Football sublime, good times and tan lines - Derry's captain reveals what makes an All-Ireland winning minor team 4 months ago

Football sublime, good times and tan lines - Derry's captain reveals what makes an All-Ireland winning minor team

"It was definitely the proudest moment of my life to date."

Picture this - you're 18, it's summer, you've just finished your A-levels, you're captain of your county minor team, and you just led them to their first All-Ireland title in nearly 20 years - cloud nine isn't high enough.

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Well, this is currently the dream that young Matthew Downey is living, and just to add a little bit more magic to the fairytale, it was he who stepped up to score a late penalty that ultimately proved the difference in the end.

Never mind the fact that it was against Kerry, and your dad happened to be the captain of the county senior team that won Derry's only All-Ireland title in 1993. Dreamland is where 18-year-old Downey currently lives and rightly so.

"Once the final whistle goes, you're going crazy, the adrenaline rush, even after playing 60 minutes of football in that heat, it's an instantaneous feeling.

"It was complete joy, it was definitely the proudest moment of my life to date, and I'm sure a lot of the lads would feel the exact same.

"The first team meeting we had was way back in October 2019, and even then lads were chatting about winning an All-Ireland, that's what the ambitions were and because we had to wait so long, it was just very emotional.

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"The wait definitely did help in the end. If you look at the likes of Dan Higgins, who was probably one of the best midfielders in Ulster, the work he put in during that time, now he's probably the best in Ireland.

"There would have been big rivalries there from club football, you wouldn't think underage club football would be that competitive but it really is, but after training together three nights a week, for 20 months on and off, we got to know each other like the back of our hands."

The last five minutes of the game alone had enough drama to put even a healthy heart under pressure.

A mistake led to a late Kerry goal to put the Kingdom in the lead, but just moments later Derry were awarded a penalty, and on one of the hottest days of the year, the Lavey man was the coolest guy in the place.

"I had scored a penalty already against Tyrone and I went to the right, and I knew the goalkeeper would be looking at that before the game.

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"I did the same run up, did the same routine, but I put the ball down the middle which I had never done before, not even in training.

"Before the penalty was took, I was out on my feet because I had just made a run but a few of the Kerry lads had a few nice words for me and that sort of calmed me down a bit. But once you set up, it all just goes by so quick, you don't even remember what you were thinking."

That's the sort of calculated, pragmatic mindset that all big game players have.

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Speaking of big players, one of the biggest in Oak Leaf history is of course Matthew's father, Henry Downey, who captained the senior side to their only Sam Maguire in 1993.

Naturally this draws a lot of comparisons, but it has no real effect on the most recent All-Ireland winner in the family.

"There's definitely no extra pressure. Whenever you go out to play a match, you're only thinking about yourself, there's no one else in the equation, you're in that selfish sort of mindset.

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"It's something to take a lot of pride in. Not everyone can say their father captained their county to an All-Ireland win. People might say 'like father like son', but we're actually not alike at all.

"He was a centre-half back and I'm a centre-half forward, he didn't play any Derry minors at all, he didn't make the panel, so the only thing that's similar is that we were both successful with Derry."

Being selected as captain is no mean feat, and apart from the usual humble answers you would expect from a gracious leader, Downey did have one admission as to why he feels he was chosen.

"I'm probably the biggest yap in the whole group. If things aren't to the standard, with boys being late and all of that, you can talk on the pitch and say things, but actions day in and day out say a lot more."

Taking full advantage of the media attention, the newly crowned champion wanted to namecheck a few people to make sure they got the coverage they deserve.

"Sean Deehan was a Rolls Royce of a full-back, and if you think Dan Higgins is in some condition you should see Sean. Dan wouldn't be getting any attention right now if Sean was about," he laughed.

"Unfortunately he tore his ACL soon after the Armagh game, but all the lads were thinking of him still and he was a big influence on us."

Spoken like a proper leader, but Downey also had one important mention that had to be included, that he felt was of huge importance.

"You have to mention Mark Doherty's tan somewhere, honestly it's just great."

There you have it. If you had to sum up the whole adventure of this incredible Derry minor team, it would be - football sublime, good times and tan lines.