Comparing Derry's last semi-final team in '04 to Rory Gallagher's side 4 months ago

Comparing Derry's last semi-final team in '04 to Rory Gallagher's side

Kerry 1-17  Derry 1-11

When the final whistle blew at the end of the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final between Derry and Kerry, the Ulster faithful were disappointed but would have left Croke Park feeling optimistic about the future.

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This was because they defied the odds that season, coming through the back door after crashing out of the provincial championship, but still mustering up an incredible run of form that saw them make the last four.

So with expectations exceeded already, surely this was just a matter of pushing on, using this strong foundation that's already built and catapulting themselves back into All-Ireland contention for the first time since 1993.

However, the only thing that was consistent about the Oakleaf county from that point on was the fact that they were so continuously inconsistent.

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A disappointing 2005 season looked to be rectified in '06 when they defeated the reigning champions Tyrone in Ulster, only to still exit the competition and finish the season trophy-less.

What followed was a decade of league promotions, relegations, and the very odd championship win thrown in, creating just enough to dare those in red and white to start having hope again.

That was of course until Rory Gallagher took charge, and weeded out the weak-minded and those who wouldn't conform, to build a team with steel-like mentality that finally brought an end to the county's barren run of trophies.

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Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rodgers, Gareth McKinless, Conor Glass, Shane McGuigan - all of these lads have already leapfrogged the status of former stars who represented the county over the past decade.

You have to go all the way back to that game in 2004, to see the last time a Derry team brought so much hope, and promise to their fans.

Paddy Bradley was leading the line up front, and people forget that he was being touted to be Derry's answer to Peter Canavan, such was his guile, skill and scoring prowess.

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The Glenullin star was absolutely frightening in front of the posts, and even this famed Kerry defence that boasted Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Aidan O'Mahony, and all three of the O Sé brothers, couldn't stop him from kicking six points that day.

He wasn't the only thorn in The Kingdom defence, as Ballinderry's Enda Muldoon had a first half you could only dream about in Croke Park, kicking 1-1, including a wonderful solo goal that saw him capitalise on his own mistake.

The midfield was strong and powerful, as Bellaghy's Fergal Doherty commanded the middle of the park, a man once described by BBC commentator Mark Sidebottom, as being "harder than A-level Chemistry."

Then you had young promising talent such as Conleth Gilligan coming off the bench and kicking two points, so despite the fact they had lost out to a Colm Cooper masterclass, there were plenty of reason to be hopeful for the future.

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Unfortunately for Derry it wasn't the near future and although the wait was long, it is finally over, and Gallagher's side have already gone one further than the '04 team by claiming back the Ulster title for the first time since 1998.

This team have been on an upward trajectory since 2019, and like their predecessors going into that Kerry game, they have exceeded every expectation placed on them before they even enter the pitch this Saturday.

However, if they were to lose to the hands of Galway, there is no chance that it will be the last we see of this Derry team.

The Fermanagh native has already managed his side to Division Four and Three titles, and narrowly missed out on promotion to Division One this season.

Last year they lost out to Donegal by a single point, only to beat them in the Ulster final this year - every season has shown tangible progress.

If it were a graph, it would be a fairly linear upward red line shooting dramatically to new heights every season, thus disregarding any notion that this is a 'flash in the pan' sort of campaign.

Every now and again, a team can come from nowhere and explode like a firework in the sense that they instantly grab everyone's attention, spark a chorus of 'ooooohs' and 'ahhhhhs', only to disappear just as quickly as they burst to life.

Not this Derry team, they have the hard cold facts of graft and progress built beneath their feet, and whatever happens this weekend, it won't be the last we see of them.