Derry football is a work in progress says Tony Scullion
DERRY football must learn to “crawl before it can walk” again, believes Oak Leaf legend Tony Scullion.
The four-times Allstar defender is currently assisting his former 1993 All-Ireland winning team-mate Damian Barton in the Derry hotseat, preparing to meet beaten Leinster semi-finalists Meath next weekend.
Victory over Louth got Derry back on track after their hopes of a first Ulster title in 18 years were obliterated by old rivals Tyrone in Celtic Park back in May.
Scullion insists that the players exist within Derry to be competing, and that the work being done with development squads within the county is getting there.
The proof of that is in winning last year’s Ulster minor title, and reaching the final again this year under Magherafelt man Damian McErlain.
Scullion’s job with Ulster Council allows him to see first-hand the quality of the young players in each county. What he sees in Derry is raw, undiluted footballing ability that has often failed to translate itself to cope with the modern game.
“Through my work, I see the academy squads, and most counties have squads from under-14 up. Some counties have five or six squads at that level.
“I’m looking at Derry and they had under-14 for one blitz last year, and they’re hoping to have them up and going this year.
“The under-15s the last few years, when Derry were just starting it, they were competing and beating the rest in the province at under-15.
“Derry had as good, if not better, a bunch of players as any of the other counties, three or four years in-a-row there. “Unfortunately, in the past, maybe as they got older, we weren’t just pushing it on to another level.
“I know the structure now, Derry are trying to get the thing in place and push on, and you have to do that. Every other county’s at it.
“People maybe think it’s only a few counties at it, but I know now that there are more and more counties taking this on board and trying to get the young lads developed, getting their physical condition sorted out properly, as well as their techniques and skills.”
The seniors have gone 18 years without an Ulster title, and the minors were hot on the heels of that unwanted chasm up until they stunned Donegal and then overcame Cavan last summer.
That bridged a gap back to their Ulster and All-Ireland winning team of 2002, which produced eventual stalwarts in Patsy Bradley, Mark Lynch and Gerard O’Kane.
But as much as Barton has inherited a similar crop of players that Brian McIver used, and that even John Brennan and Damian Cassidy had, their turnover of players has been astonishing.
A recent study by GAA stats boffin Rob Carroll revealed that the Oak Leafers have used 98 players in Championship football since 2006. Only Carlow have used more.
When Barton and Scullion took over, the stated aim was to have a team athletically capable of challenging the elite. That’s proven a big ask in the first eight months of their tenure.
“Tyrone and Dublin and those teams, this process has been going on seven, eight years, maybe longer. Yes, Derry has been in the process too, but physical conditioning is so important nowadays.
“Derry, as a county, are trying to set the right structures in place. This structure can’t be set in place with 19- or 20- or 21-year-olds.
“It has to be set in place with your 13- or 14-year-olds. Derry is in the process, in recent times, of getting that up and going. That’s where it starts at, 13 and 14-years of age. 19 and 20’s too late.”
The absence of silverware has contributed to the player drain the county has experienced, with far too many preferring to concentrate their efforts on a competitive club scene after brief spells on the Derry panel.
All of that has led to a lack of confidence among the players.
Even the great team he played on needed something to spark that belief. Preparing to face Meath, he recalls edging many a great battle in the 1990s, but equally of how sobering the 1987 All-Ireland semi-final defeat was.
“We won an Ulster title that year and went to Croke Park and we didn’t really believe we could win. That was a great Meath team that went on to win a couple or three All-Irelands.
“To win an Ulster title was maybe our All-Ireland that year. Meath taught us a lesson in Croke Park. But for a long number of years, we’d a lot of great battles with them, in National League matches, even semi-finals and finals, and we always came out on top.
“Both counties had great respect for each other, good players, good men who took their knocks and played on. There was no lying down. It was just good, honest-to-goodness football, played in the right spirit. I hope to God this one’s the same.”
He would have killed for a Qualifier system in his playing days. And in the early days after its inception in 2001, Derry were the kings of the back door.
But somewhere at the tail end of the noughties, that stopped. The attitude towards it has become increasingly insipid, as evidenced by failing to reach the last eight of the All-Ireland series since 2007.
“You always hope there’ll be a squad of players come along that will have the ability and the willpower and make all those sacrifices that will get you there to the top to compete with the best,” said Scullion.
“We’re not a massive county but I still think we have good footballers in Derry.
“Sometimes I think to myself, do those lads really, really believe they’re as good as anywhere else in the country?
“I’m convinced that Derry have a batch of players that can stand up against anybody. But at the minute, it’s a work in progress. You have to be able to crawl before you walk.
“That’s the situation in Derry at the moment. We have to get lads ready and primed and in the right physical condition to play at the top. When you look at the Dublins and see the condition they’re in, that’s what you have to aspire for.”