GAA Football

Newbridge latecomer Conor Doherty has developed into a Derry regular

Derry's Conor Doherty with Conor Boyle of Monaghan during the 2022 McKenna Cup match at Owenbeg.
Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Michael McMullan

ONLY Ciaran McFaul and Paudie McGrogan have made more appearances during Rory Gallagher’s 19-game Derry managerial tenure than Conor Doherty.

Along with goalkeeper Odhran Lynch and Emmett Bradley, Doherty has lined out 17 times under Gallagher.

But it wasn’t always a bed of roses. Like everyone on the inter-county scene, Doherty had to bide his time.

Damian Barton handed him his debut, coming on for Benny Heron during an extra-time defeat to Mayo as the Oak Leafers bowed out of the 2017 All-Ireland Qualifiers on an electric Saturday evening in Castlebar.

After playing in the first eight games of Damian McErlain’s stint, he was in and out of the team until the start of last season.

Handed the number seven jersey by Rory Gallagher for the opener in Pearse Park, he has started every game since.

Speaking on the eve of Derry’s return to Division Two, Doherty looks back on a career that didn’t find its feet until he turned 10 when the family swapped Magherafelt for Newbridge and Anahorish Primary School.

It’s late when you stack it up against the oceans of U6 and U8 blitzes gushing across the GAA landscape.

“To be honest, I wasn’t much good,” he admits.

The oldest of five children, he is joined on the Derry panel by younger brother Mark, one of seven sets of siblings in Gallagher’s new-look squad.

Their sister Erin plays on the Derry senior ladies side. Younger sister Aoife has joined the county’s underage development squads, while younger brother Oisin has been shooting the lights out on the Newbridge underage teams.

“All the boys were doing it there (Anahorish), so I picked up and ever since then I became obsessed with it,” Conor said.

At club level, Newbridge upped their game at underage level. Titles at ‘B’ level were soon replaced by life in the top grade as the O’Leary's began to churn out a raft of county players.

“We were all really competitive among each other; there was a real appetite for football and competition to see who could be the best,” Doherty added.

As they stepped unto adult football, the new influx helped bring home an intermediate title and a passport back into the senior championship.

At county level, when Derry ended a 13-year search for an Ulster minor title, Doherty didn’t make the cut. He could only peer enviously as Conor Glass lifted the Fr Murray Cup, with Newbridge men Conor McGrogan and Jude Diamond on the panel as they took off on a lap of honour.

“I was hoping I could’ve got on (the panel) and I thought I should’ve got on it,” Doherty points out of his disappointment.

He put the head down with Newbridge seniors and cemented a place in the 2016 county minor squad, losing to Donegal on Ulster final day.

“I saw how much more professional of a setup county is,” he points out. “I wanted to see where I could go, to use all the facilities up at Derry as possible to see how good I could get.”

The 2017 season saw Doherty as part of the U21 team on the wrong end of a ‘tanking’ by Donegal in the final. When the age grade changed to U20 for 2018 and already having made his senior debut, Conor was handed the captaincy by manager Mickey Donnelly.

After Paudi McGrogan skippered Derry to the 2017 minor title, Doherty was another ‘Bridge man standing on the steps of the Gerry Arthurs stand, with glistening silver in his arms.

“As captain, you have that bit more hunger and drive to get up the steps and I was lucky enough to get there,” he said.

At underage level, Derry were on the rise. A competitive environment and players with talent ‘hanging’ out of them proved the perfect cocktail.

But at senior level, the curve was on a downward spiral with back-to-back relegations and a dark afternoon on the final weekend of the 2018 league when Sligo notched a late down to send Derry packing and on their way to Division Four.

“We weren’t in the position we wanted to be in.” Doherty recalls of the deep disappointment across the county.

The younger cohort were used to beating Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal, while rubbing shoulders with Kerry.

“We knew no different,” said Doherty. Call it ‘naivety’ or ‘raw’, but Derry’s newcomers didn’t fear anyone.

As soon as they hit football’s basement, they bounced back before climbing to Division Two after two seasons despite a group of death that included provincial champions Cavan and Tipperary.

Doherty’s word is relief. They were done chasing a way back from the lower end of mediocrity.

“I still don’t think this is where we stop with Derry,” he admits. “The goal will be to see how Division Two goes, to win every game and get promoted again and be in the top flight.”

Looking back to last summer’s championship exit to Donegal, Doherty described the afternoon in Ballybofey as a ‘very sore one’ as a wasteful Derry came unstuck after getting more right than wrong.

“Probably not a lot of people outside the camp believed we could beat Donegal,” states Doherty of an afternoon when he started in the championship for the first time.

“Within the camp, with the amount of work we did and preparation, we felt that going into that game we had more than enough of a chance of beating them. There is no other way of describing it, we left it behind it ourselves, there is nobody else to blame.”

Their 2015 win over Down still lingers as Derry’s last victory in the competition as this season lines up a possible trip to Healy Park to take on the All-Ireland champions.

At the heart of a new-found belief, is Rory Gallagher.

“I think he has made us realise what kind of talent we have,” Doherty said of the manager’s input.

“When you put in the right commitment you do get the rewards of it. He has made us realise the kind of untapped talent we have and the type of traits we need to pick up on to make us better players.”

And what of Rory’s mantra of committing to each other that has dominated many of his post-game interviews?

“All the top teams do it,” Doherty explains. “If we want to compete with them, you have to be fully committed to the process.

“That is sacrificing stuff as well, but it is for the greater good of the team and at the end of it, we will get the rewards for it hopefully.”

Within days of that gut-wrenching championship defeat, Doherty and Shane McGuigan were mingling under the unrelenting sun in the middle of Tullamore’s O’Connor Park, soaking in the euphoria of an All-Ireland minor title they both missed out on.

“One the way up the road, that was the conversation me and Shane were having. We saw that there was plenty of talent coming through and it was a big benefit for us seeing those lads coming,” Doherty sums up.

Now, Doherty and the minor class of 2015 help form the core of Derry’s future, offering a kind word of advice or a comforting arm around the shoulder to those coming into the camp. Seven of that minor winning team are on current senior squad. Add in three from last season’s u-20 side.

“Rory, Ciaran and Enda have good man management too, they obviously see loads of potential in the lads and are able to manage young players too”

Getting to the senior inter-county scene wasn’t a straight line for Doherty, but he aims to make the most of Derry’s shoots of hope.

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