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07th Apr 2022

Why Derry could be the dark horse in this year’s Ulster Championship

Lee Costello

The Oakleaf county are on their way.

Derry is a county that is absolutely engrossed in Gaelic football, a proper GAA hotbed where communities rally around their clubs as they live for those Sunday match days.

The history around Derry clubs proves this, and you only have to look at the Ulster club championship to see the evidence, as only 20 clubs have won the Seamus McFerran Cup, and seven of those have been Derry teams.

Ballinderry, Slaughtneil, Lavey, The Loup, Bellaghy, Dungiven and Ballerin have all previously won the prestigious title, and the fact that the spoils have been shared among so many clubs is testimony to the wealth of talent in the county, as opposed to an Armagh for example, who although have 15 Ulster championships – 11 of those came through Crossmaglen alone.

So why has the county set-up been so unsuccessful in recent years? With only one All-Ireland to their name – which was won back in 1993 – by a team brimming with ability in the shape of Anthony Tohill, Joe Brolly, Damien Barton, Dermot McNicholl and Henry  Downey, they have since massively underachieved.

Their last Ulster county championship success was way back in 1998, and their last appearance in a final was in 2011, when Jim McGuiness’ Donegal side dominated the Oakleafers.

In the last decade, Derry have yo-yo’d throughout the four National League divisions, reaching a Division One final in 2014 and then being relegated all the way down to Division Four by 2018.

However, there has been a renaissance in the county, and there are several reasons behind this.

Firstly, Rory Gallagher has taken over as manager, and although many critiqued the appointment initially given his reputation as an overly-defensive manager, he has worked wonders since.

Promotion from Division Four came quickly, and then last season saw them rampage Division Three, playing a style of football that carried a frighteningly high level of intensity.

Now in Division Two, Gallagher’s team were unlucky not to gain promotion, finishing third overall, but a controversial draw which saw their star man Shane McGuigan get sent off proved to be the difference.

In the championship last year, they came up against Donegal, who were favourites for Ulster and at Ballybofey, it was hard to see a way Derry could compete.

However, they brought the fight to Declan Bonner’s side and were desperately unfortunate to lose by a single point, especially as they had missed some golden goal chances earlier in the game – disappointing, but a huge sign of progress.

Another reason which coincides with their revival, is the fact that the club scene is in a remarkable healthy place, with Glen being this year’s senior champions for the first time in their history.

It wasn’t so long ago that Slaughtneil dominated the competition, but with the emergence of Magherafelt, Glen and now an up and coming Lavey team, the Derry club championship is one of the most competitive.

Lastly, a huge factor in the county’s recent success is of course the players. They always had ridiculously talented individuals –  even throughout some of their worst years – such as Paddy Bradley, Mark Lynch and Feargal Doherty.

However, there seemed to be a lack of cohesion and team spirit, which couldn’t be further away from the current crop of athletes.

As was already mentioned, Shane McGuigan is the star of the show, the focal point of an attack based around high-speed running and support play. From the dead ball situation, the Slaughtneil man is just as precise.

Then they boast one of the strongest midfield pairings you will see in the form of two Glen clubmen, Emmet Bradley and Conor Glass.

Bradley has been around the panel for a few years now and is really showing what he’s about, while Glass has been a promising talent stolen by the Australian professional game, but has since returned and brought a whole new dimension to the red and whites.

The back line is equally as impressive, with Chrissy McKaigue deemed as one of the best man markers in the game; Brendan Rodgers who is equally as talented going forward as he is defending; and the relentless Gareth McKinless, who has reinvented the number 6 role, consistently bombing through the heart of opposition defences.

We haven’t even mentioned the incredibly versatile Ciaran McFaul, who plays a similar role for his club, but picks up Man of the Match awards regularly at county level from midfield and half forward positions also.

All in all, the Oakleaf county have nothing to fear going into this championship, and with their insatiable hunger, organisational ability and the level of talent at their disposal – don’t rule out a shock return to glory for Derry.

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