Derry club football's search for structural balance

This month has seen the start of restructured club leagues in Derry, and at the top end some of the games have carried a competitiveness unseen in recent seasons. The effect for some elsewhere has been the opposite. Cahair O’Kane canvassed a range of opinions on whether they’re good or bad for clubs and Derry football in general…

 Coleraine celebrate after winning the Derry SFC last year. Eoghan Rua are one of three clubs, along with Ballinderry and Slaughtneil, to have shared the past nine Oak Leaf senior titles. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
 Coleraine celebrate after winning the Derry SFC last year. Eoghan Rua are one of three clubs, along with Ballinderry and Slaughtneil, to have shared the past nine Oak Leaf senior titles. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

GOING back decades, Derry has always been a county renowned for the strength and competitiveness of its club scene.

In recent years, that had become a bit more like an illusion than a reality. Ballinderry won three-in-a-row before Slaughtneil won four-in-a-row this decade, and Eoghan Rua won two either side. The only truly close finals were the ones between two of those three, illustrating the absence of the sort of year-on-year depth that Tyrone’s club scene enjoys.

There was also the issue of depth beyond the senior grade. In recent seasons it’s become commonplace for the team relegated from Division One to come straight back up from intermediate, often as league and championship winners. The same applied to the teams dropping from intermediate to junior.

After a period of widespread consultation, the county’s CCC, led by a progressive head man in Stephen Barker, decided upon a new structure from 2019 onwards.

The senior league was cut from 16 teams to 12, and the intermediate (now known as Division 1B) was cut from 13 to 12, with the other 13 playing in the junior ranks. That compares to a top-heavy 16-13-8 split in previous years.

Right across the board, the early weeks have borne very definite hallmarks of change. Some good, some bad.

In Division 1A, if you remove the outliers of Dungiven and Banagher who have struggled, the average winning margin in games between the rest has been two points, with four draws.

Games of those nature bring many qualities. Crowds have been notably improved, and notably more engaged.

The football has had an early championship feel about it, right down to the punctuation of skirmishes. Nothing’s blown over, but there’s been an edge to a lot of it.

“I said to the boys going out before the first game we played, it’s a bloodbath. I mean that,” says Glen boss Jude Donnelly.

“Every game’s a dogfight,” agrees his former Bellaghy team-mate Joe Cassidy, who’s in his third year in charge of his native club.

Yet they find themselves on opposite sides of the debate when it comes to some of the major discussion points around the whole idea of the restructure.

Cutting the league to 12 teams has created the edge out of a fear of relegation, a fear heightened by the strengthening of Division 1B. Kilrea, for example, were one of the sides to drop down, and they’ve won just one of their opening three games. The near-guarantee that you’ll climb straight back up is gone.

Donnelly believes that, in the long run, the heightened competitiveness will aid both clubs and county.

“I honestly think it’ll help county football. Everybody’s going and there’s nobody relaxing. Every game’s competitive.

“Players are coming up against good players, and it’ll help. But for the first year, it’ll take a while for teams to get used to it. Everybody’s panicking.

“Nobody wants to go down because if you go down, it’s going to be even harder. You could be in a dogfight at the end of the year and people believe if they go down into that division [1B], it could be two or three years before they come back out of it.”

Cassidy, though, feels that a negligible increase in competitiveness – something that he doesn’t see as greatly increased from last year – is offset by cutting the number of games for clubs.

The new league is a single-round competition, meaning top flight teams will play just 11 league games this year.

They’ve all played three each, they aren’t back out until Sunday 28 April and from then until July 17, there will be no league football.

That’s as it was this year, with the gap filled by divisional competitions in which each team is guaranteed at least four games.

Those competitions were treated largely with indifference last year, and it’s that significant 11-week mid-season gap that’s been created to accede to the county teams which is the greatest point of debate.

”We’ve another game now [on Sunday] and then there isn’t another league game until July 17th. That’s 11 weeks. It’s madness.” - Bellaghy manager Joe Cassidy
”We’ve another game now [on Sunday] and then there isn’t another league game until July 17th. That’s 11 weeks. It’s madness.” - Bellaghy manager Joe Cassidy

“There was no need to restructure Division One,” argues Cassidy.

“To cut the league to 12, ultimately all it did was take away four games. I can’t see any logical argument how you can reduce the number of games that a club player gets in a season.

“If they wanted to cut the leagues, have a double round. To do what they’ve done now, nobody can give me an argument of the benefits of playing less football.

“Every game’s a dogfight. Grand, there’s arguments that that’s good for spectators, but you’re down into less football being played.

”We’ve another game now [on Sunday] and then there isn’t another league game until July 17th. That’s 11 weeks. It’s madness.”

He points to the example of Bellaghy’s under-16 team winning their league last year by playing just four games in the whole campaign.

“You need games. You cannot develop footballers when you’re talking about 11 games and one championship. You’re guaranteeing every club player in Derry 12 competitive games in a season. There’s no rationale that you can come to me with to say that’s developing football in Derry. None.”

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FOR Enda McGinley, the introduction was never likely to be all-that chastening. He took over a Swatragh side with a healthy sprinkling of young talent on the way up, and they’ve hit the ground running with five points from three games, including putting 7-12 on Dungiven.

Tyrone club football has long been regarded as the provincial - perhaps national - benchmark in terms of competitiveness.

Famously no club has retained their championship since Carrickmore in 2005, and the league has been the breeding ground for the depth of quality which has carried into their county teams.

He’s only three games in but structurally, there are elements in Derry that impress him, such as the league being finished before championship starts, and when you’re beat there it’s over. No dragging on for mid-winter playoffs.

Coming in from Tyrone club football, Enda McGinley sees good things and bad in the structures in Derry. 
Coming in from Tyrone club football, Enda McGinley sees good things and bad in the structures in Derry. 

Looking in from the outside, the success of the entire project lies with how the mid-season competitions are treated.

“It’s too early to tell. It depends what sort of football’s played in these cup competitions. If they’re a complete waste of time then, at the end of the day, we’ve played three competitive games and that means for the rest of this year, we have nine competitive games left, eight in the league and one in the championship.

“You’re going to have 12 competitive games, or if you get to the county final you’ll have 15.

“I think over a nine-month season where most clubs are out, 15 competitive games, I don’t think that balance is right. The cup competitions, we’ll see.

“If they’re taken reasonably serious and they’re decent football, that’ll be good. My gut feeling is it isn’t, and that leaves you with 12 to 15 competitive games. That’s not enough for a club player.”

The huge break in the leagues has exacerbated the lure of the American dream. With no league football during the best of the summer, there was a notable player drain to the States last year that looks set to intensify further this summer.

“The only doubt I have is that it’s giving younger players the invitation to go to America, or go touring,” says Jude Donnelly, who’s losing two men to it.

“You take a young footballer, he’s looking at it saying ‘there’s nine or ten weeks where there’s no football here anyway, I’ll not be missed so I’ll go’. If his club needs him and there’s games week in, week out, he mightn’t go. That’s the only fault I have.”

Enda McGinley nor Joe Cassidy have had any hands in the air yet to tell them ‘I’m off’, but the three-time All-Ireland winning Tyrone man says it could become a long-term issue if the summer games don’t carry enough weight.

“That’s going to be a greater issue if it becomes more entrenched that club football is serious in April and serious in September, and four months of minimal quality football in between.

“I’m not sure that’s great from the American point of view, or a local point of view.

“It’s great for lads that can go and then come back and still play their club championship, but others will go and miss their club football.

”Personally, the whole club month of April and everything else seems like it’s in a state of flux. Nobody would say this is working out great at the minute, but everyone’s getting on with it.

“The overall quality of football is really good at the minute, but the overall structure of the games, there’s an uneasy balance.

“Counties are taking different approaches. It’s great, as a manager, to have county players available for all your league games.

“That’s a real strength of the Derry system that all 11 of those games have county player availability. But the fact you’re limiting the overall number of competitive games is the drawback of that.”

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March 24: Ardmore 1-4 Slaughtmanus 8-19

April 7: Doire Colmcille 1-8 Desertmartin 6-22

April 14: Ardmore 0-2 Craigbane 9-21

THE top end is the bit everyone sees. But what of the rest?

Ardmore, on the fringes of Derry city, hit a purple patch in the 2000s and played a few years as a competitive intermediate side. They won junior championships in 2000, 2010 and 2013, which has traditionally been their level.

A significant number of players from the 2000 side were on the 2013, and remarkably many of them are still playing.

At 41, manager William McLaughlin had to come on as a sub in the 8-19 to 1-4 defeat by Slaughtmanus. Gerard Storey has played all three games at the age of 44. Kevin Robinson’s played at 40.

William will go and try to convince his brother Peter and Barry Gormley, both 38, to come out for the upcoming game with Sean Dolan’s.

That is one that they think they can win, as with last Wednesday night’s 3-7 to 2-9 defeat by Doire Colmcille.

But the restructure saw seven clubs parachuted down on top of them out of intermediate football.

Slaughtmanus put 8-19 on them at home. Last weekend, it was 9-21 Craigbane scored. The reality for a handful at the bottom of junior football is that there will be a lot of chastening afternoons before the year’s out.

The short-term impact was that his 18-year-old goalkeeper, who had done practically nothing wrong, was so demoralised he didn’t show up for the Colmcille game.

Ardmore have struggled for a few years, largely because of a lack of underage numbers that have left the veterans still plugging away into their late 30s. But as the old league was, at least they were competitive.

“You weren’t winning but you were giving games a go, and you weren’t being trampled on like we were by Slaughtmanus and Craigbane,” says William McLaughlin.

“Slaughtmanus had the full team the first half and then took boys off, but boys came on looking to impress and you can’t fault them for going for goals.

“If we have to travel to Desertmartin or Lissan, I won’t even be taking my ‘big hitters’ as such. The likes of Anthony Hargan, who can’t commit every week, I’ll tell him not to worry about that match and we’ll just go and fulfil the fixture. We’ll get tanked anyway. We’ll try and do something for the championship.”

The championship runs along the same lines as last year’s league system, so all but one of the teams that dropped down from intermediate will still play in the middle grade championship in 2019.

That is the saving grace. Because while Ardmore, and others like them, have been hanging on for a while, they’re now back in a position where they have 100 kids from under-12 down out on McCourt’s field every Wednesday night.

“We had a baby boom in Ardmore,” he laughs.

If they can hang in long enough to get enough of those through, then the future is potentially bright once more. But the imbalance in the league makes that more difficult still.

“The only reason I’m still doing what I’m doing is because we had those numbers last year. I was at rock bottom, I could take no more. You’re just turning up, going through the motions. There was no future in it.

“But we’d a great blitz and fun day last year, a mixed 7s where every team had an over-35, an under-35, an underage player, a lady, and we had a brilliant day’s craic.

“We had a presentation that night, Mark Lynch and Ben McCarron were there and they couldn’t get over it. There were 90 weans there, they all got a wee football and a wee medal, it made their night.”

The structural imbalance of junior football could turn their life support off before they find the strength in those numbers.

Another rethink is needed there more than anywhere else.