GAA Football

Derry GAA boss Damian McErlain: A footballing education

Derry manager Damian McErlain with his children after the win over Sligo. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Cahair O'Kane

AS footballing educations go, standing in the Newbridge changing room listening to Eamonn Coleman deliver a masterclass in psychology wasn’t a bad place to start.

That was where it began for Damian McErlain, who will take Derry minors into the last ever All-Ireland final at the grade on Sunday before he moves up to the senior job from next season.

At nine years of age, he recalls the 1993 All-Ireland winning boss delivering rollickings to their senior team, on which his brothers Brian and John played in defence.

“I started to get my education pretty early,” said Damian.

With his five brothers - Adrian, Brian, John, Paul and Seamus – and sister Joanne, they were reared in an environment of flour, eggs, butter around the kitchen table.

Their father Joe and late mother Roberta (‘Bertie’ to those who knew her) started a bakery under the family name in 1968. It has grown to become Genesis, a name most of you will recognise.

The children were at the bakery before school and after school. Sometimes instead of school.

When he was footballing, the young Damian was under the twin influences of Adrian McGuckin as a MacRory player at St. Patrick’s Maghera, and Chris Brown and Paddy Crozier as a Derry minor, the emphasis was equally traditional.

Owenbeg is not as it used to be when he was a sub on the 1995 team that lost the All-Ireland final to Westmeath, having won the first of two MacRorys and a Hogan Cup earlier that year at number 11 on the St Pat’s team.

Much of the surroundings that would have influenced him so under Chris Brown’s command remain. The old building still stands but is home to little more now than the administrative offices.

The main training pitch behind it and all of those on the Dernaflaw side of the 52-acre site haven’t changed much.

But towards the Dungiven end, the new building touches on to the new Croke Park-sized main pitch. There’s a 4G pitch that gets plenty of use in the depths of winter.

"They had the old hut in the middle of those two fields [pointing out to the main training pitch] and it wasn't exactly what you'd call attractive to be coming out of Belfast and rain beating off the bus.

“To be fair, when we were county minors we thought we were professional as well but today it is more the young players are in unbelievable shape compared to what we would have been.

“Even the best players from my era would not have been in anything like the shape these boys are in now and that is down to clubs doing far more work.

“Even in 1996, our second Hogan campaign, I remember drinking water not really being a thing. I remember Adrian McGuckin junior used to cramp in the last five minutes of every game and he thought he had a bad calf.

“The fact of the matter was he had covered every blade of grass and taken a cramp because he wasn't hydrated enough for that.

"Of course there was a lack of education but lads now have it all laid on. Every underage team in the country has a manager, a coach, a goalkeeping coach and someone to look after communications.

"Even at club level, people are far more prepared and young lads don't accept mediocrity any more. If you are not well set up they see through it very quickly.

"They are more clever than we were as well and that is not to take away from the quality or environment that we played in.”

Just over 20 years on, the game has moved on but its old values are back in vogue. In his mind, they never went away for while this crop has been widely praised for their approach since victory over Dublin three weeks ago, they did no different than his Derry teams have been doing for the last three years.

When they stunned All-Ireland favourites Donegal in 2015, it was founded on those same principles. When they counter-attacked, Derry used the boot to unpick the Tír Chonaill sweeper system.

“Adrian McGuckin has been massive for me. The influence and psychology of how the game should be played, that it is a simple game and the basic skills are key. I suppose the whole drive, we like to use kick-passing as much as we possibly can. We do it every night.

"We still do the three facing three that we did 20 years ago at Magherafelt.”

Three facing three. Sideline to sideline. Different deliveries of the kick-pass – some driven on the ground, some one-hop into the receiver, some above the head to work on high catching. And sprinting after the ball, everything done at full pace.

“It is the simplest drill in the world but it covers about 50 per cent of the game and works.”

The proof is in the pudding. Derry hadn’t won a minor championship game in three years when he took over.

In the three seasons since, his teams have won comfortably more games (11) than the eight Derry had in the whole period between their last minor All-Ireland win in 2002 and his appointment 13 seasons later.

The construction of the man-to-man gameplan that has served them so well is more difficult than the finished product makes it look.

But in each of the first two seasons, it’s been Kerry that have deconstructed it. The first year, the Kingdom played their way and Derry tried to adapt, and fell short.

When the Kerry players took off their tops to swap after the game, McErlain realised the level of physicality his team had been up against.

They did their best to bridge that gap over the two years and were physically stronger than most, but when he has spoken this year of having his strongest group, he isn’t just talking about their footballing ability.

“There was some serious quality in both the others teams as well. But it is more the strength in depth, the athleticism we have. Last year I felt we were probably the smallest side. No matter which game we went to we were the smallest side there.

“But this group walking past you to the gym on the first day you thought, 'Now we are talking, we have players who are men' and that was a big thing.

"Last year we were struggling for that type of physique. The first year wasn't as bad but we lacked that last year.”

In every sense, Derry is a stronger county for having Damian McErlain involved.

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