that there is also a tendency to under-achievement in the county.

“There was a big night recently to celebrate 125 years of the GAA in Derry and I was looking at the 1970s team, who won a couple of Ulster titles [the only Ulster county for 20 years to win the province in successive years].

“They were legends of men who didn’t achieve what they wanted. Even talking to them, they felt they maybe didn’t push themselves as hard as the Dublins and Kerrys.

“The same with the team in the ’90s. We should have won a second All-Ireland but we didn’t. We’d three or four national leagues and one All-Ireland but most of those players would say, like me, that we left at least one behind us.”

He says that whereas the Troubles certainly had an impact on the county, it wasn’t exclusive to Derry. Yet there was such an obvious parallel between the quarter-century of unrest and the 23-year gap between All-Ireland wins for Ulster, that it can’t be ignored.

“You can’t take away the fact that the Troubles were a hindrance and anyone with a GAA bag might be stopped by a security check.

“At the end of the day I would blame that situation because it was everywhere in the Six Counties and we also benefited from the sense of identity we had. The games meant everything because they were all we had.”

Despite Chris Brown’s reservations about how the county’s football status has declined in recent years, he believes that the current management is on the right track.

“Club football has faded a bit but young teams are coming through again. I think Brian McIver is building for the future, which is fair enough.”