'The times they are a-changing' - Why this Derry side are a new but familiar threat to Tyrone 3 months ago

'The times they are a-changing' - Why this Derry side are a new but familiar threat to Tyrone

Tyrone's old foes are now their new rivals.

Growing up in Ulster had its obvious challenges - you couldn't wear GAA tops to certain places for fear of offending or sparking an argument, you had to refer to 'soccer' as 'football' depending on who you were talking to, and as a child, it was often confusing trying to figure out the fascination behind all of the colourful kerbs and flags plastered everywhere.

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However, above all else, away from the whole 'themmuns' and 'us' nonsense, a resounding memory from my childhood, was the continuous question - "are ye Derry or Tyrone?"

I grew up slap-bang in the middle of Ulster, in a little village called Coagh in County Tyrone. However, if you were to stand at Coagh bridge and lob a fishing rod into the river, you would technically be standing in Tyrone - and fishing in Derry.

If you were to drive in a straight line, you could successfully drive out of Tyrone, into Derry and back into Tyrone again, such is the geographical landscape of Mid Ulster, but those few inches of land defined a huge part of your identity.

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My father was born and raised in Maghera - a Slaughtneil man - but married my mother, a Coagh native, and moved to the village where I was raised, thus making me a Tyrone man.

My grandfather was the milkman and easily the biggest Tyrone fan, potentially ever, and never missed a game, so it was bred into you from an early age just how important football was to those in the Red Hand county.

Going to school, youth clubs, football training, the park, or wherever young people socialised, it wouldn't be long before being acquainted with someone that you would be asked that all-so-important question of identity.

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Early on, it was the Oakleaf fans who always seemed to have the upper hand. No matter how clever or sharp your argument was, the Derry fan only had to quip "Well, I'm yet to see Sam in Tyrone," and you wouldn't have a leg to stand on.

Derry were triumphant in 1993, winning their first All-Ireland and enjoying a golden era that saw the likes of Joe Brolly, Anthony Tohill and Henry Downey strut their stuff at Croke Park.

Although their success had dried up in the late nineties, Tyrone were yet to win a Sam Maguire trophy, and we were often reminded of that fact.

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The Superman v Batman debate among kids was nothing compared to the Anthony Tohill v Peter Canavan debate that so often broke out in our schoolyard at lunch time.

Of course in 2003, Mickey Harte took the helm at Tyrone, and with a side captained by Canavan, he finally brought us to the golden chalice.

The rest is history of course - three more All-Irelands in the pocket since then, most recently last September - and I doubt very much that children in the last 10 years needed to debate which team was the strongest.

Tyrone's rise has coincided with Derry's collapse, as they have had very little success over the past decade, and even a provincial title seems almost fanciful.

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However, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan: 'The times they are a-changin.'

Rory Gallagher has grabbed this Derry side by the scruff of the neck and dragged them from obscurity to promising hopefuls once again.

First thing on the agenda was cutting the dead wood. Derry always had bundles of talent, but they lacked cohesion and togetherness, so Gallagher was ruthless in selecting who to let go, and was even more clever in who he brought in.

A few phone calls saw him play a big part in persuading Conor Glass to return home from Australia to enhance their midfield tenfold.

Anton Tohill was also drafted in after being persuaded to come home from Oz, although he will be one more for the future than now.

Shane McGuigan has gone from being a good player, to being the focal point of this entire squad - the marquee man who everyone looks to for scores.

Then, there's the way the way they play. Some may say it's very defensive, but it's absolutely relentless, and the conditioning that these lads need to have for this style would be second to none.

The energy that they generate is frightening, and although they narrowly missed out on promotion from Division Two (after achieving back to back promotions in the two years prior), they are more primed for the Ulster championship than ever.

This Sunday, they play Tyrone in the quarter-finals, and for the first time since I was a child, I genuinely fear what they can bring to the table.

No longer is this a case of squashing the noisy but ineffective neighbours; there's now the spark of an old, and almost forgotten rivalry.

There's a sleeping giant that has been laying dormant in Derry for decades, and the rumbles of the current All-Ireland champions coming to town may just be loud enough to awaken it.

Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan's men have been slowly but surely shifting into gear this season, and with the underwhelming performances of Antrim and Armagh already in Ulster, you can't read too much into league form, as it doesn't always carry through to championship.

Still, memories of an old and fierce foe have been at the forefront of my mind this week, and even though this Tyronian is hopeful that it's the 'white and red,' rather than the 'red and white' who emerge victorious this weekend, Derry's return to the elite level would be good for Ulster, and the GAA as a whole.