Derry’s revolution gathering pace as they square up to Donegal

Rory Gallagher’s appointment has brought county on and now they face local rivals

Rory Gallagher speaks to his Derry players. Photo: Inpho

Rory Gallagher speaks to his Derry players. Photo: Inpho


Donegal and Derry: they are braided by geography and accent and holidays in Donegal and nights out in Derry city. They share border crossings busier than Checkpoint Charlie. And there remains a dark shine about their football rivalry regardless of where the teams stand nationally. It reached an extreme voltage in the summers of 1992 and 1993, when the counties divided both Ulster and All-Ireland honours.

The games were flinty and relationships testy. “Toxic and nasty” was one memorable summary. But it’s not the full story. There’s a great photo in the archives of that period. It was taken in the maelstrom of Croke Park in September 1993: minutes earlier Derry became the new All-Ireland champions and Eamon Coleman, the manager, is now being ushered towards the Hogan Stand steps.

Next thing a familiar face in a peaked cap appears and reaches for Coleman who turns around and immediately breaks into a grin of recognition. The delight in Brian McEniff’s face is unconfined. In midsummer, the country had seen the two men as bitter adversaries on the sideline on a drenched Ulster final day in Clones. But after 100 years, both counties had reached the ultimate place in the space of 12 months.

“It was a brilliant time to be a Derry footballer,” says Séamus Downey, the playmaking Lavey forward and mainstay on Derry teams through the 1990s.

“We never played outside Division One and were always challenging for league titles. And it was also a brilliant time for Derry supporters. You got cocooned in it. You were playing around the clock, you were always competing at the top level. I always felt Donegal had a real competitive edge against us. Not saying we didn’t like to beat them but we were probably more focused on Tyrone. I know Michael Murphy and the Donegal lads always say they take delight in beating Derry because of that rivalry. We certainly did enjoy it when we beat Donegal. Unfortunately it hasn’t had that competitive edge because Derry haven’t been able to get up to the standard that Donegal have set in recent years.”

Can that change? When the counties meet this Sunday at 4pm in Ballybofey Donegal will be heavy favourites. “Sunday will tell a tale, yes, but I don’t think Sunday is the be all and end all,” Downey says. “Getting out of Division Three was massive for us.”

Whistle stop tour

Downey has three sons involved in Derry squads: Shea is with the seniors, Enda the under-20s and Calum with the minors. A fourth son, Oran, played with the Derry under-20s last year. All three teams play this weekend so after a few days respite in Rathmullan, the gorgeous Donegal coastal village, the Downeys will be on a whistle stop tour of Ulster, supporting their boys.

Séamus also manages the Lavey seniors so has a strong sense of why things seemed to disintegrate for Derry football. They haven’t won the Ulster senior championship since 1998, when Downey was still playing. They last contested a provincial final in 2011- against Donegal, when managed by Downey’s uncle, John Brennan. Since then, their paths have radically altered, with Donegal grabbing five titles and winning a second All-Ireland while Derry disappeared off the radar - and into the lows of Division Four. From the outside, it felt like watching a gorgeous old building being torn down. To those inside Derry football, the truth was more complex.

“When you look at it forensically there were a couple of reasons for that slide more so than just the general malaise of Derry football,” Downey says.

“We still have a conveyor belt of lads coming through. But Derry went down from Division Two to Three on score difference and there was only the kick of a ball from Three to Four. I feel that apart from the top two or three teams in Division Two, Division Two and Three are much of a muchness. So you could see Derry go from Two to One next year. Also, Derry don’t have a massive number of clubs to pick from. And during that period, six or maybe seven players who would start for Derry were Slaughtneil lads. They won three Ulster club championships in four years and were rightly committed to trying to win their All-Ireland. So they were all out of the team during that relegation slide. Throw in the fact that Conor Glass was in Australia and the natural fall out of lads not staying with the game and injuries and it was a bit of a perfect storm against us. We have come back up. This is a better standing for Derry.”

Very quietly, Derry have put a significant revolution in place. The senior team has been revitalizsd since Rory Gallagher took charge: Division Three champions after five wins on the trot, sauntering through the final in Croke Park and posting eye-catching scores: 0-21, 5-13, 1-16, 0-17, 0-21. Just last week, they clinched the 2020 Ulster minor title, which became an epic contest of endurance because of pandemic postponements.

“There was a feeling that: this is last year’s competition, let it go,” says Martin Boyle, the Derry minor manager.

“But we are delighted that it was completed. I have seen the turmoil that these lads endured - and all squads at minor level. They had the competition pulled in March 2020. It was to restart on October 24th and pulled again the Wednesday before. We beat Armagh on December 20th. We were looking forward to playing Tyrone two weeks later but got an email on Christmas Eve to say it was off. Nobody is blaming anyone for the reasons - it was right to postpone it. But it was a savage blow for the boys and that at that stage they probably felt their chance had gone and had been doing so much individual training after school and at weekends. You are conscious of the impact that has on their families. So we were delighted when it resumed and to go and win it.”

The final was played on Friday last with a 1-15 to 0-15 win over Monaghan. Boyle and the 2021 Derry minors are already deep in preparation for the defence of that title, which begins against Armagh in three weeks. Three of last year’s squad are eligible to play again. Boyle’s good work enhances the progress made by Paddy Campbell and Damien McErlain, who coached the 2015 minors to a first Ulster title at the grade since 2002. They won it again in 2017.

In 2018, Mickey Donnelly coached the Derry under-20 team to a first Ulster championship in the grade since 1997. All of these successes were happening quietly through the years when Derry’s senior struggles were explicit. The 2020 minors have been together at various under age groups and Boyle is enthused by their attitude as much as their accomplishments.

“They are not a county team, they are a club team in how they look and behave. Players hanging about after training, committing to each other, having the craic. It is easy to see that there is a tight bond and that definitely exists. A real county identity exists with these boys. The future is exciting but they are 18 years of age so we have to create the right pathway for them.”

Too simplistic

Boyle points out that Derry’s football tradition can dwarf its playing population. His squad has players from Limavady and Steelstown and attracting more players from the county’s urban centres - and from the city - is the next big ambition. He agrees that the Derry club rivalry is fierce but feels the idea that it might have been destructive is too simplistic.

“There was probably a lazy narrative peddled about clubs being the problem. The club rivalry is central to everything about the GAA. There was maybe a bit of disconnect between Owenbeg [the Derry GAA centre] and the clubs in general. Maybe Owenbeg was viewed as somewhere where we weren’t achieving and negativity set it. But there is more joined up thinking and positivity now and you can feel this reawakening of support and excitement and that is taking us back to the halcyon days of the 1990s and 2000s.”

Derry’s Calum Downey and Eoin McEvoy, Karl Doherty, Lee Brady and manager Martin Boyle celebrate their Ulster minor title last year. Photo: John McVitty/Inpho
Derry’s Calum Downey and Eoin McEvoy, Karl Doherty, Lee Brady and manager Martin Boyle celebrate their Ulster minor title last year. Photo: John McVitty/Inpho

One subtle, significant change the Derry GAA made was to de-couple club relegation from league performance. It means that club teams can now play league games without worrying whether county players are available. “Club football used to be so intense: it was like 11 championship games because everyone was fighting for promotion and relegation” Séamus Downey testifies. It has worked like a pressure valve and has given Rory Gallagher an opportunity to work with the seniors without that old friction between club loyalties and county obligations.

Speak to anyone in Derry and they will acknowledge the immediate effect which Gallagher has had on the senior squad. “A magnificent appointment,” is how Boyle puts it.

“Obviously many people feared it would be about defensive football but Derry have been a breath of fresh air. The players are prospering and just the quality of football they are playing and how clued in tactically is great to see. They know exactly what they want to do with and without the ball.”

With former county icons Paddy Bradley and Johnny McGurk in charge of the under-20s, there are a lot of familiar faces around the training ground at Owenbeg. The place feels different now and Boyle believes the energy has changed.

“It is an elite environment for young fellas to be about in terms of the sport and physical preparation and nutrition. It is just a brilliant place to be.”

It means that the latest Donegal-Derry chapter is intriguing, not least because of the bureau of knowledge Gallagher has on Donegal. A win on Sunday would cause shockwaves on both sides of the border. Nobody within the Oak Leaf county is asking for that.

“Just a performance, I think, is what people are hoping for,” says Séamus Downey.

At least that’s what they are saying publically. Privately, they might be hoping that a knockout championship game, with its heightened pressures, might just bring back the sparking animosity that was the best of it.

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