‘In many ways I’m in love with those players. That’s only natural. And it’s a process now of falling in love with another set of players’

It isn’t even eight months since Ciaran Meenagh found himself in the eye of the storm when off-field issues threatened to derail Derry’s Ulster and All-Ireland ambitions. Plenty of water has flowed beneath the bridge now and, speaking to Neil Loughran, the Tyrone man looks back at what might have been and sizes up the challenge ahead with Down…

Ciaran Meenagh alongside Down boss Conor Laverty during last weekend's Dr McKenna Cup clash with Derry at Celtic Park. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Ciaran Meenagh alongside Down boss Conor Laverty during last weekend's Dr McKenna Cup clash with Derry at Celtic Park. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IT had just gone eight o’clock by the time Ciaran Meenagh stepped out through the door and slipped straight into the shadows. Head bowed, a nod here, a nod there, then round the corner and on his way.

No fuss. No drama. That had been Meenagh’s mantra when thrust into the eye of the storm leading into last year’s Ulster final, and when guiding Derry through the most turbulent of summers to the cusp of an All-Ireland decider.

He isn’t about to change now, even if plenty has elsewhere.

Last Saturday was undoubtedly a strange one. Rolling into Celtic Park aboard the Down bus felt odd after five unforgettable years at the heart of the Oak Leaf renaissance.

Through the changing room wall gathered men with whom he had soldiered from the depths of Division Four to kings of Ulster, now under the stewardship of Mickey Harte - his former manager with Tyrone.

It could have been him and, for a long time, it looked as though it would be. But it isn’t, and Meenagh has made his peace with that decision, the Loughmacrory man now alongside long-time friend Conor Laverty in the Mourne County.

Yet the ties that bind remain. Management team members Enda Muldoon and Hugh McGrath sat in the Down changing room for a quarter of an hour and had the craic. Some of the Derry players popped in and shook his hand, some texted later that night, while he met others for coffee and a catch-up over the festive period.

But when the chatting was done, it was time to go. No fuss. No drama.

“I left on brilliant terms with the players, but when you’re on the outside, you’re on the outside. It’s not my business what goes on there now; I have enough to focus on myself.

“To be with them for five years, and I said it to the Down players before, in many ways I’m in love with those players. That’s only natural. And it’s a process now of falling in love with another set of players.

“The last thing I wanted was Saturday night to be about me - it’s never about me. I don’t have an ego like that. I wanted to get in and get out of there speaking to as little people as possible, with as little drama and as little fuss as possible.

“A number of them sought me out and I do appreciate those things, because it’s not that long ago we would’ve died for each other.

“But such is life, you have to move on. They’re part of a new regime now and, to be fair to them and to be fair to myself, that distance naturally is created as a result.”

The pace of change, though, is still hard to comprehend. Let’s rewind almost eight months.

When they left Omagh on April 29, 2023, Derry could not have been in a better place.

Monaghan had just been driven into the Healy Park dirt in what was probably the most complete performance of Rory Gallagher’s reign.

Sure, retaining the Anglo-Celt Cup was foremost in minds, but not far behind were supporters’ barely-suppressed dreams of sun-soaked summer trips to Croke Park and reliving that glorious September Sunday in ‘93.

Then came the earthquake that sent shockwaves through the GAA, fissures and fault lines extending far beyond the world of football.

Allegations of domestic abuse, made by wife Nicola in a social media post, would see Gallagher “step back” from his role as Derry manager on the Friday evening before their Ulster final showdown with Armagh on Sunday, May 14.

Meenagh was asked to hold the fort in Clones until a clearer picture emerged. Given the toxicity that surrounded an ever-evolving situation, it was an unenviable position in which to find himself.

Ciaran Meenagh, who stepped down as interim boss of Derry Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Ciaran Meenagh was named Derry's interim manager on the eve of last year's Ulster final. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.

Having had barely any time to think, the Loughmacrory man was suddenly at the gates of St Tiernach’s Park, wearing a wide smile as he prepared to lead Derry into battle.

“Until the Friday evening we felt Rory would still be there for the Ulster final. I had been with Rory on the Friday, then before I left Enniskillen everything had changed.

“I count myself as being a very cool customer who takes things in my stride, but at times your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness. You take a lot on, you can try and balance a lot… you can appear calm when you’re being torn apart inside.

“That was probably the greatest bloody test of that. I had a choice to make in a very short space of time – a choice of whether I can compartmentalise different things that are going on here, and just focus on the football.

“The bottom line was there was 30 odd players or more, a whole management team, a county board, thousands of supporters, and they were depending on me to keep it together, so I felt I had no choice.

“Through that whole time I would have articulated my vulnerabilities to the players. I didn’t try and hide that. I felt that was a powerful thing because the players saw you as the honest, vulnerable human being that you were through it all. That created a unity amongst us.

“I wanted no drama and no fuss, I kept going with that with the players. There was a storm, but all I could do was put one foot in front of the other.

“I got a wee bit of help in terms of controlling my own emotions because that wouldn’t have been something I’d have been into; in terms of how I frame things, how I look at things and box certain things off, including family life and all the rest.

“I came out of it and Martin McConnell, the fella who was managing my own club team with me, took a stroke on the first of June. So between the 10th of May and then, the two people I was managing with…

“Probably I’ll look back in time and say ‘Jesus, how did I come through all that?’”

The Oak Leafs didn’t quite hit the heights of the Monaghan semi-final, but still managed to retain their Ulster title with a nerve-shredding penalty shoot-out win over Kieran McGeeney’s Orchardmen.

Amid the madness of the celebrations that followed, however, it became clear that Gallagher was unlikely to return to the sideline any time soon.

Just like that, the walls started to close in. A teacher at St Colm’s High School in Draperstown,

Meenagh hadn’t missed a day of work in 16 years, but quickly arranged to take six weeks unpaid leave in order to plug one leak in the dam.

Something simply had to give.

“Obviously I took a right slap of drink that evening [of the Ulster final] and then the next day. My wife, Orla, lifted me in Magherafelt that night, I was going home in the car and said ‘if I don’t take time off work here, I think I’ll crack up because there’s only so much anybody can take of this’.

“My boss was fair to me, and that really helped me going full-time with the football and focusing on the video work, the planning, the training, all the phone calls, the media work, the talking to players, just that constant cycle… that probably helped me deal with the rollercoaster it was, because I was totally cut off from the outside world as well.”

And there was a serious job to be done.

After all the upheaval, Derry were viewed as vulnerable for the first time in a long time. A month after being trounced in Ulster, Monaghan could - probably should - have left Celtic Park with two points instead of one from the first round-robin game.

Bit by bit, though, the storm subsided and the Oak Leafs found the momentum that propelled them into an All-Ireland semi-final against reigning champions Kerry. At the same stage 12 months earlier, Gallagher’s men were found wanting by Galway after a flying start.

This time around, lessons had been learnt.

“It was going into the Kerry game we felt we were really starting to see this team come back to where we saw them before the Monaghan game in Ulster.

“We felt we had found our groove again, and so it proved. We were very, very close to being in an All-Ireland final…”

It will take a while before that one no longer stings. There’s also a chance that day might never come.

Three up at half-time, two ahead with four minutes remaining, Derry had the Kingdom right where they wanted them.

But David Clifford and co had other ideas, turning up the heat when it mattered, outscoring the Oak Leafs 0-5 to 0-1 down the straight to set up a date with the Dubs and leave Derry wondering what might have been.

“After 62 or 63 minutes of that game, I turned round to the management team behind me and said ‘it’s over, they’re gone. Kerry are gone, we’ve done it’.

“Because what I was seeing right up close on the pitch beside me, and down in their dugout, they were standing on the edge, just one more score, one more play…

“Everybody talks about the decision on 64 minutes [the free awarded to Kerry substitute Stephen O’Brien], but we dropped the ball into the ‘keeper’s hands, they came up the field and got two frees.

“Then there was a turnover on the line when we were attacking and, the way we were playing at that stage, we were probably going to score, which would’ve brought it out to three points with 67 or 68 minutes gone.

“We had missed a number of chances but they were missing chances as well - they were really struggling. But that’s how it goes sometimes.”

Meenagh has watched the game back on numerous occasions since, even using aspects of it in video work during Down’s pre-season preparations. But it doesn’t haunt him, because he can’t allow it to.

“If I was sitting at home all winter thinking about it, I know where it would put me - that’s why driving up the motorway, being on the phone to Conor all the time, being so engrossed in improving new players…

“I probably need this for my own mental wellbeing as well.”

Because, for all the challenges faced while Championship war was being waged, the greatest came once all was said and done.

Having conducted himself with such understated dignity amid trying circumstances, most expected Meenagh to remain in the Derry hot seat for the year ahead.

With each week that passed, however, the degree of certainty slipped. And then, on September 11, word circulated that he was out of the running, with Harte’s shock appointment coming just eight days later.

Meenagh doesn’t want to delve too deeply into the mechanics of his decision, but admits it was one which “tore me apart”.

“Look, there’s many different layers.

“It’s complicated and it would be unfair to a whole pile of people to go into that. But what I will say to you is that was the hardest decision anybody could make in terms of football.

“The 10 weeks from the 10th of May to the 16th of July were turbulent and tough, but the time between the 16th of July and the end of September were probably the most difficult.

“Everything was very much on the table. You were wrestling with many different emotions and many different thoughts, but you had to take them all together and look at the bigger picture.

“When you looked at everything in its entirety, that’s how the decision eventually came. It wasn’t just about making a decision for me, there was different people involved.

“Maybe in the test of time it’ll prove to be the right decision.”

Odhran Murdock is one of a clutch of emerging talents in Down, with the Burren midfielder having helped the county claim two Ulster U20 titles in the past three years. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Odhran Murdock is one of a clutch of emerging talents in Down, with the Burren midfielder having helped the county claim two Ulster U20 titles in the past three years. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Judging by the early feedback from players around the Mourne County panel, Derry’s loss has definitely been Down’s gain.

The hour-and-a-half spin from the school gates in Draperstown isn’t ideal, but a few home comforts have made life easier. Wife Orla is originally from Loughinisland and, when training late in Ballykinlar, Meenagh will stay over with father-in-law and former Down County Board chairman Eamonn O’Toole.

“Eamonn was chairman when I started going out with Orla,” he smiles, “you could sit there chatting to him all day. I enjoy talking football and Eamonn’s good company.”

It was around that time too he first crossed paths with Laverty, and the pair have remained in contact ever since – friendship, and football, at the heart of it all.

When it became clear Meenagh’s time in Derry was drawing to a close, the Kilcoo man wasted little time in picking up the phone.

“I’d have probably been a good source for Conor through the years, and likewise. That man hears the grass growing and I’m probably somebody who’s pretty well connected in football myself.

“To be honest, I would see Conor in many ways as being very like Rory Gallagher. Rory and I developed an unbelievably close personal relationship, it wasn’t just in a football sense.

“I still speak to Rory almost every day, that’s how close we are as friends, and I could see with Conor from a long way back that type of compatibility in terms of our personalities.

“They’re very similar in how they coach, how they see the game and, I suppose the fundamental thing, very similar in how they’re pure football men.

“Then I would know Declan Morgan, I know Mickey Donnelly very well… I thought it was a management team I could definitely work with.”

Down, as he sees it, are already a few steps ahead of where Derry were when he – and briefly Laverty – hooked up with Damian McErlain at the beginning of the Oak Leaf odyssey in 2019.

And although the Mournemen are battling to escape Division Three at the second time of asking, and avoid trying their hand in the Taileann Cup, Meenagh is a man relishing the start of what he hopes can be another remarkable journey.

“It feels so exciting because, when I started with Derry, they were in Division Four. There was some tough times over the five years I was there, and that culminated in them being within a whisker of an All-Ireland final last summer.

“In my first year we were in Limerick, we were in Fraher Field in Waterford, in Wicklow… there was nothing glamorous about any of that, but it was a building process with a lot of ups and downs. It didn’t happen overnight.

“In Derry, the footballers were always there and in Down, I’m telling you now, the footballers are there. But what happened in Derry was, over a period, the footballers committed.

“Some fell off along the way, but those that stayed really committed to being brilliant team-mates, they committed to each other, and when that happens… there are so many similarities with Down.

“The culture’s pretty good, there’s a high degree of commitment and the players are really respectful of Conor. So far, I really like what I see.”