Kicking Out: Fault for Derry's tumble lies with coaching failures
THE middle weekend of April 2014 is significant for Derry football in so many ways.
On the Saturday afternoon, St Patrick’s Maghera went out on a sun-splashed Croke Park and only narrowly failed in their bid to win back-to-back Hogan Cups for the second time in the school’s history.
The day after, Derry played Mayo in a Division One semi-final. They were reduced to 14 men before half-time and yet managed to claw their way to a remarkable 2-15 to 1-16 win.
For the county team, that was the very top of the hill. They were thrashed by Dublin two weeks later and since then, they have tumbled more dramatically than anyone could ever have imagined, culminating in relegation to Division Four at the weekend.
To fall so far in four years is remarkable for any inter-county team, but given the solid foundations provided by the county’s clubs and schools, Derry’s drop leaves you scratching your head.
Having gone a decade without a MacRory success between 2003 and 2013, Maghera won three of the next four and in the last two years, while St Mary’s Magherafelt have been winners and runners-up in the last two years.
That good record is matched and even bettered at club level. Ballinderry (one) and Slaughtneil (three) have won four of the last five Ulster club titles. Oak Leaf clubs have also won six and been beaten in the final of two of the last 10 Ulster minor club titles.
All of that points towards a healthy state of affairs, as would the destination of two of the last three Ulster minor titles at inter-county level, won by Damian McErlain’s teams.
But the surface has been scratched by recent results. Losing to Sligo at the weekend may have been part of an unfortunate series of results that have relegated Derry but the league table is the straightest of operators. It doesn’t know how to lie.
The blemishes are in full view of the country now, which is naturally stunned by their sudden demise.
And in this year, of all years. None of the 1993 team is currently involved with a county team at any level.
Damian Cassidy, Damian Barton, Tony Scullion and Fergal McCusker have offered their services in different capacities in recent years but not enough has been done to solicit the experience of that squad in the right areas.
There are two strands to the idea of underage coaching. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality and, for Derry, that is part of the issue.
They have long struggled to attract coaches to underage development squads who are of the calibre required to propel the county forward.
If the best players at each age group are being sent to Owenbeg and receiving a lesser standard of coaching than they would be at their clubs, then why continue with the idea of development squads if the county board recognises this? Or, worse, do they not recognise this?
In the last decade, Derry has received £1.13m in coaching and games development grants from Croke Park, third only to Dublin and Cork.
Yet the senior football team has not had a starting representative in championship football from a junior club since The Loup’s Mickey O’Brien in the 1980s.
The short-term obsession with county, county, county has consumed the county board.
For instance, this spring, they spent a small fortune putting a tiled mosaic of the Oak Leaf crest into the home changing room at Owenbeg, as well as separate compartments for each player to change in, as per Premier League standard.
Meanwhile, what has been done in those 30-plus years since Mickey O’Brien’s time to improve the standard of the county’s weaker clubs?
Instead of tailoring a changing room, why didn’t the county board invest £25,000, hire a top-quality coach, go to Limavady, Magilligan and Glack – three teams in the junior league within close proximity of each other – and say ‘here you go, this person will coach your coaches and your kids, and only yours’.
Would that not be a far, far better use of resources?
Because while the top end presents a strong impression of Derry club football, the reality is that very few inter-county players have been harvested from even the intermediate league in recent years.
Of the 20 players used on Sunday, only two – Peter Hagan and Mark Lynch – will play outside the top flight in 2018.
That brings us to the turnover of players. An Irish News study at the weekend revealed that Derry have used 98 players in championship football since 2008, the second most of any county behind Leitrim (99).
That is an average of 10 new players a year, every year for a full decade.
Of those 98 players, some 74 are still playing club football, and almost 50 are still aged 31 or under. That is not part of the natural evolution of a county’s footballing resources. How do you achieve anything like that?
The turnover of managers has had a major impact too. They are now on their fifth different manager since 2009.
So many players have become disinterested and the public have become completely disconnected from the whole setup, not helped by the fact games are in Celtic Park, where attendances have been woeful (570 for Offaly, 446 for Wexford).
When asked at the weekend, one recently former player said: "If you asked the players in the changing room, 100 per cent of them would say they don't want to play there."
It may become home again in the future when things pick up but for now, there is a necessity in bringing the county team back to the people.
The task of rebuilding the team has been landed at Damian McErlain’s feet. He cannot be absolved of blame for relegation to Division Four, with his decision to drop Danny Heavron (among others) and go for such a youthful squad with so little experience leaving him open to questioning.
But equally, so many of the ills are not of his doing, and it is hard to be too critical of him given that he must be about the only inter-county manager aside from Jim Gavin not taking payment.
His task now is to ensure the players he helped achieve success at minor level are not lost. The starting point for him has to be retaining a core of players over the next few years and not allowing that turnover figure to get any worse.
Derry needs to abandon its obsession with development squads, who have been given much of the credit for recent minor successes that truly belongs with club coaches.
Instead of isolating itself from the clubs and fracturing that relationship, the Oak Leaf county board would be better served doing whatever it can to support the clubs, financially and otherwise, given that they are producing a steady stream of players and effectively carrying the whole operation on their backs.