Jimmy's winning matches: The tale of Derry Masters' unheralded captain

Derry Masters captain Jimmy O'Connor in action against Kerry
Derry Masters captain Jimmy O'Connor in action against Kerry Derry Masters captain Jimmy O'Connor in action against Kerry

“What a wee man. Every team we’ve played this year, they’ve questioned his date of birth. He’s running up and down that pitch like a wee spring lamb. Every team we’ve played, they’re saying ‘are you sure that man’s 40?’ All due respect to Glack but if Jimmy O’Connor had been running about The Loup or Ballinderry or Bellaghy or Slaughtneil in his younger days, he would have played county football.”

- Derry Masters joint-manager Ronan Rocks on Gaelic Lives podcast

MASTERS football is about the stories and the craic and it’s about the Jimmy O’Connors of the world.

You’ve never heard of him. The reason we know that is because a lot of his own team-mates had never heard of him.

That’s despite having made his club debut for Glack in 1999 and played for all of the time since.

When the text came on Friday afternoon about an interview, he was unavailable that evening because they had a championship game he was getting ready for.

As it turned out, that was cancelled at the last minute when Ardmore hadn’t enough men to field.

The waters of north Derry junior football are shallow. Asking anyone from outside a ten-mile radius to take a car to Glack’s pitch, they wouldn’t be at it 20 minutes until they’d volunteer for a simpler task like deciphering the Voynich Manuscript.

For almost 25 years, wee Jimmy’s been like a moray eel of Derry football, the king of its low-risen waters, diminutive, dangerous, lightning quick on the attack, yet ignored out in the big ocean.

There’s rural and there’s [ITALICS] rural [ITALICS].

When Slaughtneil were on the big stage, the world wondered at this tiny community of 300 families beating all around them. And they were remarkable, but they’d be considered a geographical giant to the likes of Glack.

There’s one housing development in the place, Glack Mór, consisting of 17 houses. Would there 200 people in it, total?

In recent years, the GAA club has come to rely more and more heavily on Ballykelly, the mixed but predominantly unionist town next door.

They’ve managed to get into the primary school to do a bit of coaching and two-thirds of their current senior team are from there.

The bodies to sustain a club in the houses out Sistrakeel direction just aren’t there, and they won’t let people build on the land.

So yeah, Masters football is a bit of craic, and nobody enjoys it more.

But Jimmy O’Connor gets to sit on those buses and in those changing rooms and rub shoulders, make friends with the Kevin McGuckins and Paddy Bradleys of a world he could only dream of.

And then they made him captain.

In Glack, they could count the men that have represented the county at any level on one hand. Marty McGonigle was a minor in 2016. He was the last, having been the first for many years.

The same chip about the wee clubs not getting a chance is worn by others. It is, after all, just gone 43 years since a player from a junior club started a championship match for Derry.

The Masters jersey O’Connor will pull over his head on Saturday afternoon in Dublin will bear a Derry crest. With it he’ll be representing club as much as county.

“Ah sure hi, I’m from Glack and proud of it, and that’s it. Nothing you can do about it,” he laughs when presented with Ronan Rocks’ comments at the top of the page.

When he was a young boy growing up two minutes from the field, Glack briefly played senior championship football. That they did so in the early 90s, a period of cut-throat strength in Derry football, was utterly remarkable.

Jimmy O’Connor made his championship debut in 1999, beaten by a point up in Drumsurn against a Moneymore team that would go on and win the Derry intermediate title.

Each of the next 19 seasons, the majority of them in junior football, ended in the same disappointment until finally at the age of 36, they got their hands on a first championship of any sort since 1988, when he was just five.

A former student of Mickey Moran in St Mary’s Limavady, O’Connor recalls reaching an Ulster final in third year.

When he was in his mid-20s, Paddy Crozier would have held trials after taking over as Derry manager. Jimmy had never been considered at minor or U21 level. In the dark of winter under Glenullin’s lights, no training under them and at a week’s notice, it wasn’t an environment conducive to standing out.

Especially when you’re five-foot-five and “ten-and-a-half stone, if I am that”.

That would have been an issue at a higher level but for footballing ability, he could have held his own against any man. They’ve found that out in Owenbeg on Wednesday nights since he answered a call delayed by the fact they didn’t originally realise he was eligible.

He was 39 when the season started but turned 40 in July. Every team that Derry have played have questioned how that could be.

His fitness routine is remarkable in that it barely exists.

“I never go up or down [in weight]. I don’t go to the gym or f*** all. I train when the Gaelic starts and when it stops, I stop until it starts again. I don’t do a tap whenever the season’s ended. Nothing on my own.

“Other boys go to the gym but I just do the two or three nights or whatever it is with the team, and nothing else.

“I went to the gym a couple of times. It wasn’t for me. Hi, it doesn’t put the ball over the bar!”

The rest of the squad marvelled at his abilities from the very first night they got together. When the games started, they came to marvel at his half-time routine.

He pulls out the cigarette papers and tobacco, rolling up a cigarette for himself. Then he has a Mars bar, and goes back at it for another 30 minutes of non-stop, three-quarter pace running.

On the bus home from Mayo after their semi-final win two weeks ago, Eunan Murphy produced a guitar.

“Him and Simon Doherty sang a bit and the rest of us just shouted,” he laughs.

The nights out afterwards, fuelled by beer Rocks has had to try and hide in the boot of the bus on the way down, running into the Tyrone senior team in a bar in Belfast – “Carty [Paul Cartin] loves to get the guns out, anywhere” – are part of what makes it all.

Jimmy O’Connor is there, the footballing peer that he always was to lads that just didn’t know it.

All-Ireland Intermediate Masters final

Derry v London

Saturday, 2pm

St Peregrine's GAA Club, Dublin