Derry’s Tony Scullion focused on restoring county's fortunes

Stalwart keen for county to recapture the winning habit that marked great side of old

Tony Scullion: “Eighteen years and counting since Derry won an Ulster title . . . it is not good enough. A proud county like Derry. It should not be happening.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Tony Scullion: “Eighteen years and counting since Derry won an Ulster title . . . it is not good enough. A proud county like Derry. It should not be happening.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It’s not difficult for Tony Scullion to transport himself to the moment: a cataclysmic downpour of rain all across the province falling without cessation on Ulster final Sunday.

The dressing rooms in Clones were at the far end of the pitch and Scullion peered out one of the windows at the drenched crowd and the murky horizon and the sheer darkness of it.

“And the rain splashing on to these puddles across the pitch,” he marvels in an accent which is pure undiluted south Derry. It was a day not fit for dogs but did fine for the two best football teams in the country. “The game was going ahead and that was it.”

That day was arguably the centre-point of a period in the interminably complex Ulster rivalries that has stayed vivid. Anybody in Clones that afternoon was watching both the outgoing and incoming All-Ireland champions on the same pitch. The Derry-Donegal rivalry was bitter-keen in those years. Bracketing their All-Ireland seasons were Down’s two summers of splendour.

Rarely if ever had Ulster so many strong teams crowded into one house and the old knock-out system heightened the sense of everything, everything riding on the games of mid-May and early-June.

“Deadly,” he laughs of the ruthless knockout days. “Deadly. If there had been a back door system then, any of the three Ds – Down, Derry, Donegal – could have won more All-Irelands.”

Joyless phase

As a four-time All-Star on a team filled with characters who seemed hewn from granite, Scullion has changed little from his playing days and is still immersed in the game as a coach with the Ulster council. He has become adept at fielding variations on the same theme when it comes to his native county: What’s wrong? Why haven’t ye won? What do you think?

“Let’s be honest. It is an embarrassment,” Scullion says.

“Eighteen years and counting since Derry won an Ulster title . . . it is not good enough. A proud county like Derry. It should not be happening.”

Derry have had decent teams, outstanding individuals and some promising periods. But they just haven’t managed to knit together the string of muscular wins necessary.

There is no easy explanation. Scullion sometimes thinks that maybe some of the contrary, burning need to win which infused Derry during Eamonn Coleman’s time is the key factor. When he goes around coaching groups now, he often says by way of introduction that he is “from the rushes in Ballinascreen”. Outside of everything, in other words.

“My dad and mum reared us on a very small farm. We’d no car. In fact we’d no electricity at the start. My dad hadn’t much time for football, it was all work. But Seamus Langan who played midfield for Derry . . . he was a far-out friend of ours. I was raised four miles from Dean McGlinchey Park in Ballinascreen. It was the county ground for years.

“They talk about the battle of Ballinascreen when Derry played Down in 1968. I am convinced I was at that game. I can mind Danny Kelly, the Down keeper – he is the brother of Gerry Kelly of UTV – I can remember him with the big beard. And the place was bunged with people. And Down came out of it and went on to win the All-Ireland.

“So I lived out in the wilderness and Seamus Grugan, who was over the U-14s came looking for my older brother John. And I tortured him that much to take me in the car that he did and that’s how I got to play for Ballinacreen U-14s.”

Desperate ambition

Scullion never played minor and was noticed at his last year of U-21 but as a senior his qualities – a ball-playing, predatory full back with exceptional balance and a canny read of the game – were plain to see.

He emerged as one of the most complete defenders in the game. Like the rest of that group, he achieved something impossible under the charismatic leadership of Eamonn Coleman: he came to believe in Derry as an unbeatable force.

The Ballymaguigan man transformed what had been a fractious, club-oriented dressing room into a team with a united sense of purpose. “Derry” became the be-all as they attempted to go national. Scullion’s first understanding of “the All-Ireland” was of listening to Derry-Dublin games on the radio in the family kitchen in the early 1970s. It didn’t seem to be a world to which Derry football belonged.

“Daddy always said to us: Derry will never get there, lads. He was a wild Kerry supporter. And he couldn’t see Derry getting to the promised land. Daddy had ill-health for a long time and was bad with arthritis but he lived until 1996 and little did any of us know that before he would pass away, I would carry the cup down our lane and put the Sam Maguire on dad’s knee.

“To me, that was the most special moment in my life. To see the light in his face. He never saw me play live in his life. He wasn’t fit to go a match.

“On the All-Ireland final day in 1993, daddy went to the bedroom with his rosary beads. And mummy had the beads in her hand and she would watch the television for five minutes and then come down to report to him how we were getting on. So he never watched that game live. And he never saw me play a game for club or county or nothing.”

Clarity and energy

“Aye. That’s a good question. Things move on. I was born in 62 but it’s the early seventies I remember and everyone thought it was great football. And at the time, it was. But if you look at videos now – and I’m in no way being hateful here – the game has moved on a hundred times more.

“But we thought up in Ulster that we weren’t on the same field as those teams down south. Even when I was playing in the 80s and 90s: we had some great games and teams. But see it now?

“The fitness levels now are incredible. What the players put in now and the way they look after themselves is incredible. They live professionally and the effort they put in is a credit.”

On Sunday, Scullion will be on the Derry sideline as a selector under Damien Barton, his former 1993 team-mate. Celtic Park will be packed but the national expectation is for a Tyrone win: Mickey Harte’s team cruised through division two – defeating Derry comfortably in the process in March – and are an outside All-Ireland tip. Derry, meanwhile, confound.

They have been in Ulster finals and won the league in 2008 and occasionally threatened to do something good but the broad story has been of disappointment. Scullion accepts that structure within the county limits potential: the traditional clubs are bouncing off one another in the south of the county while Derry city, resolutely townie and urban in outlook and candy-stripe in its sporting affiliations, is largely untapped.

“Derry city . . . the population we have there,” Scullion sighs.

“Now, Steelstown Brian Ógs are doing tremendous work . . . Derry Colm Cilles and Seán Dolan’s are all trying really hard to push on. But we have to do more. My dream is to see half a dozen lads from Derry city playing for the senior team. We do have GAA fanatics in the city . . . but not enough of them yet.”

Absent fanaticism

It was the mood which Derry brought into the deluge against Donegal that day in 1993.

“We had lost to Down after a replay in 1991 and to Donegal in the Ulster final of 1992 and our feeling was that rain, hail or sunshine, we were going to win. We had to.”

You only have to listen to Scullion for five minutes to appreciate his enormous enthusiasm for Gaelic football. He is an evangelist. And he doesn’t question the hours or endeavour of the current generation so much as the lack of hell-bent illogical want.

“I am not going to blame anyone but I still think the problem has been that not enough players had the passion to wear the Derry jersey with pride. And if I talk to a group of young footballers I tell them that should be their drive in life.

“That should be the pinnacle for any player: playing for your county. And I do know that players will have regrets. A few have come back to me and said that they messed up their careers, whatever. It is a short time when you are fit enough to play. And if you don’t give it all you will have regrets. And I’d appeal to all Derry lads just to go for that dream.”

That is the task for Derry tomorrow. The particulars of the Derry-Tyrone relationship are tasty and testy: a border rivalry containing all that goes with that. But the truth is that Tyrone have been a revolutionary force while Derry have been caught in a cycle.

“I believe that there is a group of lads there now that are capable – I’m not saying in 2016 – but who have the potential and character to push on in the coming years,” says Scullion with conviction.

“No doubt. We have lost the likes of Fergal and the Bradleys, the team leaders for many years, and it is terrible to think that they came and went with no Ulster medal. In fairness, Damien Barton has given young lads an opportunity.

“And I think Derry will have a good team in the near future.”

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