The story of the GAA's greatest ever minor 5 months ago

The story of the GAA's greatest ever minor

14.

You're dreaming dreams, a long way down the line, of the day you get to pull on your club's senior jersey. Fantasies and visualisations bring you a long way and you'll have to be honest and ask yourself the question, were you really 14 if you hadn't heard the commentary that marks your debut for the county minor team?

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At 14, he was one of the boys. He'd worn the jersey and he'd played the games, the only difference for a young Dermot McNicholl, who'd played in All-Ireland minor final before he turned 15, was that this boy wasn't dreaming.

As the Glenullin sensation journeys back through his days as the boy wonder of Derry GAA, a couple of things jump out from his GAA Hour interview with Colm Parkinson, as if to say this fella is just different gravy altogether.

"I was playing u14s, 16s and minors," the Derry man says, trying to put a number on the amount of teams he was playing for as a boy.

"Seniors as well. I was playing for the Glenullin seniors when I was 14."

Now you're fibbing. Welcome to Dermot McNicholl's world, where he was living before he was dreaming.

"It was serious times. I was playing for the three school teams as well. And a bit of rugby too."

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For the teacher's sakes we feel compelled to say that, in a Gaelic football seminary like St Pat's, Maghera, education is also treated with the respect it deserves. But for the majority of players, the real barometer of their time there is whether or not they've won the McCrory Cup. McNicholl left the school as a four time champion but stretching far beyond the biggest competition in Ulster schools' GAA, his list of honours and achievements in the game, while still a secondary school student, was frankly ridiculous.

Four seasons as a Derry minor, McNicholl won three Ulster championships and captained his county to an All-Ireland title aged 17. Not only had he graduated onto the Derry seniors, his breath-taking debut season in 1984 also earned him an All-Star - an award he is still the youngest ever recipient of. As if that wasn't enough, McNicholl had also represented his country, part of the first ever Ireland international rules team in 1984.

It wasn't until 1985, when Dermot McNicholl left St Pat's Maghera.

"There was quite a bit on my plate but I loved every second of it, I loved it," says the man himself.

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Out of everything done and everything won, it's clear that the summer of 1985 brought with it the achievement that he holds dearest. Home is where the heart is and the man's passion for Glenullin is as pure as you'll ever come across as he talks about the club's second ever Derry senior football title.

"The club is the most important organisation in your life. We had a serious group of players at that time, so many leaders, so many passionate players," he says.

"The following year, we lost about seven or eight players to emmigration. People ask me about the biggest regrets of my life, it's the break-up of that team..."

In that there's a lesson because while McNicholl played for Derry, represented his country and travelled to Australia to play AFL professionally, it's his ties to home that are strongest. Loyalty and humility are two of the most important ingredients in any sports-person and McNicholl didn't just have them, he was made of them.

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If it wasn't for a nightmarish run with injuries, the AFL might have had their greatest ever import. Home he came in 1990 to complete his teacher training and to try and bring Sam Maguire back to Derry. The promised land was reached in 1993 but by a slightly different route to how he'd imagined it, McNicholl controversially dropped for the final. Only God knows how far the inquest would have went had Derry lost to Cork but Eamonn Coleman's decision was justified when they scaled the Hogan stand and McNicholl showed his character by coming on at half-time to make all the difference.

"I couldn't understand how I wasn't picked at that stage. But listen, it all worked out for Derry and that's the most important thing. I'll tell you something, I do regret that I didn't challenge Eamonn. My philosophy always was - I'll go out onto the training pitch and show them what I can do...I had seven or eight hard years accepting that, but I got over it..."

This man will always be remembered for his whirlwind, his gift to the game that matured before most players could fill out a jersey. As he reflects now, with impending knee and hip replacements reminding him of the price paid, it's not the aches and pains that stand out.

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"I was fairly strong at an early age. I wasn't overly tall. A lot my training was individual training. There's a hill just down below where I live now and I used to do serious, serious sprints up them hills. I think that helped develop the power in my legs you know. Myself and my neighbours, we used to be out on our bikes the whole time. We were always out in the fresh air. I can never understand players saying they don't like training, I loved it, we were doing circuits from a young age, all that kind of thing..."

"Listen, I'm sitting here now on a sofa with two knees that have to be replaced. The left one is completely banjaxed, the right one is bone on bone but I enjoyed every moment of it, I had a brilliant career that made me so many friends and led me into coaching, which I love now as well and I'm just so privileged and so happy about that. I'm at a stage now where I'm just enjoying watching games..."

This love story will never end.