RORY Gallagher’s first league game in charge of Derry back at the end of January 2020 saw them scrape a barely-deserved draw against Leitrim in a deserted and cold Celtic Park.
Those 70 minutes of football left out to air the first clues of what he was trying to do.
While midfield and attack have been overhauled since then, six of the back seven that started that day were six of the back seven two weeks ago against Tyrone.
On the training field, Gallagher has continued to put his troops through hell. He has tested them in every manner possible, from the early weeks until the frenetic build-up to the Tyrone game. It was just as he’d done to such brilliant effect in Fermanagh.
There, half a dozen players quickly exited stage left, driven out by the demands. Within a matter of weeks of early morning gym sessions and tough pitch work in the evenings, Gallagher had his squad whittled down to the men he could trust.
One of his trademarks has been knowing his team. In their run to the Ulster final in his first year, he made just one change to a starting team across their three provincial championship matches – dropping Seamus Quigley for Ciaran Corrigan after the Armagh game.
Derry chose him ahead of local legend Johnny McBride to replace Damian McErlain at the end of 2019, and the opening weeks of his regime were all about setting new standards.
It was slightly different in Derry for him. With Donegal, he’d been living in the county and knew it inside out. Fermanagh was his native land. And while he had never been a stranger to games in Owenbeg, the depth of his knowledge was to be tested early on.
In the weeks before and after his appointment, Gallagher relied heavily on Ciaran Meenagh and Enda Muldoon for names, but also attended just about every club championship game played in the county. If there was a footballer in Derry he didn’t see, they weren’t worth seeing.
The emphasis was clear. In the new management’s early conversations with the players, the same theme kept coming back at them, over and over. He had to be the someone to cut the wiring for the revolving door.
As they faced Down in a league game that they shouldn’t have lost but did, and which ultimately cost them promotion in that first year, journalist Mal McMullan had highlighted the issue with a very stark example: from the sides’ league meeting three years previous, Ryan Bell was the only survivor on the Derry team.
The numbers in general were astonishing. In just over a decade, Derry had used 107 different players in championship football.
Damian McErlain gave out nine debuts in two years. Damian Barton gave out 13 in the same space of time. Brian McIver 22 in three years. John Brennan, 15.
“That’s not a way to operate,” Gallagher said, bluntly, after that Down game.
“We want a core of 11 or 12 that will play consistently, I think that’s been an issue from speaking to the players in Derry, they haven’t had that consistency of selection.”
He would go on to point to “Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal, Armagh are getting to the stage – the same core group of players playing all the time”, and said they would “nail our colours to 10 or 11 players”.
Monaghan’s success of the last decade has been built on exactly what Gallagher has tried to achieve.
An Irish News study in 2018 found the Farney county had used 68 players in championship across the previous decade, second only to Kerry in the whole country.
You could correctly guess 13 of the Monaghan team on almost any given Sunday. And that has really stood to them.
There’s not a county that wouldn’t have loved the service of Conor McManus, Rory Beggan, the Hughes’ and so on.
But perhaps even more telling is the presence of Colin Walshe, Fintan Kelly and Drew Wylie over the past few seasons, when starts in big games have bypassed them more often than not. They’ve had winters to mull and still came back. That speaks volumes.
It’s not even necessarily having all of your best players available every week, as long as they’re all the same players.
When Gallagher came out to face the dictaphones after narrowly losing their first championship game against Armagh late in the year, the 2012 All-Ireland winning coach referenced the chemistry of a team like Liverpool.
“They play with the same nine or 10 players practically all the time. You have to develop relationships and have that understanding.
“It is not just playing. You have to have it on the training field. We are not interested in players who rehab and get fit a week before games. You have to train consistently.”
In the programmes for this year’s Ulster Championship, counties have been able to list their full squads beyond the match-day 26.
The two smallest squads in terms of numbers are those of Derry (30) and Monaghan (29).
Armagh’s total of 45 players sits at the upper end. For the game two weeks ago, Tyrone – in spite of the defections – listed 40.
The All-Ireland champions’ troubles this spring are evidence that winning can create as many problems as it solves.
Monaghan haven’t added the Ulster titles they might have to 2013 and ’15, but their unbroken spell in Division One and the knowledge that historic days have and could be part of any given summer makes the retention easier.
No county in Ireland has managed their playing resources better.
In Derry, the penny would be spent canvassing any regrets on the part of Ciaran McFaul, Jack Doherty, Shane Heavron and a few others that bolted just in advance of the championship.
For Heavron and Doherty, though, they were probably living the other side of the coin. Just 24 players have had any championship game time for Derry under Gallagher – fewer than the 27 Seamus McEnaney has used in the same time period, albeit in five games as opposed to three.
Jack Doherty had been on the panel for the first two years but didn’t get any time on the field in championship. Heavron had joined up this year after continued good club form but got just two late sub appearances in the National League and left again.
Yet the left-field introductions of Shea Downey and Niall Toner to the team in Omagh will have done no harm for morale beyond the first 15.
With club football up and going, America calling for some, opportunity has to keep knocking for those around the edges.
Temptations will have been sated in a big way by the win in Omagh. It was a statement win that the Oak Leaf camp felt had been coming after near misses against Armagh and Donegal.
That any half-baked Derry fan could sit this morning and name you at the very least 13 of the starting 15, if not the whole team, for the Athletic Grounds is a subtle sign of exactly why they’re back in an Ulster semi-final for the first time in seven years.