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'A phenomenal job' - The rise of Derry from Division 4 to Ulster senior champions

It has been a stunning season for Rory Gallagher’s side.

Brendan Rogers and Shane McGuigan celebrate after winning.
Brendan Rogers and Shane McGuigan celebrate after winning.

ON 25 MARCH 2018, the Derry footballers lost out to Sligo by two points in Markievicz Park.

It was a result that capped a miserable spring for the Oak Leaf county in the third tier of the league.

After contesting the Division 1 league final in April 2014, it was a disastrous chain of events for football in the county that saw them slip down to the bottom division.

They were forced to spend the early parts of 2019 operating far from the limelight.

Yet they rebounded in a rapid fashion and yesterday’s final whistle in Clones saw their followers, clad in red and white, spill onto the St Tiernach’s Park pitch and rejoice at a famous win for the county.

But what were the key factors underpinning such a rise in the space of three years?

The arrival of Rory Gallagher

On 4 September 2019, Rory Gallagher was officially rubber-stamped as Derry manager. By that stage the Derry had escaped from Division 4, a perfect league record that year under the stewardship of Damien McErlean as they confirmed the suspicion that they were too strong a side to be stuck in that division in the first place. 

Yet Gallagher was taking over a team that had lost to Tyrone at the Ulster preliminary stage that year and had been pushed out of the qualifiers on their home patch at the hands of Laois. They were classed as a Division 3 team, hadn’t won an Ulster title since 1998 or reached a final since 2000, and Gallagher would be forced to endure two Covid-interrupted seasons which impeded his ability to gain fluency through regular interactions with the team.

Having already managed Donegal and Fermanagh, Gallagher had stockpiled plenty experience, while his playing career brought exposure to an All-Ireland club win with Antrim’s St Gall’s, a Leinster club win with Dublin’s St Brigid’s and county days with Fermanagh and Cavan.

rory-gallagher-celebrates-with-his-family Rory Gallagher celebrates with his family. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

It has all brought him to this role with Derry where he has had a transformative impact on their fortunes, turning out a team that is meticulously coached, raising standards and coaxing the group to perform at a higher level.

His importance is reflected in their improvements and was summarised yesterday by man-of-the-match Brendan Rogers, when speaking to BBC Northern Ireland afterwards.

“There was a bit of something missing in Derry for a long time and I think Rory coming in brought us all together and brought us playing as a team. He’s came and produced a lot of goods for Derry and tried to bring us to a better place and he’s done a phenomenal job so far.”

The return of Glass and stars emerge

It’s not a new trend to see Gaelic footballers making their mark on the county stage after time in the AFL. The past couple of years alone have proved that. The 2020 Munster championship saw Mark Keane and Colin O’Riordan produce memorable cameos, while Tyrone fans could salute last year the contributions of Conor McKenna and Cathal McShane.

In September 2020 there was a pivotal announcement for Derry as it emerged that Conor Glass was heading home. The first Irish man to represent Hawthorn, having joined the club in October 2015, was returning to his native county. It was a seismic boost, the availability of a generational talent suddenly changing their outlook.

Last year he helped Watty Grahams Glen land their maiden Derry county senior title. Then came another breakthrough on a bigger stage, yesterday showing again how instrumental Glass is in giving Derry a foothold at midfield. His accuracy was off in normal time with a chance to land the winner, but he atoned by clipping over the last point of the game in extra-time to seal Derry’s success. A remarkable personal tale in just over 20 months since departing Australia.

That’s been allied to a group of players reaching new heights – Chrissy McKaigue’s superbly discplined man-marking jobs, Gareth McKinless powering the team forward from deep, Brendan Rogers’ brilliant ability to bend a game to his will, the emergence of Shane McGuigan and Niall Loughlin as a twin threat up front.

colin-mcguigan-celebrates-with-the-trophy-in-the-dressing-room Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

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Underage promise

The senior struggles have been documented, but of late Derry have been showing signs of promise further down the rungs of the football ladder. They have won three Ulster minor titles since 2015 and added the delayed 2020 All-Ireland championship last July. They won the 2018 Ulster U20 title, while contesting the final at that grade in 2017 and 2019. At colleges level St Patrick’s Maghera and St Mary’s Magherafelt have scooped up five MacRory Cups between them since 2013.

They have picked up players along the way, even after days of disappointment. The genius of David Clifford dished out suffering to Derry teams with St Brendan’s Killarney in 2016 and the Kerry minors in 2017. But Shea Downey, Glass, McGuigan and Oisin McWilliams played in that Hogan Cup final, while Conor McCluskey, Padraig McGrogan and Ben McCarron lined out in the All-Ireland minor decider.

Those were setbacks in Croke Park, yet all those players were celebrating glory yesterday in Clones.

shea-downey-and-conor-glass-celebrate Shea Downey and Conor Glass celebrate yesterday's win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The momentum gained from winning

The league has been kind to Derry in terms of building momentum and instilling confidence. They have tapped into a winning habit, since the start of 2019 Derry have played 27 league games and won 22 of them. Their remaining five games have featured two draws, two losses in 2020 by the same margin of two points, and the only major setback was last March in losing to Galway when they conceded 4-11.

It has captured the consistency and progress made under Gallagher. He was not involved for the 2019 league but they were only pipped on the head to head record by Down in the Division 3 promotion race in 2020, making amends by winning that title in 2021 and then finished third in Division 2 this year.

In the knockout Ulster championships they lost by two points to Armagh in 2020 and by a point to Donegal in 2021. Then they have exploded to life with this year’s stunning provincial run to topple the modern big three of Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal – a grouping that won 12 out of 13 Ulster championships played between 2009 and 2021.

Little wonder it has been such a memorable provincial triumph.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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