Back to the walls: Damian McErlain on the ups and down of life and management

The walls that Damian McErlain has helped build ought to be strong enough to hold Derry football up far beyond whatever happens in Castlebar or Mullingar today. He talks to Cahair O’Kane about his success with the minors and a tough spell with the seniors that coincided with being forced to sell the family business to save it...

Damian McErlain speaks to the current crop of Oak Leaf minors, who are 60 minutes away from taking the county to successive All-Ireland finals as the reigning holders. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Damian McErlain speaks to the current crop of Oak Leaf minors, who are 60 minutes away from taking the county to successive All-Ireland finals as the reigning holders. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (SYSTEM)

THREE miles out the road from Glenullin club lie the ruins of the Errigal Old Church.

Legend has it that when it was being built in the seventh century, the walls kept falling down overnight until an eagle swooped on a sleeping St Errigal Admanon, lifted his prayer book and dropped it on the church site.

The walls never fell again.

The story gave birth to the village’s nameThe Glen of the Eagle. Gleann an Iolair. Glenullin.

It was in the bosom of the Glen, where an enormous bronze statue of an eagle stands in the middle of the car park, that it sunk in on Damian McErlain what he and Derry had achieved last summer.

The manic night of winning an All-Ireland minor title had settled into the warmth and peace of their own company the day after.

Glenullin invited them up, fed them, set up the big screen on which they could relive their battle with Monaghan.

Nirvana for a day.

“It was a brilliant environment just in the middle of the afternoon. You know you win an All-Ireland, you don’t want to just go home or sit down on your own?

“It was great to have the whole group together the next day in a GAA club, lapping it up a wee bit.”

The management trailed off for home in the evening while the players headed for Maghera, though not before a handful of them had been to club training.

The walls of Derry football have shook uncontrollably for the last two months.

Virtually overnight, the senior team has gone from winning a league title that looked to have solidified their All-Ireland credentials to scraping into the last 12.

Their dream lives or dies in Castlebar this evening but it’s in Mullingar with Damian McErlain and his latest crop of minors that the county’s deeper health check will take place.

Their All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry will be his fourth from five campaigns across two different spells going back to 2015.

They’ve won four Ulster titles and lost the other final.

Reached two All-Ireland finals, winning the second of them.

This will be McErlain’s 32nd championship game in charge.

Derry have won 27 of the previous 31.

Derry players at the end of the Electric Ireland GAA Football All-Ireland Minor Championship Final between Derry and Monaghan at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds Armagh on 07-09-2023. Pic Philip Walsh
Derry players at the end of the Electric Ireland GAA Football All-Ireland Minor Championship Final between Derry and Monaghan at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds Armagh on 07-09-2023. Pic Philip Walsh

Under Martin Boyle, the 2020 team won Ulster and All-Ireland titles as well.

In McErlain’s first spell, Kerry were everyone’s kryptonite.

Derry lost to them in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2015, a quarter-final in 2016 and then the final in 2017. Three meetings, three defeats.

That was during an unprecedented five-in-a-row that began under Jack O’Connor, humbly back at the bottom of the ladder, climbing his way back to senior success.

The run ended under Peter Keane, whose transition to the top job in Kerry was announced in early October 2018, just after the last of his three of the five.

By then, Damian McErlain was out the other side and had his first year done with Derry seniors.

They had been relegated to Division Four and fallen over the first championship hurdle.

In the background, the family bakery that looked so vibrant on the outside was struggling.

Ten weeks after exiting the championship to Kildare, he and his brothers were forced to sell McErlain’s Bakery in order to save it.

It had started with their parents Joe and Roberta at the kitchen table in 1968, taken on and grown by the six boys.


“It was a bit like a death in the family. There was all the family and then there was the business, and the business was the other member of the family. It’s been tough for everybody. What do ye do?

“There’s worse things can happen too and you have to give yourself that context too. Nothing happened any of the family and you have to take that and go with it. I just think it was meant to be.

“You’d still look at the thing and think the man above decided that was meant to be and yous were better on a different path, so we have to go with that and embrace it and get on with life.”

Football, life, when the walls threatened to fall in around him, he squared up.

2019 was better on the sideline but that was enough. Get out. Take a break, do a bit of work with the Rossa Ógs at the club in Magherafelt, spend some time with Sinead and their two kids.

Then the call came in late 2022: what about another go at the minors?

In the heart of the Eagle’s Glen, the Tom Markham Cup rested easy last summer.


I will go down with this ship

And I won’t put my hands up and surrender

There will be no white flag above my door

IF you’d asked the staff in the Terrace Hotel to put on some mood music, they couldn’t have chosen better than Dido’s ‘White Flag’.

You’re oblivious to it at the time and it’s only in listening back to the tape that the lyrics hit.

The topic at that very moment is Markievicz Park.

One goal chance after the next goes abegging. Then with just over ten minutes to go, Sligo hit two goals in as many minutes.

Derry can’t absorb the blow, staggering, stumbling, somehow headed to Division Four.

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and Damian McErlain of Derry following the Ulster Senior Football Championship match at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Then-Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, now in charge of Derry, shakes hands with Damian McErlain following the counties' 2019 Ulster Championship match. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

“The whole thing really has to take stock and go again… That’s where Derry’s at and people just need to get real,” McErlain said in his solemn post-match interview that day.

His ascension to the senior job was led by a combination of factors, chief of which was how well he had done in three years with the minors.

Their very first championship game in charge was against a Donegal team that retained a handful from the team beaten in the previous year’s All-Ireland final and were favourites to go back there and win it.

Derry won with a gutsy display that got its bit of luck when Donegal missed a penalty right at the death.

“If we had been beat that day, you might never had heard tell of me again,” he smiles.

There’s an evenness about him. Never too high, never too low. But that doesn’t mean the waves just wash over him.

They crashed hard against him the day Derry dropped to Division Four.

Ten years after winning Division One, just four after reaching another final, the country simply couldn’t comprehend how it had happened. The criticism was loud and sustained.

“It’s hard to take. You have to let some of it go over your head, you can’t absorb it all. You definitely feel it, in the background.

“I tended not to look at stuff around the time, I avoided people. When you’re in that sort of role, you do tend to stay out of the road of people.

“Even at a match, you hide away in a corner, make sure nobody sees ye. Even yet I’d be a wee bit like that.

“That’s a piece that I’m not sure the general public see the human side of it overall. Social media is one thing but in general, there’s no thought given to anything.

“It’s criticise, criticise, criticise and they haven’t a clue what’s gone into it or anything like it. You know what you’re getting into when you do that so you can’t really get the sympathy either, you’re there to do the job and that’s what you’re putting yourself out for.

“But you’re living in the community, it’s not f***ing Man City you’re taking. You’re one of everybody else, you feel it the way they do. You’re part of it, and that’s what the GAA is about.”

When he was announced as Derry’s new senior manager, it was just days after the minors had beaten Dublin in a toe-to-toe semi-final in 2017.

The timing wasn’t ideal, three weeks out from the All-Ireland minor final itself, but speculation was rampant over the vacant post and leaving the air unfilled might have been worse.

To this day, the Clifford question remains the hardest one to answer in Gaelic football.

Derry were one of the first teams to be put on the stage with him and handed the mic to answer it.

He scored 4-4 that afternoon, comfortably beating Derry’s 1-8 on his own.

“The problem that day was that we got completely overwhelmed in every other position.

“We looked at the video and it was 19 or 20 minutes gone by the time any sweeper would have got near any ball that had gone in.

“To say do you regret not playing a sweeper, probably not. It was too late to just throw a man in in front of Clifford and expect him to have any impact when they hadn’t played that role all year.”

It stalled the momentum a bit as he took office for the senior gig.

Kerry sensation David Clifford ran riot against Derry - and Conor McCluskey - in the 2017 All-Ireland minor final. Picture by Sportsfile
Kerry sensation David Clifford ran riot against Derry in the 2017 All-Ireland minor final. Picture: Sportsfile

Slaughtneil backboned his plans but they were on an unprecedented charge that took them into February All-Ireland semi-finals in both football and hurling.

Unlike when both Rory Gallagher and Mickey Harte called upon the Glen contingent within days in the last two seasons, McErlain didn’t apply the same pressure.

In some ways he still feels that was the right thing to do for those players.

“You probably would be even more hard-nosed about the standards required.”

But the biggest change he’d make would be something not everyone could make. A complete shift of day-to-day priorities.

“To manage Derry now, it needs to be your job.

“There’s no point trying to do it and working 40 hours a week for somebody else.”

His day job now is as a Technology Executive with Invest NI.

Before that, he’d been taken on by his clubmate Joe Keenan in his family’s property management firm CFM for the first five years after the bakery had changed hands.

Genesis Bakery, which had grown up as McErlain’s, was bought over in late August 2018 by Tayto chief Paul Allen after administrators were called in.

It all fell apart so suddenly and unexpectedly.

They’d taken on more business manufacturing for retail giants M&S and Waitrose, leading to rapid expansion that included investment in new machinery and staff.

But they went out too hard. Christmas 2017 didn’t go as planned, profit was lower than expected and a spiral began. They worked tirelessly to save it. Resisted the white flag with everything they had.

In the end, the best they could do was save the company and its jobs, but not themselves.

“You can imagine, 50th year in business, whole family involved – it was a tough period. That was a lot to take on alongside taking your county at that time, emotionally and all the rest.

“For a three-month period, it was frantic. People were trying to get it pulled back and save the thing.

“We were nearly victims of our own success. We were being successful in terms of how we were performing in the shops but the whole background of the thing, the better we performed there, the deeper we were getting in at the back office.

“It was one of those things in life you can never row back. We’ve all dusted ourselves off and moved on since.

“I’ve done my own thing, the brothers have all went and done their own thing as well. It’s a tough one. It’ll never go away. You can’t do anything about it now, like.”

Hindsight is always 20-20.

Such is business. Such is management. Such is life.


THEY say you should never go back.

Damian McErlain is delighted that he did.

The kids were young enough to be insulated from the criticism of the relegation to Division Four.

Things picked up the following year. With Mickey Harte in the home dugout, they ran Tyrone close in Omagh, only falling at the feet of a brilliant late Darren McCurry goal.

He felt he left “in neutral”.

They’d won every game to get back out of Division Four. He brought in Ciaran Meenagh and the last thing he told the executive before he left was that they should move heaven and earth to keep him with whoever took over.

40 when he took the senior gig, he’ll be 47 in August.

Lily is 14 and Joe is 10.

They beamed like the summer sun that shone down on the Athletic Grounds last July, their father’s team repelling everything Monaghan had to throw at them like a team far beyond its years.

When he took over the first time, county minor was behind school and club in the order of priority for many of the stronger players.

A Magherafelt man who’d won MacRory and Hogan Cups as a player with St Pat’s Maghera, one of the first things he did was to put his good relationships with the two big schools to use.

Standards that were set have since been reset. The bar keeps rising.

There’s the physical end – you’re looking at a top speed of 9 metres per second for some and covering 8km a game at U17 level – but so much is in approach and attitude.

He was listening to Pete McGrath’s interview on the GAA Social podcast earlier in the week, reflecting on how things are no longer as dictatorial as they were in the great man’s heyday.

Parts of the senior gig he loved. Others, not so much.

But if you led him to a time machine and took him back to the summer of 2017, would he do it all again?

“Aye I think ye would. It’s a serious honour to manage your own county.

“You’d feel quare and sick ten years down the line if you’re still coaching and you had the chance to take Derry and said no.”

He went back and has ended up back here.

Kerry again.

The one hurdle that he hasn’t been able to clear with the minors.

A 28th win from 32 games would take him into a third All-Ireland final and Derry into a fourth in eight years.

The walls that Damian McErlain has helped build ought to be strong enough to hold Derry football up far beyond whatever happens in Castlebar or Mullingar today.

Derry manager Damian McErlain with his team in the changing rooms before taking on Ulster University in their McKenna Cup opener on Wednesday night at Celtic Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Derry manager Damian McErlain with his team in the changing rooms before taking on Ulster University in their McKenna Cup opener on Wednesday night at Celtic Park. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.