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'Our pre-seasons were brutal. I’ve never gone through anything like it in my life'

Derry legend Dermot McNicholl discusses his stint in the AFL, the Oak Leafers’ All-Ireland victory 25 years ago and the rise in GAA stars heading Down Under.

Dermot McNicholl playing for Ireland against Australia in the 1987 International Rules series.
Dermot McNicholl playing for Ireland against Australia in the 1987 International Rules series.
Image: ©INPHO

“AND ST KILDA joined the international recruiting race, taking a punt on Dermot McNicholl, who has been brought to Australia by VFA club Prahran…St Kilda will bide its time with McNicholl, recognised as the best player in Gaelic football…St Kilda targeted McNicholl because of his pace and toughness and believes he could become a highly skilled player.”

-The Age, 10 November 1988

The 1988 AFL draft featured three Irishmen – Brian Stynes (83rd – Melbourne), Tom Grehan (97th - Melbourne) and the 99th pick Dermot McNicholl who was selected by St Kilda. 

Derryman McNicholl was the fifth Irishman to be drafted in the AFL and became just the fourth to play in the league, behind Paul Earley, Sean Wight and Jim Stynes. He was 23 by the time he made the move Down Under, but McNicholl was on the radar of AFL clubs long before then.

An underage prodigy, the Glenullin native played minor football for Derry for four years, making his debut as a 14-year-old in 1980. He won three Ulster titles during that golden period and captained the Oak Leafers to All-Ireland minor glory in 1983.

With his potent mix of power, pace and balance, McNicholl made his senior debut for Derry in October of that year. 12 months later, he was awarded an All-Star while still at school and remains the youngest ever recipient of the honour.

The first approach for McNicholl from Australia came while he was 18 from and the next when he was 20. Both were turned down and in the meantime he helped his county to three provincial crowns at the U21 grade.

CVFZjKZXIAEGBq- Source: GAA Nostalgia/Twitter

“Looking back on it, I should have possibly gone whenever I was 18,” McNicholl tells The42. ”Hawthorn were pushing at the particular time and Melbourne were pushing too.

“I was 23 or 24 when I went over. As the old saying goes, habits are hard to change. It takes you that year or two to make that transition.”

McNicholl finally took the plunge after starring for Ireland in the 1987 International Rules series. When he signed with St Kilda, he had two familiar faces to help him settle into Melbourne – Stynes and Wight, who had forged impressive careers for themselves with Melbourne Football Club at that stage.

At that stage it was a big move,” he says. “Jim, God save us. It’s shocking whenever you think about it – Sean Wight and Jim Stynes are both dead. Whenever I first went out there they were absolutely brilliant.

“They were out kicking and practising with me to try and bring my skills on. They were really super and helped me out when I was there. They helped me make the transition that wee bit easier.”

Dermot McNicholl 1987 Dermot McNicholl of Ireland is tackled by Australia's Paul Roos in 1987. Source: ©INPHO

But McNicholl was on his own when it came to pre-season at St Kilda. AFL players endure notoriously tough pre-seasons these days, particularly for GAA players who make the move, but back in the 1980s they were even more tortuous and bordered on inhumane. 

“Our pre-seasons were brutal. They were brutal. I’ve never gone through anything like it in my life. 

“I remember going to a place at the time for a training camp. It was this big safari park. In that camp we were put in groups of three and you had to carry this big log for a run around a course for about 10km. It was madness looking back on it now. 

You’re up and down hills, through rivers, through streams and you were working with a team. Then the other task they gave you was a sandbag and you were paired off. You had about a 6km run that time.

“It was madness at the time but basically what they were doing was trying to break you to see if you would break. Pre-seasons were serious. You had those 10km runs and then 4km time trials. Although I think they’ve moved away from that now it’s more scientific training they do now. It’s more sprinting and conditioning and that type of work.”

A year later, Tohill joined McNicholl in Melbourne. He left Ireland as an All-Ireland minor champion and Hogan Cup winner. Just like that, two of the finest Gaelic football talents to emerge in Derry in a decade had left the sport entirely to pursue a professional career. 

McNicholl spent the 1989 campaign lining out St Kilda’s Victoria Football Association (VFA) affiliate Prahan. By the pre-season of 1990, he was part of the St Kilda’s starting line-up and looking ready to make the step-up.

Source: Gezza1967/YouTube

“I was in St Kilda’s team in the pre-season. We travelled to Tasmania, we travelled up to Darwin. I was playing in those games and flying with the first team. The week before we started the very first game against Footscray (now Western Bulldogs) I tore my groin and I was out for ten weeks.

Ten bloody weeks! I didn’t get playing until Week 10 or 11, I played a reserve game and I did very well. I was put onto the seniors again but once you lose the ten weeks you’re out and you’re only able to do bicycle work and swimming, you use that aerobic endurance you’d worked on over the pre-season.”

McNicholl played in three senior games for the club that season. His debut against Essendon was particularly impressive. He made 11 disposals, collected five marks and scored a goal – the only one of his AFL career. His future looked bright. 

Tohill, meanwhile, was 18 and hadn’t even finished school when he landed in Australia. Stynes kept a close watch on him as he attended an Australian school and played U19 football with the Melbourne club in 1990. 

Tohill continued lining out with a local Gaelic football team in the city – until disaster struck.

“A blind eye was turned to it until one Sunday, I broke my leg playing GAA,” Tohill recalled in 2015. “That didn’t do me any favours and I was out of the game there for seven months.”

A restructuring of the AFL at the start of the 1991 season saw clubs reduce their rosters from 90 players to 45. Tohill, who was costing the club $16,000 a year in his five-year double degree course at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, was deemed surplus to requirements that summer.

Anthony Tohill Derry Senior Football 5/5/96 Derry legend Anthony Tohill. Source: Tom HonanInpho

Stynes famously later described it as “one of the biggest mistakes ever” by his club.

McNicholl was back in Ireland for Christmas in 1990 and didn’t return to Australia. Like Tohill, his college studies were also responsible for his departure as Jordanstown University refused to let him defer his course any longer. 

“What finished me was I was to go back out again but I was at Jordanstown University and I had got the go-ahead from the professor at the time,” explains McNicholl. “Professor Saunders said I’d be okay to finish my course out there.

“I had started at Footscray Institute of Technology (in Melbourne). We had tied up all the pieces with regards to my degree. The club was paying for my fees to go to university and finish the course out.

Jesus, the next thing I got a letter out of the blue from Jordanstown saying that, ‘If you started your course in Jordanstown you had to finish it there. This is your choice. You can take a year out and then come back and finish your course.’

“So I took a year out and then I had to come back and finish my degree because I wasn’t going to lose out on not having my degree. Plus football was starting to pick up in Derry and there was excitement there.

“I remember going to watch the 91 All-Ireland final. Down won it and I remember staying behind in the stand and you were just thinking to yourself, ‘What the hell do you need to do here (to win one)? Look at these boys here.’

Eamon (Coleman, Derry manager) was encouraging me to come back and I made my mind up then to come back.”

Tohill played in the 1991 Ulster championship with Derry, while McNicholl linked up with the St Columbkille’s club in Boston and helped them win the senior football championship that summer.

In 1992, McNicholl and Tohill were part of the Derry side that won National League honours. In 1993 arrived the greatest day in the county’s history, their All-Ireland final win over Cork. 

Derry and Dublin were deadlocked in dying minutes of that year’s semi-final, when McNicholl gave the handpass to flying wing-back Johnny McGurk for the winner.

But a week before the final at the Slieve Russell hotel, Derry boss Eamon Coleman had the difficult task of informing McNicholl he wouldn’t be lining up behind the band for the pre-match parade.

Derry fans Derry's All-Ireland final team parade in front of fans at Croke Park. Source: James Meehan/INPHO

A decade after making his debut and having given up on an AFL career to line-out with his beloved Derry, McNicholl was denied the opportunity to start only the second decider in the county’s history – and their first since 1958.

“The hardest team I ever had to announce because Dermot McNicholl wasn’t starting – one of Derry’s heroes and he was only down as a sub,” said Coleman in his autobiography ‘The Boys of ’93′. 

Coleman continued: “But McNicholl’s reaction summed up the whole attitude in the Derry camp that year: ‘Derry football is more important than Dermott McNicholl and winning the All-Ireland is the main priority.’ A team man. My kind of man.’”

McNicholl admits he was “very, very disappointed” with Coleman’s decision. 

Dermot McNicholl and Pascal Canavan 1996 Dermot McNicholl in action for Derry. Source: INPHO

“I was absolutely devastated for not starting. My performances in training throughout that season, I was absolutely flying in training. But for some particular reason he had this idea or maybe it was more the people he was listening to in the background, he talked about the impact of a player coming on.

“Eamon was way ahead of his time in a sense because you see that happening now with the Dubs, they’ve a strong bench and they use the bench at particular times to suit the team. 

It all came down to the fact that we wanted to win an All-Ireland. Nobody was bigger than the team. Unfortunately, you don’t get that type of player anymore. Players nowadays, I find them a wee bit more selfish in a sense.

“To be successful and win anything you have to put the team first. That’s what I instil in any teams I’m taking, especially in the school and especially young boys – that you put the team ahead of anyone else.”

Near the end of a tight opening half in the final, Cork lost Tony Davis to a harsh red card. Coleman decided he needed to make full use of his spare man and McNicholl was introduced for Damien Cassidy at the interval. 

“We were with the extra man and I was looking to Dermot McNicholl and his surging runs and experience,” Coleman explained in his book. “McNicholl frightened players and scored a point the minute he came on.

“In the heat of a game, you just never know if you’re doing the right thing. You have to have the belief to trust your gut; it’s a chance you have to take.”

Coleman’s gut proved correct. McNicholl clipped over a score and was involved in the move for Enda Gormley’s equalising effort. Cork failed to score for the final 19 minutes as Derry powered to their maiden All-Ireland triumph.

The pinnacle of their careers.

“It was great times for football in general,” says McNicholl. “Down came back again in 94 and it was the heady days at that stage. I suppose Down inspired us and Donegal inspired us (in ’92). We inspired each other by winning the thing.” 

The Derry bench 1993 The Derry bench celebrate at the end of the 1993 final. Source: INPHO

****

As the ’93 Sam Maguire triumph fades further into the background, Derry begin life in 2019 in a lowly place – Division 4 of the Allianz Football League.

They seek promotion from the basement tier without three of the brightest talents to emerge from the county in recent years.

28 years ago, it was Dermot McNicholl and Anthony Tohill who left these shores, while the current Derry set-up must do without young talents Conor Glass, Anton Tohill – son of Anthony – and Callum Brown.

Anton Tohill Derry youngster Anton Tohill is following in his father's footsteps. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Derry is something of a hotspot for producing AFL-level talent. Slaughtneil defender Chrissy McKaigue did a short stint at the Sydney Swans in 2010, while Glen Maghera’s Glass has played in 10 AFL games for Hawthorn so far in his young career.

Tohill’s cousin and fellow Swatragh club man, Oisín McWilliams is another Oak Leafer reportedly being tracked by AFL suitors.

These days McNicholl is head of boys’ PE at St Patrick’s, Maghera, where he’s worked since ’94. Both Glass and Tohill came under McNicholl’s watch in Maghera, while he monitored the development of Ulster U20 Player of the Year Brown from afar.

“Conor Glass has what they call in Australia, footy smarts,” he explains. “You have to be smart enough when you’re playing that game to be one step ahead, that’s what Conor Glass is very good at. He’s also very good at playing the position he’s in off the half-back as a rebound defender. 

“One of the advantages Anton is going to have, they’re very much looking for tall timber over there. The game has moved on remarkably from whenever I was playing. Plus the versatility now is huge, you have what you call players now who are on-ballers. 

“What Callum Brown will bring to the table is his athleticism, he has a huge vertical leap. He doesn’t need that run-up to get himself up in the air to get that ball. I’ve seen him numerous times, he’s in a standing position and the next thing he’s just leaping straight up. That’s massive in their game.”

Callum Brown celebrates at the final whistle Callum Brown celebrates Derry's Ulster U20 final victory earlier this summer. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

McNicholl is surprised at the spate of negativity surrounding Irish youngsters who chase careers as professional athletes Down Under. A record 14 Irish players are currently on the books of AFL clubs with further signings likely to follow in 2019.

I really can’t get my head around it how anybody could be negative about a young boy getting an opportunity to go out and play professional sport and play at the highest level,” he says.

“I cannot understand how anyone would go against them and the negativity about it. It’s really a strange one for me. Some of the people who are coming out with these statements I would like to see if they had a son who had an opportunity to go out and make an AFL career. I wonder would they be doing as much shouting then? I don’t think they would to be quite honest.

“I’m delighted for them. I think it’s a great opportunity. At the end of the day, they mightn’t stay out there the entire duration of their career. Would it not be a serious benefit for Derry if the lads did come home at a particular stage and help the county on?

I just see it as a huge opportunity for them to do well for themselves in life and why would you take that away from them?”

On the issue of young Irish stars signing with Australian clubs, McNicholl is keen to set the record straight on his alleged involvement with controversial AFL agent Ricky Nixon, who caused a storm in Ireland in 2008.

Ricky Nixon speaks with James Kielt Ricky Nixon speaks with James Kielt in 2010. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A decade ago, Nixon arrived in Ireland and put together a shortlist of 80 of the most talented Gaelic footballers aged between 17 and 23 for trials, drawing the ire of many heavy hitters within GAA circles.

“The players have been identified by Dermot McNicholl who played with me at St Kilda and by three people who are involved in coaching elite junior sport over there and some other people who shall remain confidential,” Nixon claimed at the time.

His quest to entice the best young talent was the subject of a three-part RTÉ documentary, ‘The Oz Factor’. 

“No, no, no,” McNicholl says when he’s asked about Nixon’s claim. “I want this on the record. That is completely false. I’ll tell you why.

I played with Ricky Nixon at St Kilda. I’ll tell you what happened. He rang me up and said, ‘Dermot, I’m in Ireland here. I’m carrying out a camp.’ He asked me to come down to it.

“I said, ‘Not a bother’ because I had played with him. So the next thing I walk into the session, they’re inside in a sports hall. Ricky pulls the boys in and says, ‘Do you want to say a few words?’

“I didn’t realise that the next thing there was a TV camera there. I swear to almighty God, that is true. I’m telling you straight what happened.

Ricky Nixon speaks with players before today's trials Ricky Nixon speaks with GAA players before AFL trials in 2010. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I came home and the next thing the phone started ringing and people were saying, ‘Jesus, you were on TV there.’ And I was going, ‘What?’. He was a crafty boy, Ricky.”

In 2011, Nixon had his agent license revoked after an investigation carried out by the AFL Players Association where he admitted to “inappropriate dealings” with a 17-year-old girl in a drugs and sex scandal involving the St Kilda club.

“He set me up. He absolutely set me up. Honest to God. I had nothing to do with Ricky Nixon, I had nothing to do with the recruitment of players. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. And you seen how it turned out with him.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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