GAA Football

It was just Derry's time

From Cahair O'Kane at St Tiernach's Park

DEEP in the corner of the Derry changing room, ever-so-slightly removed from the madness for a moment, Chrissy McKaigue’s smile is fit to touch his ears.

The intimate innards of success consider settling and then the long-serving kitman Colm ‘Bandy’ McGuigan bounds into the centre of the floor and throws the Anglo Celt to the sky.

‘Woa-oah-ohh, your sex is on fire!’ the players tunelessly bellow at him,

And this is the relative calm after Derry completed their storm of the three castles of Ulster football.

Out on the pitch, chaos lives.

The white and red that was no unfamiliar colour to Clones, only this sea came from Ballinascreen and Dungiven and Claudy rather than Dromore and Derrytresk and Strabane.

Up clambered the youth on to the shoulders of elders, finding their way to see up to the giants that the last generation of youth and the generation before never got to look up at.

Twenty-four years is a long time.

It was a scene almost at odds with everything that had gone before it. Derry and Donegal served up an Ulster final in a straitjacket. Everything about both teams was intended to draw any emotion out of the spectacle. Be safe. Don’t get caught. Win.

At home, the temptation might have been to opt for Attenborough and the Sea Dragon over on BBC One.

But in St Tiernach’s Park, the tension was close to unbearable.

If anything, it heightened the explosion when it was finally over. Michael Murphy’s late free sneaked through the first line of cover but a knee or a leg or a boot or something turns it away.

As if to sum up what brought Derry an Ulster title, it was Emmett Bradley who threw himself head first on Ryan McHugh’s left boot to stop the follow-up. When the final whistle sounded 14 seconds later, Bradley was on the far 21’, the furthest player forward.

Having spent 90 minutes trying to keep the emotion in a box, they’re looking backwards at Sean Hurson. He’s not even bothering to follow the play, just waiting. Four. Three. Two. One. Time.

“It was just our time!” screams Chrissy McKaigue into the microphone minutes later.

Four young boys, maybe nine or ten years of age, climb up on the wire fencing to lean over for a view. One of them in the black goalkeeper top and shorts, full-on red-and-white novelty wig. Another wearing a jersey adorned with the signatures of Shane McGuigan and Emmett Bradley and Brendan Rogers.

Derry football hasn’t had heroes for a while.

Nineteen of their 30-man squad weren’t born when Geoffrey McGonagle’s arse barely brushed Noel McGinley, and Joe Brolly did the needful.

There was late drama in that 1998 final and while it was never taken for granted, the supporters and players of the ‘90s were accustomed to success.

In this job you’re a man with a typewriter and you do your best not to be a fan with one.

But in all honesty, while it didn’t slip out, in those few seconds before McKaigue lifted the trophy, a half-tear found its way up the duct and just sat there long enough that its presence was noted and felt.

The whole county of Derry has embraced this team and this run. The bandwagon has grown into a freight train that snaked down the Ballygawley Line wondering where was the best place to stop for food and, as Brian McGuigan joked in the morning, whether it was Euros or punts down here now.

Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal dispatched, in just four weeks it feels as if a fire has been lit under Derry football that could burn for the next decade.

It is a county in love with its football team again.

The Derry changing room wasn’t a tearful place. It wasn’t a disbelieving place either. It was just soaked in its own contentment.

Rory Gallagher conceded afterwards that six months into the job, he wasn’t enjoying it and he was having his doubts. And then Covid happened. A situation that could have broken a developing young team instead became the unlikely making of them.

The first Donegal attack of the game lasted 112 seconds. Derry’s lasted 121 seconds. The template of the game was very quickly drawn and would be followed.

No score for 10 minutes and 47 seconds until Niall Loughlin shoved his way to the goal off Niall Toner’s pass.

Barring nobody cuffing Peadar Mogan for the first 35 minutes, Derry seemed in control.

But then the first championship goal they’ve conceded in three years under Gallagher arrives 40 seconds after the restart. Ryan McHugh jumps like a child in celebration, Donegal’s parity becomes a lead and a whole different challenge.

Nobody met the challenge in greater fashion than Brendan Rogers. He just ran and ran and ran and ran. Then when he had virtually nothing left and there were 86 searing minutes played, he ran 40 yards to find the gap and kick Derry two ahead.

And then with absolutely nothing left, he spun Michael Murphy 40 yards from his own goal, carried it 60 yards and sent Conor Glass in to nail from almost the same place he’d almost saved everyone an extra 20 minutes.

Derry have sat through two-and-a-half decades of Tyrone and Armagh and Donegal and Monaghan sharing the view from the top.

After 24 years, it was just Derry’s time.

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