GAA Football

Kicking Out: If Derry fight like that, the people's love will follow

Derry players and supporters mingle on the pitch in Omagh after their win over Tyrone on Sunday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

TWO weeks ago, I realised late on there was a round of Wednesday night club games on in Derry.

The Loup or Slaughtneil were the venues of choice. Literally turning out the gate at home, it was a blind choice, left or right.

Went left, ended up in Emmet Park. Slaughtneil drew with Ballinderry.

There were no county players in action and absolutely nothing at stake.

The club scene in Derry is a bit shambolic this year. They’ve been getting it right for a good while now but in removing relegation and promotion from the leagues, along with the onset of the split season, everything pre-championship has been reduced to farce.

And yet still, there must have been at least a couple or three hundred souls there, gazing from the top of the bank down on to the bottom pitch, where more stood around the wire.

The previous week I’d gone into Bellaghy to watch their league game, against Ballinderry as well. The sun shone and on the way through the gate you meet men from Newbridge, Desertmartin, Foreglen, Castledawson, Ballymaguigan.

Trying to justify why hundreds would come out to watch what are basically challenge matches in their good shoes is a hard thing to do.

Derry is obsessed with the GAA. Utterly obsessed. By its clubs and its schools and its youth teams and its Wednesday evening floodlit games that mean absolutely nothing to anyone.

The only thing Derry hasn’t been obsessed with in the last 20 years is Derry.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they would pack out Celtic Park for big championship games.

The Sunday Times at the weekend included a piece by Mick Foley (now famous for rating sandwiches on Fifth Avenue) on the Derry-Tyrone rivalry of the 1990s.

The toxicity of those games was alive on the page, moreso than it had been in reality for much of the last 20 years.

It’s a strange thing to be a Big Football Man in Derry.

In almost any other county in Ireland, the Big Football Man would be the first one you meet clambering for the car beneath eight layers of clothing and an umbrella, braving himself to sit through a McKenna Cup game when the floodlights are on for a 1 o’clock throw-in.

They follow the county to hell and back. Most of it is hell rather than back.

But in Derry, The Big Football Man’s natural habitat is in Emmet Park rather than Owenbeg or Celtic Park.

Two days after Derry have gone into Omagh and stripped the All-Ireland champions bare, it feels almost wrong to be going into the club-county thing here. There’s just this sense that nobody else in the country understands.

I was doing a podcast recently when the topic of club rivalry holding Derry back came up. Jesus, can we just put that nonsense to bed.

Never again do I want to hear that the reason Derry have struggled in the last 25 years is because the clubs and players all hate each other, and that matches are half football and half UFC.

There is absolutely nothing in that.

Top of the list of misconceptions, what it does is heighten the idea that nobody else really gets us.

How can Derry keep on producing so many different clubs to win Ulster, and a few All-Ireland, titles, yet have gone into last weekend with one Ulster Championship win in the last ten years?

It must be an enigma, in fairness.

The reason clubs have long come first in Derry is quite simple: That’s where success has been.

When the county team is winning, people get back on board. But with small playing resources, those days will always be fleeting. The county team is always going to have to vie for affection with clubs that are used to drinking from the Seamus McFerran Cup.

Championships are hard won in Derry but the rewards can grow exponentially when you get out of the county.

Clubs were doing enough that if it all clicked, you might win an All-Ireland, but the same couldn’t be said of the county team.

And so when players were of half a mind at all, the choice they were faced with wasn’t people you hate against people you don’t. It was simply winning against losing.

And that’s grand. Half the battle is working around that and the other half is maximising moments such as the one they now find themselves in.

2006 in Omagh led to nothing that summer but an All-Ireland quarter-final the following year in which they almost caught Dublin, and then a National League title in ’08.

Coming close to an Ulster title in 2011 seemed like a step forward.

The busses trawled the road to Clones half-expectant for a meeting with Donegal.

The Fleadh was on in Dungiven the same weekend. Meeting at the chapel, Sperrin Metal glued to us all 10 years out of date, the eskys full of Budweiser, walking up Clones hill.

You’d be amazed at how sadly alien those concepts, those bright and beautiful days, are to Derry supporters under the age of 40.

The trajectory would crash land in Ballybofey the following summer and it took a long time to recover from.

Slowly, though, the county’s fortunes have been rebuilt. Maghera have become a powerhouse again in schools’ football but so too have St Mary’s Magherafelt, winning two and losing one of the last four finals.

They haven’t won every year but after many years when they couldn’t get the best young players to play county minor, it’s been a full decade since they’ve had a bad minor team.

At some point that has to bear fruit. And at this stage, it hasn’t. Nine defeats in their last 11 Ulster semi-finals is a record Derry will be aware of. It’s a history far enough back to deem irrelevant if they want, but recent enough that the spirits of one good performance followed by a bad one can be summoned for use.

In the grand scheme it’s one win. Derry football isn’t back until it backs it up with another, and then another, and another.

But Gaelic football probably needs a county like Derry, with its rich but relatively unharvested potential, to be as strong as it can be. Their presence back among the country’s top 12 teams at this stage is good, given that they ought to keep improving, given the record of schools and county minors and clubs.

And then in June they’ll go back to their clubs and punch in their time there, and the hundreds and thousands will flock to the championship simply because it’s what we do and what we are.

The county team will always have to fight that bit harder for the Derry public’s affection.

But if they can keep fighting and working as hard as they did in Omagh on Sunday, the love will come.

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