GAA Football

Benny Heron: a decade of art and graft for Derry footballers

Derry's Benny Heron celebrates his second goal against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-finals Picture: Philip Walsh

WHEN these early summer Sundays begin to glow in our rear view, people will remember Benny Heron’s wonderful art.

With his easel and canvas, Heron has been gigging for the Derry seniors through thick and thin for a decade now.

Under-appreciated? Maybe.

Beyond the parishes of the Oak Leaf County, people are starting to get what it is that Heron does.

And yet, he’s always been the same player. We were perhaps looking at him from the wrong angle.

Slightly hunched shoulders and jaunting stride, the Ballinascreen man is the kind of footballer who plays in the future.

“People who have been in those circles know the work and effort he’s put in,” says club-mate Carlus McWilliams, who himself stepped away from the Derry panel in 2020.

“Benny has been with Derry for 10 years – through more bad times than good.

“It’s great to see somebody like that get the recognition they absolutely deserve. For a ’Screen man you’re even more proud.”

On May 1, Derry came flying out of the blocks in Healy Park. Defending All-Ireland champions Tyrone didn’t know what had hit them.

To them, it must have felt like there were two Ethan Dohertys and Conor Dohertys on the field.

Different Tyrone backs tried to track Benny Heron – but it was like trying to nail jelly.

It’s not just his movement, touch and spatial awareness; it’s his desire to do the hard yards...

When Shane McGuigan doesn’t connect properly with an attempt on goal in the third minute, the ball bobbles towards Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan.

Positioned loosely at top of the right, Heron signals across to Niall Loughlin to retreat. Both forwards immediately run back in straight lines and are goal-side within seconds.

Tyrone meander up the field trying to punch holes down the right-hand side of the Derry defence but are soon crowded out.

Heron’s on his own 21-yard line winning a precious break.

In the 14th minute, he accepts an off-load from Paul Cassidy and fires instinctively between Tyrone's posts.

This is vintage Heron.

Ten minutes later, he races back to hold up Frank Burns on the stand side and wins another turnover.

Every touch from the 30-year-old schemer wouldn't look out of place in a highlights reel. Every move without the ball is also crucial, blocking corridors and killing space.

Heron is the one chess piece Rory Gallagher doesn’t have to direct too much because he knows where to be.

“You don’t get to play in that Derry team if they don’t have trust in you without the ball,” says Ballinascreen man and Derry minor manager Marty Boyle. “Benny is brilliant, tactically. He just knows the game.”

In the 43rd minute, Derry move the ball through the hands and Heron punishes Tyrone with another angled drive.

In the 51st minute, he wins another break and later assists for Shane McGuigan to put Derry 1-13 to 0-8 and out of sight.

Heron’s display against Tyrone had a bit of everything and is up there with anything he’s ever produced for his county.

His two-goal salvo against Monaghan a couple of weeks later wasn't far behind it.

“It’s not always the scoreboard a manager looks at,” says former manager Brian McIver, who brought him into the Derry seniors in 2013.

“It’s the work that you’ve done for the team, the turnovers that you make, the balls that you’ve carried. Benny is now getting the recognition for the work that he’s put in.”

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DERRY have Donegal’s number in Ballybofey. Rory Gallagher’s side should be further ahead but for an untimely dose of the yips in front of the posts.

Donegal look ponderous and are struggling to close the spaces down in their own defence. In the 39th minute, Paudie McGrogan pops the ball into space down the left side to Padraig Cassidy.

The Slaughtneil man in turns fist passes across the face of the Donegal goal. Even though he’s slightly distracted by Eoin McHugh’s despairing arm, Heron can’t miss from a yard out.

It should be a simple slam dunk to put the visitors four up. But somehow Derry’s number 13 palms the high ball against the underside of the crossbar before it bounces on the goal-line and into Shaun Patton’s arms.

Donegal go up the field and level this Ulster Championship quarter-final. In that precise moment, there is a desperate sense of foreboding in the Derry ranks.

With Declan Bonner’s men hanging in, everybody in Derry has a feeling how this game ends. Placed in an open prison by Chrissy McKaigue for over 70 minutes, Patrick McBrearty breaks free and unleashes the score of his life to win the game.

Heron, who made way for Oisin McWilliams in the 56th minute in Ballybofey, revealed after their emphatic semi-final win over Monaghan earlier this month, having poached two brilliant goals, that he’s still “haunted” by his miss against Donegal.

Benny Heron in action for Ballinascreen, pictured alongside Gerard O'Neill of Bellaghy Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

He could easily have stepped away from Derry at the end of last season. After all, he’d given nine years to the county during which time he played in Division One, Two, Three and Four National League finals, and claimed just one Ulster Championship victory.

At home, his wife Laura was expecting their second child and he’d a demanding teaching job at St Colm’s High School, Draperstown.

“He’d done his bit for Derry and would've been well within his rights to walk away in the autumn time,” McWilliams says.

“I had those conversations with him and he said: ‘Do you know what, it’s my 10th year…’ And I’m sure he’s glad he made that decision now. It was probably how close they were last year. They were the better team than Donegal.

“It might’ve been a different story if they'd been beaten by 10 or 12 points, but they were that close. And he’s a seriously driven man. He never stops, he’s training all the time, and he’s a great link in with Ciaran Meenagh [current Derry coach] at the school who was also with us at ‘Screen.”

Being entrusted with a starting jersey was also key in Heron’s decision to go back to his county for a 10th season.

“I always think that a county player needs to have a continuous run in the team so that he really feels that the jersey is his jersey,” McIver says. “And I think that has been the case now with Benny over the last couple of years.

“I don’t see him missing many games under Rory Gallagher and I think he’s now reaping the benefits, and Rory and Derry are reaping the benefits too.”

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GROWING up in Ballinascreen, it was automatic you played for the local GAA club. It was an umbilical relationship.

From a young age, Carlus McWilliams and Benny Heron were joined at the hip and began tasting success. Together they won South Derry championships at U12, U14 and U16.

They suffered an U14 county final defeat to Banagher in Glen but avenged that loss two years later in Celtic Park.

Heron missed a huge chunk of his minor years due to injury but he was already earmarked as a special talent in the county.

At the age of 20, ‘Screen’s new management team of Marty Boyle, Ciaran Meenagh and Mickey Boyle made him captain of the senior team.

Marty Boyle says: “The way he spoke to the team and the standards he set, the way he applied himself, we just looked at each other in the changing room one day and said: ‘That’s our new senior captain’.

“It was a risk because he was so young. But he took to it like a duck to water, the players loved him. Benny had an outstanding season in 2013, the year we got to a county final.”

Heron dragged ‘Screen to their first final since 1994, top-scoring along the way.

Despite a brilliant start in the decider against Ballinderry, the wheels came off the underdogs’ tilt at glory.

Heron failed to convert two penalties – one in each half – and the Shamrocks rode off with the John McLaughlin Cup celebrating three-in-a-row.

“The two penalties weren’t the losing of the game that day,” says McWilliams.

“Of course, it hit him hard, it definitely did. We had a brilliant start to that game – I think we went 1-3 to a point up, and then they got two goals before half-time.

“But we would never have got that far without Benny. He got us over the line on more than one occasion that year all by himself. It wasn’t too long before he was playing the shirt off his back the following year.

“The opposition would always say: ‘If you mark Benny Heron out of it, you have a chance’. And we knew that as much as anybody. Around the time Brian McIver was manager of Derry Benny was brilliant. He was so, so dangerous inside.”

In his first year with the seniors (2013), Derry won promotion out of Division Two. Heron was instrumental in returning them back to Division One, scoring a decisive goal against Louth down in Drogheda.

They yo-yoed between the two top divisions before dropping like a stone into Division Four, unchartered territory for a proud county like Derry.

But Heron’s shoulder never left the wheel.

“The one thing I’d say about Benny is that he’s resilient and tough,” says former manager Damian McErlain.

“Physically and mentally, he has shown that over the years. To stick at it and stick at the regime that’s in place now where others have maybe fallen away, that shows the character that he has. I would say his own club-mates probably wouldn’t be surprised at that, he really has carried them for over 10 years.”

Anyone who has a good handle on the club circuit in Derry knows just how good Benny Heron has been for Ballinascreen.

A player of outrageous consistency, it is only this year he is getting the long overdue recognition of his boundless talent on the inter-county stage.

His two goals against Monaghan a fortnight ago were “pure Benny goals”, says McWilliams.

“His smartness and cuteness are his best qualities in the way he can transform things. He’s an absolutely brilliant finisher.

“He’s a brilliant soccer player too. I suppose a lot of people who play soccer and are good at it have that coolness and I think that helps him, especially with how he scored that second goal against Monaghan.”

McIver adds: “There were days Benny would have been outstanding and other days it didn’t work out for him, but one thing you always got was everything from him.

“It’s great to see the likes of himself, Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers doing so well. They put in as much as any player in the country but they weren’t necessarily getting the results for their efforts. Benny would have been one of those lads. You could always rely on him.”

As the Derry and Donegal teams file behind the marching band in Clones tomorrow afternoon, the pride of Ballinascreen will be there.

Slightly hunched gait, Derry's elusive pick-pocket will always be a step ahead of the rest, and will be hoping to showcase his wonderful art on the provincial stage once more.

“The way he plays for Derry probably typifies Benny as a footballer and as a person – he is selfless, totally selfless,” says Boyle.

“He’s a real role model – you couldn’t wish for better. He coaches around the club, he’s always there for events. When he retires from football I think people will appreciate just how brilliant he was.”

Derry's number 13: a glowing, uplifting parable for resilience and class.

Carlus McWilliams heaped praise on his club-mate Benny Heron after his back-to-back displays in this season's Ulster Championship Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

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