Barry Gillis enjoying return to action with Magherafelt
THE last two years, Barry Gillis had only played reserve Championship for Magherafelt to give them a pull out.
At 33, he hung up the boots at senior level, having toiled with the Rossas for almost two decades. When he was first called into a Derry squad in 2000, it was as a forward.
Full-forward was where he played most of his club football up until the late noughties, only going between the sticks when the Rossas struggled to replace the retired Johnny Kelly.
He had worn the Oak Leaf number one shirt on a regular basis up until 2010, and briefly again in 2012 when John Brennan encountered an injury crisis.
In 2013, he retired from senior club duty with Magherafelt looking no closer to the John McLaughlin Cup that has eluded them since 1978.
When manager Kevin Coary rang him at the start of this year, Gillis was just setting into his second year coaching the Derry minor goalkeepers as part of Damian McErlain’s backroom team.
“He gave me a ring at the start of the year to see what the situation was. I explained I was with the minors and I’d give him one night a week at that stage.
“Magherafelt are blessed with three other very good goalkeepers at the minute, and maybe his thinking was that I could help bring them on a bit at that stage,” says Gillis.
He’s already been rewarded for his return in the form of a Division One league medal. Magherafelt topped the table for the majority of the season and a last-day win over Kilrea brought the silverware back to Rossa Park for the first time in 34 years.
There was never a stage in his career where it could have been thrown at Magherafelt that they didn’t have quality – they have just eternally lacked the consistency to sustain a challenge.
“Winning the league, people might say it’s irrelevant and who cares who wins the league, but it’s another sign you’re going in the right direction,” he said.
The inconsistency that blights them was never more evident than in last year’s Championship. Their first half display against local rivals Loup was insipid. Gillis was a spectator as Owenbeg as they went in ten points behind at the break.
But by the end, it took a late goal from Declan McVey to rescue victory for Loup after Magherafelt rallied to fight back and lead by two at a stage.
They had their foot on Slaughtneil’s throat in the back door, missing two gilt-edged chances to put them away in a game that went to a replay before the Emmets came through. They, of course, went on to win the title.
“It probably has been one of the biggest problems since probably I was playing. On any given day, Magherafelt could beat anybody, but they could have been beaten by anybody as well. More so this year, the thing’s galvanised,” believes the veteran ‘keeper.
Derry club football has always been a dog-eat-dog environment but the pre-ordained draw and the return to a straight knockout format has added an extra spice to this year’s race.
With back-to-back winners Slaughtneil and their four-in-a-row predecessors Ballinderry on one side of the draw, the door is wide open for the four teams left on the other side to at least reach a final.
Magherafelt’s quarter-final opponents for Saturday, Ballinascreen, finished second behind them in the league, with just a point separating them after 15 games.
With Loup and Glen set for an equally fascinating Saturday evening duel in the other quarter-final, Gillis feels that all four clubs have everything to play for.
“When that side of the draw came out, any one of those teams is more capable of going to a county final, and winning it on any given day, such as the standard is in Derry.
“It’s going to be very tough. Ballinascreen have been thereabouts and they’re a seasoned team, sprinkled with a lot of good youth.
“They’d be very hard to break down. They play a certain style of football that’s defensive and they can hit you very hard on the counter-attack. These are the days you come back for and look forward to.”
But the now 36-year-old, who had the number one jersey for their first round win over Greenlough, won’t be heaping the same pressure on himself as he would have in the past.
“When you’re consistently training week in, week out and playing consistently, you set a lot of standards for yourself and put pressure on yourself.
“But coming back in this time, there’s a great bunch of lads there and they’re hungry for success, and to step into that environment is very enjoyable.”