Fresh faces making James Kielt feel more senior than his years
JAMES Kielt jokes he’s due a “testimonial dinner” this year. Don’t mention testimonial dinners.
The Kilrea man is in his 10th year with the Derry seniors and is now on his fifth county manager: Damian Cassidy, John Brennan, Brian McIver, Damian Barton and Damian McErlain, the current incumbent.
He’s still only 29 but can be forgiven for feeling older than his years.
He reminds you that Mark Lynch is three years older than him.
In 2018, Kielt, Lynch and Enda Lynn are Derry’s senior citizens.
Training is a weird experience. They’re surrounded by fresh faces that look as though they should be preparing for Féile than Division Three games.
Lynch has clocked up over 50 Championship appearances, Kielt, Lynn and Chrissy McKaigue are in their low 20s.
“Mark has as many Championship games as 90 per cent of the panel put together,” Kielt says.
“For a county player I’m relatively old. I turned 29 in January, so I’m one of the older members of the panel. I’d say the current Derry panel is one of the youngest in Ireland at senior level.
“A younger panel makes you feel older. It’s funny how it goes because it doesn’t seem that long ago I was a young boy coming through and now I’m not.”
McErlain spent three fruitful years with the Derry minors – winning two Ulster titles [2015 and 2017] and losing the other decider  - and this year the Magherafelt man has given a lot of them their chance to stake a claim at senior level.
“The young players do add a bit of freshness to it, it definitely does,” says Kielt.
“It’s the same with the club too. You’re in training and you still see these lads as youngsters because when I was playing senior football they were playing U12 or U14 and
suddenly four or five years later they’re playing with me.
“But I still see them as wee’ans - that’s how I always seen them as. It is a bit strange but it’s good as well; it’s enjoyable and they tend to listen to you a bit more. That’s what you hope anyway, that you pass on some experience – whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know.”
The radical rebuild in Derry probably decrees that an Ulster Championship is beyond them this year. The more pressing concern for the Oak Leaf County is to preserve their Division Three status this season.
They’ve lost three NFL games out of four but hope to haul themselves out of danger in their remaining three games against Armagh (tomorrow night) and fellow strugglers Wexford and Sligo.
“There’s only one team that can win the All-Ireland and only one team that wins the Ulster Championship every year,” he says. “We’ve had good teams before who haven’t won Ulster Championships. Obviously you want to be able to compete and come summer time who knows.
“The National League is never the be-all and end-all. It’s generally a decent indicator but it’s not the indicator for what lies ahead in the summer.
“You look at Tipp a couple of years ago who could easily have sneaked past Mayo and found themselves in an All-Ireland final.
“That’s where you ultimately want to be – in the higher divisions playing against the Dublins and the Kerrys every week. But, we are where we are and you just have to get on with it.”
In their clash against Offaly – their only win in Division Three – a meagre 570 supporters turned up to Celtic Park. The following week over 3,000 turned up in Bellaghy to watch St Mary’s Magherafelt play neighbours Maghera in a MacRory Cup semi-final.
“Derry wouldn’t have had the biggest of supports anyway,” Kielt adds.
“I’m used to playing in front of smaller crowds. To me, Celtic Park is a great venue and I like playing there. For a lot of boys, Celtic Park almost feels like an away game because it’s quicker to Belfast than it is to Derry City. I’d love to see games being moved around. This debate came up recently when over 3,000 turned up to Bellaghy to watch the ‘Convent’ play a MacRory Cup semi-final.
“When you compare a schools’ game with Derry playing in front of over 500 people the week before, there is a case to move the games to different venues. We did that when Celtic Park was closed.
“I remember in ’09 we played Kerry in Bellaghy, we also played games in Ballinascreen and Glen – and I enjoyed that too.
“I can see why they want to play matches at Celtic Park; we might as well get use out of it because outside of the county matches you only have half a dozen games on it a year.”
For now, though, Kielt is just glad to be still pulling on the Derry jersey.
He’s hit 1-7 – two from the subs bench – in Derry’s four NFL games to date.
The presence of Derry's so-called senior citizens could be the men that keep the county afloat in Division Three this season.