Game of inches: Can Derry bounce back from Donegal disaster?

Derry goalkeeper Odhran Lynch found himself in the spotlight as Derry’s bid for a third Ulster title in-a-row ran aground against Donegal. Neil Loughran looks at the fall-out from that night, and where the Oak Leafs go from here...

Donegal hit Derry for four goals, altering the path of the Oak Leafers' summer. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal hit Derry for four goals on their way to beating Mickey Harte's men three weeks ago. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

IT wasn’t quite shell-shock as Mickey Harte emerged from the Celtic Park changing rooms long after darkness had descended on Derry.

The former Tyrone boss has exuded zen-like calm since taking over the reins at his native county’s north-west neighbours, with any fall-out that followed his shock appointment brushed aside with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile.

Never mind Jim 2.0, this is Mickey 2.0.

It was similar in the wake of Donegal’s stunning victory over Harte’s defending Ulster champions three weeks ago. Having guided Tyrone teams to All-Ireland titles through the back door in 2005 and 2008, he knew this was a comma rather than a full stop on Derry’s campaign.

They had seen off all comers until that point, beating the Dubs a fortnight earlier to claim the League title; one defeat was never going to signal a return to the drawing board.

The true post-mortem would take place in the days and weeks leading into Saturday’s showdown with Galway but, in the immediate aftermath, goalkeeper Odhran Lynch found himself under the microscope.

Three times the Magherafelt man ended up in no-man’s land as the Tir Chonaill ran in four goals – two after pressing up on Shaun Patton kick-outs, Daire O Baoill punishing from distance on both occasions, before Jamie Brennan was left with the goal at his mercy after a huge kick from Patton’s replacement, Gavin Mulreany, broke in Donegal’s favour with Lynch again marooned.

“You have to review everything and certainly the things that cost you, you have to review,” admitted Harte.

“It doesn’t say that it’s not the right thing to do, there are days when it will be an effective method - obviously today was one where it wasn’t.

“It’s a danger when there’s a person on the other side with a boom of a kick-out, then you’ve got to adjust your positioning and all of that. It’s a risk-reward thing, and the risk far outweighed the reward for us today.”

As the shockwaves from that result spread out across the country, the sweeper-keeper debate was swiftly reopened; the sight of Lynch running back towards an empty goal sparking a social media frenzy.

It’s nothing but an ego trip.

The risk far outweighs the reward.

Get back in goal.

The reaction was inevitable; the reality not just so straightforward.

Having previously worked together with Fermanagh, Ronan Gallagher is understood to have joined brother Rory's Derry backroom team. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Ronan Gallagher, now back with native county Fermanagh, was Derry's goalkeeping coach last year. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“IT becomes a polarised view, but then you need to look at the reasons around it...”

Ronan Gallagher was goalkeeping coach with Derry last year, having been brought onboard by brother Rory. The evolution of the position, and its increased importance in the modern game, fascinate the former Fermanagh number one.

Indeed, the Belleek man has some claim to the trailblazer tag, much to the bemusement of a Donegal Democrat reporter covering the 1997 county championship clash between Tempo and Gallagher’s Erne Gaels.

Claiming the game would be remembered “more for the remarkable antics of Belleek’s goalkeeper than the football played by either side”, journalist Michael Daly was unimpressed with what he had just watched from the teenager between the sticks.

“There was a bizarre finish involving the sending off of Ronan Gallagher, who had wandered 80 metres from his goals and stayed there for a good four minutes before perpetrating a rash and needless tackle on an opponent,” he wrote.

“Ronan should make up his mind about where he wants to play. If it’s in goals, he should stay there and not repeat the ludicrous wanderings that would put Higuita and Schmeichel in the shade.”

“Ah, I got absolutely pilloried to be fair,” laughs Gallagher.

“It was a different thing to what you’re talking about now in that my head was up my backside - I thought I was better than the outfield players.”

Yet some of the commentary that followed Derry’s defeat to Donegal wasn’t too dissimilar.

Gallagher is back involved with his native county, where young goalkeepers Ross Bogue and Sean McNally have also learned harsh lessons along the way, with the promise of more to come.

But while there has been a greater acceptance of the pitfalls among management and players, the jury remains out for many watching on.

Gallagher saw at first hand Lynch’s suitability for the role, having played at midfield before being converted, and his acceptance of the risk-reward axis.

While what transpired in Celtic Park was a chastening experience for the 24-year-old, there is much more to consider than Lynch’s positioning, he feels.

For a start, Derry’s press was “a fraction too high” considering the Donegal ‘keeper’s ability to go so long off such a short run-up.

“Against Patton you can only be a max of halfway between your own 45 and 65.

“Patton and Rory Beggan break the rules on goalkeepers... Patton can hit the ball that distance on two-and-a-half steps. The only real indication is he crouches down a wee bit more when he’s really thumping it.

“But even Niall Morgan and Shane Ryan have to take a bit of a run-up to really bang it.”

As a result, the Tir Chonaill were able to utilise the space behind to maximum effect.

“Even if Lynchy was in nets for the first two, I think Donegal would’ve scored those goals anyway, because of the way it broke.

“Take the first - the issue wasn’t actually him being out of goals. Brendan Rogers did really well to break the kick-out, but then Donegal had five around the break and Derry only had two.

“The issue came from Derry’s press of four-four - the Derry half-forward line probably didn’t get out as quick as the Donegal half-forward line to be in the best position for the break. Ryan McHugh won the break, slipped it off and it was a brilliant finish.”

The trajectory of Patton’s kick-out was the key for the second goal, with Donegal again exploiting space as O Baoill ran onto Shane O’Donnell’s flick.

Gallagher had seen the Gaoth Dobhair man kick a similar long-range effort with Bogue stranded against Fermanagh during the League, with capitalising on those moments clearly high on Jim McGuinness’s agenda as the Oak Leaf clash loomed.

“That was definitely something they had been practicing.

“Even then, Patton’s kick goes way beyond the normal realms yet, if Derry win that ball, they’re in prime position for the break. When they don’t, Eoin McEvoy then feels he has to go for it and that puts O Baoill in.

“You can see when you watch it back how well he reads the space – for Donegal, space is king - and O’Donnell is on the same wavelength. Then with the last goal, all the Derry players are more or less man-to-man, apart from two in the middle.

“Lynchy goes to leave the middle first, then he sees the ball is being kicked to somebody unmarked, so he probably feels he has to go, and that opens it up then. It’s a game of inches, it really is.

“But if people think Derry are vulnerable on this, then they’re very much misguided. Come the All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final, there’ll not be a word about it.

“When Monaghan were beating Armagh in an All-Ireland quarter-final last year, was anybody still talking about Monaghan being stuffed by Derry in the Ulster semi-final? There wasn’t a word.”


JAMES Califf knew the feeling all too well.

Unlike Odhran Lynch, he had a background in goalkeeping from his younger days. Back in 2002, when the Louth Leader newspaper proudly proclaimed ‘Red Devils pick local youngsters’, the Clogherhead man was one of the chosen few.

Yet, despite impressing scout Walter Murphy enough to earn a spell at the club’s academy, his future lay in the red of Louth rather than Manchester United. For the guts of a decade, that was mainly as a midfielder, before calling time in 2020.

Job done, thanks for the memories.

Then Mickey Harte landed in Louth a year later. When regular goalkeeper Craig Lynch retired, Harte’s coaching companion Gavin Devlin had a brainwave. After the O’Byrne Cup, he phoned captain Sam Mulroy about the plan to persuade a former team-mate to come back for another crack – this time in nets.

“What? James Califf? Like, ‘Peach’ Califf, who plays midfield for Clogher’ - are you mad?”

At 31, it required a major leap of faith. But, after initial reluctance, Califf was game. And it went well as the Wee County achieved a second consecutive promotion, moving up to Division Two.

The following year, the journey brought Louth to a first Leinster final since 2010. Dublin would be in the opposite corner but, having faced Dessie Farrell’s men at Croke Park towards the end of the League, there was no fear.

Louth had conceded 16 points in a seven point defeat, but Califf kept a clean sheet. Their kick-out routine, and their own press to a lesser extent, gave cause for cautious optimism.

The next day, however, was a different story as the Louth fairytale came to an abrupt end. Dublin finished up with five goals, another stepping stone on the way to being crowned All-Ireland champions.

“They changed their shape for the Leinster final and really went after us on our kick-outs.

“They were man to man in the League and then they went with a really high press, 4-5-3, which blocked off the short ones and then the long ones they were winning, even though they were being outnumbered.

“We were outnumbering them where the ball was going but then the likes of Fenton, McCarthy and Howard were just boxing the ball forward about 30 yards so they take that numbers advantage off you straightaway.

“On the other side, when we were pressing their kick-outs, and I was in more advanced areas, in the last 10 minutes of the first half we turned Cluxton over five times and got a couple of points.

“It’s a risk if you lose breaks and against a team like Dublin who might gamble and leave a four-v-three behind the last line of the press, the pressure comes on then to make sure you win it because if you don’t everyone’s sprinting back and filling holes.

“There were stages last year where you’d have seen our full-back in goals and me out tackling someone like Paul Mannion!”

With All-Ireland round robin games coming up against Cork, Mayo and Kerry coming up, it wasn’t about to get much easier. Harte and Devlin, though, remained unperturbed.

“When things went wrong for us last year, they’d back you to the hilt for the next game, no problem,” said Califf, who has since exited the inter-county stage for good and is now coaching Louth minors.

“Unfortunately it didn’t work out on the day but I wasn’t worrying about it too long. You would be more inclined to embrace the challenge rather than worry about what might happen.

“An awful lot of work goes into each game to calculate the risk level. In the case of Derry’s game against Donegal, there probably should’ve been enough cover there for someone to drop back into the goals.”

Sunday at Pearse Stadium will be another acid test for Lynch, with memories still fresh of Derry’s difficulties escaping the Galway press in the 2022 All-Ireland semi-final after the Oak Leafs had made a flying start.

Yet Califf still expects to see the Magherafelt man play a major part as Harte’s men seek for force the issue.

“[Galway goalkeeper] Conor Gleeson’s kick-outs hang a bit in the air - they wouldn’t be bullet-like in the same way Patton’s can be - so you would expect Derry to go after that. If the ball’s in the air, there’s enough time to get back into goals.

“A lot of people jump on the thing very quickly but last year Odhran Lynch was advanced on kick-out presses and he won a couple of them, so I don’t see one game being the making or breaking of what way you might play in terms of pressing kick-outs with a goalkeeper or not.

“When it works it can really pin a team back and it can really psychologically scar an opponent, especially a ‘keeper, when he’s looking up and seeing all these bodies coming in towards him.

“The traditionalists might be looking at it and maybe hoping for a mistake, but other people will see sense in it.”

Barry Gillis was a key member of the Derry minor backroom team 
Former Derry goalkeeper Barry Gillis was frustrated by the social media response to the Oak Leafers' Ulster exit

BARRY Gillis was a latecomer to the number one jersey too.

Playing outfield for Co Derry in the Milk Cup, and with O’Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt, he was eventually handed his Oak Leaf debut by Eamonn Coleman in 2000. It was against Kildare in Newbridge - Gillis lined out at left wing-forward, with Paddy Bradley in the corner.

Similar to Califf, he eventually stepped out of the way for a few years. Work had taken him to Dublin, life moving in a different direction. Then came a call from Mickey Moran, selling the idea of playing as a sweeper-’keeper behind the Derry defence.

From that point, Gillis never looked back. But, as his club playing days were coming to an end, Odhran Lynch was making his way through the ranks. It was in St Mary’s, Magherafelt’s run to a maiden MacRory Cup in 2017 that the young man’s potential became clear.

Gillis was involved with Damian McErlain’s Derry minors at the time, and would spend countless hours on the training field with Lynch. That relationship continued at Rossa Park, working more on the traditional skills of goalkeeping rather than further out the field.

“As well as having a big kick, it’s a good bonus to be able to play,” he said, “but ultimately you have to keep the ball out of the net and that comes down to your shot-stopping, your positioning.”

It was hard watching from the wings at Celtic Park three weeks ago as Derry’s Ulster title charge fell at the first hurdle. Lynch, Gillis has no doubt, will have parked that game and moved on. Against Galway, it will be business as usual.

But what alarmed him most was the reaction in some quarters.

“I know the family well, and a lot of the stuff wasn’t nice. I’m not a big social media man myself but people show you things... a few weeks earlier he was the hero at Croke Park [saving two of Dublin’s penalties in the League final], and the same in the Ulster final the year before.

“I think there’s a bigger picture here. Not only is it an amateur game, and the man is doing his best, part of a team that has given Derry a lot of good days out again.

“People should think of that before they start typing. At the end of the day he’s a young lad, a human being like the rest of us - what happened is just football. Some people need to remember that.”