Derry want ‘to be part of something that lives in the moment now’

Rory Gallagher looks ahead to upcoming Ulster final against his former team Donegal

There are several different ways of viewing Derry's journey and arrival into the Ulster football final, each one as notable as the next. For manager Rory Gallagher it also marks a sort of roundabout journey in reverse.

A first final in 11 years, only their second since 2000, both of which they lost, it offers the chance to win a first Ulster title since 1998, and only Derry’s eighth of all time.

Sunday's semi-final win over Monaghan, following the quarter-final over All-Ireland champions Tyrone, has unquestionably brought them through the harder side of the draw. Before beating Tyrone, Derry hadn't won an Ulster championship match since 2015, when they beat Down in the quarter-final by a point, after which they lost to Donegal in the semi-final.

Gallagher happened to be Donegal manager at that time, taking over after Jim McGuinness stepped down in 2014 having previously served as his selector during their 2012 All-Ireland success.


In contrast, Sunday week will see Donegal play their 10th final in 12 years, missing out only last year, and in 2017 - they’ve also won five titles during that period. Donegal also took Derry out by a single point the last time they met, in last year’s quarter-final, Gallagher at that point in his second season as Derry manager.

A year on, even with the back-door restored, there is sense Derry’s time may have come again. It will be a first final start for the Derry players, a new challenge in itself, one they believe they are primed for.

"Nah, it's not something we're used to, no, but we could definitely get used to it," said centre-back Gareth McKinless, who scored the first of Derry's three goals on Sunday. "It's class to be in the final. It's a credit to Rory, and Ciaran (Meenagh) and Enda Muldoon, for giving us that belief."

Gallagher, however, has the experience of several Ulster finals, including his last two as Donegal manager, losing that 2015 final to Monaghan, and the 2016 final to Tyrone. For the Fermanagh native, now living in Donegal, it at least means nothing about Donegal will be unexpected.


“Donegal are an experienced outfit, we played them last year, that’s the way you want,” said Gallagher. “I honestly used to go to (their) matches all the time, but I stopped doing it. I made a decision, with the short season, to focus completely on us.

“Donegal are a very well-oiled machine and full of plenty of players and people who set the right standard, who would probably feel there is more in them. And I would agree there is more in them at times.

“Donegal, this is normal to them. That’s the way it is in Donegal, that they get to the final every year. It’s just going to be another mammoth task, and we will get our head around it.”

Despite the addition of several young players including Conor Glass (24), Paul Cassidy (23) Anton Tohill (23) and Padraig McGrogan (22), Gallagher has plenty of seasoned players too, one reason why he has every reason to believe their time has come.

"I don't want to be building a long-term project for Chrissy McKaigue or Brendan Rogers or Gareth McKinless, Niall Toner or anybody. We want to be part of something that lives in the moment now and we have done an awful lot right.

Never beaten

“Conor Glass has been phenomenal. He’s a great lad, only 21, 22 years of age from when we seen him, even when he was in school we wanted him involved, and he played every game since he came in, in the first game since lockdown against Longford.

“He had probably played around 95 per cent of the minutes since then. Conor Glass, we call him ‘Conor Steel.’ He’s an unbelievable fella, an unbelievable leader and in a quiet way. He just fits in with the boys well.

“He is a phenomenal midfielder. Hand on heart, had we a midfield before Conor came back? No. He makes things happens. The overall approach with playing him, he might lose the odd ball here and there, but overall he is never beaten.”

Gallagher suggested in jest that Derry might need to escape to somewhere like Portugal for a week's training to dampen some of the increased attention over the coming fortnight.

“It’s just knuckling down, training. Do you want to play football, in this environment and these situations here? It’s something to be just really enjoyed and we wouldn’t be making a big deal about it, but Derry people are entitled to enjoy it, the players are entitled to enjoy it.

"I hardly even watched Donegal last week (against Cavan). I flicked over after 20 minutes. You have to stay focused in the moment. We're not experienced at inter-county level - you have the Slaughtneil players, the Glen players went close to Ulster club, Gareth McKinless - an Ulster club (with Ballinderry in 2013).

“They’re not young, young. Players have been in a minor final. Players have won an Under-20, maybe you’re inexperienced at the highest, highest level. But there’s a degree of self-assuredness in them all.

"They have all had different motivations. For Benny Herron, two goals on the day, Chrissy (the oldest panel member at 33), they might be relatively experienced age wise. But they are very innocent when it comes to playing at that level, and they just love it. Chrissy, we call him Christopher when he moans, and he moans all the time at us for the crack, but he is the first man there and the last."

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics