On the Sunday before the world caved in, Derry were handed a bracing reminder of their place in it. Cork beat them 3-13 to 3-11 in Division Three but even the dry numbers of the final score made it appear a much better day than the reality.
It was, in fact, a two-point hiding in which late goals from Emmett Bradley and Patrick Kearney had been strictly cosmetic, like kicking living room mess under the sofa as visitors walk up the driveway.
That was two years ago this weekend. Four days later, the GAA pulled all fixtures and pandemic lava flowed down over the whole scene, freezing everyone in place.
They have the meanest defence in the four divisions, despite playing a brave, attractive brand of football
Derry sat rooted in the half-light. Fifth in Division Three, neither promotion candidates nor relegation fodder. They were no burden on the teams that were better than them, they still counted as a scalp in the minds of the teams who weren’t.
In the two years since, Derry have played 10 league games and won them all. Their average margin of victory has been 9.4 points. They've gone from mid-table anonymity in Division Three to the top of Division Two, gathering up a league title on the way. Of the Ulster teams, only Antrim had a league ranking lower than them when the first lockdown hit. Today, they only have the four Division One teams above them.
So what happened? Well, along with Big Pharma and whoever got into mask-making in the spring of 2020, Derry are one of the few entities for whom a global pause on collective activities came at just the right time. Rory Gallagher had only been in charge for less than six months, during which his Slaughtneil contingent had been engaged in a run to the club hurling All-Ireland semi-final and had only arrived back in late January.
His Derry panel was young and physically quite under-developed, particularly in comparison to the other Ulster teams. While lots of managers talked about seeing lockdown as an opportunity, some of them did it through gritted teeth. Gallagher saw it as a gift from the gods. All managers fret about not having enough time to do the things they need to – this was time sent in the post at no extra cost.
"If you take the first three games that would have been played in the Ulster championship," he said in these pages in May 2020, "Cavan were to play Monaghan, Derry were to play Armagh and Tyrone were to play Donegal. On any realistic reading of it, most people would have had Derry the sixth-ranked of those teams.
“We feel that physically, because of the age profile of our team and because of the outstanding work done particularly by Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan as the benchmark going back over seven, eight, nine years and more, we would have been going into the championship with ground to make up on the conditioning side of things.
“So we have an opportunity now with no games, no club football, no county football, no collective training, for our boys to use the time and opportunity to make up some of that ground. The more established teams aren’t going to get any stronger or fitter through this period but we certainly can.
“If we were a business, our share price has room to rise here, whereas some of the bigger ones don’t have that room. They were more ready for the championship than us.”
Derry’s age profile is still pretty young but they have bulked out significantly since those early days of 2020. Pádraig McGrogan, Oisin McWilliams and Conor McCluskey have all come in to stake claims, all of them graduates of the under-20 teams that won Ulster in 2018 and were beaten in the final the following year.
Everything is pointing in the right direction. Gallagher has recently extended his agreement with the Derry county board and will be in situ until 2025 at least. Conor Glass has returned from Australia to become a dominant force around the middle. In all, only two players remain from the last time they met Clare in the league in 2017. Everything feels fresh, focused, renewed.
They have the meanest defence in the four divisions, despite playing a brave, attractive brand of football. They pour forward to attack the opposition kick-out, looking to pin them in deep and daring goalies to go long where Glass competes for everything. They rinsed Cork in Owenbeg last Sunday, reminding them – and each other – just how much things have changed in the space of two years.
“Cork was a big milestone in our heads to be honest,” Gallagher said afterwards. “It was the last game before Covid hit this country and hit the world and we got a two-point annihilation down there. We got a few goals but it was a shambolic set-up at the time but I don’t think we have lost a league game since. We’ve lost a couple of championship games but we’ve turned a corner.
“Obviously Cork are going through a transition and that’s their business, we’re not too concerned with that. We’re delighted with the commitment of our players, the loyalty to each other and the direction we are going.”
Derry haven’t had much to shout about for a long time. Maybe it took a global pandemic but they’re finding their voice at last.