Football

Derry's Benny Heron: 'I was Enda Muldoon, Anthony Tohill or Paddy Bradley in my garden - now we have inspired the next generation'

Benny Heron celebrates scoring against Monaghan in the 2022 Ulster semi-final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Benny Heron celebrates scoring against Monaghan in the 2022 Ulster semi-final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin. Benny Heron celebrates scoring against Monaghan in the 2022 Ulster semi-final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

After 11 years playing for Derry, Ballinascreen's Benny Heron decides to call time on his inter-county career. He talks to Brendan Crossan about the highs and lows with the Oak Leaf County...

Brendan Crossan: What were the reasons behind your decision to announce your retirement from the Derry senior football team?

Benny Heron: It was in my thoughts about retirement a couple of times, but things were going so well I didn’t want to step away. But, before last year started, I said it would be my last year.

Physically, I started to struggle a wee bit in terms of the speed of the game. The pace of the game at the minute is at another level and I just felt I was being left behind a wee bit. It was sore on the body too and taking longer to recover from games.

Before the Cork and Kerry games last season I tweaked my hamstring – things like that which weren’t happening before. I’ve also a young family at home, it’s a lot of commitment and I just feel it’s the right time to close this chapter of my life and devote more time to my family and my [teaching] job and other things I want to do.

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BC: Not a lot of people would openly admit the game was becoming too quick for them…

BH: It’s something that’s been playing in my head the last few years and maybe over-thinking it. I’ve never been blessed with pace. I asked Peter Hughes – our strength and conditioning coach last season – and he would tell me that I’m nowhere near as slow as I think I am!

I just found it harder last season to get away from my man, whether it be in training or in matches. I suppose you’re also thinking about the defensive side of the game and never wanting to be caught one-on-one and perhaps be targeted that way. Obviously if you’re marking Conor McCloskey in training, he’ll catch you.

BC: You couldn’t have picked a more difficult example to compare yourself against…

BH: That’s true.

BC: But you never relied on your pace…

BH: You were always relying on your ability to read the game and being a couple of steps ahead so that you can beat your man to the ball. But that’s just one of the contributing factors to my decision. Generally, it was getting harder and harder and at my age it’s not going to get any easier. You probably could have been talked out of it or persuaded yourself otherwise – I don’t know – but I just felt it was the right time.

Obviously, when we lost to Kerry, we were so disappointed and so close to an All-Ireland final – what an occasion that would have been. But, after a few weeks, I was at ease with my decision. Don’t get me wrong - I’m absolutely devastated to be walking away from it and that group of players, but I felt a sense of contentment with my decision.

BC: After the 2022 Ulster semi-final win over Monaghan, where you scored two goals, you mentioned how much you loved spending time up in Owenbeg. Why was that?

BH: It was just that togetherness we’d built up over the last few years especially. That sense of purpose. It’s just the satisfaction you get when you know every person there is putting everything in to help achieve something. The craic and the fun that you have with it, and of course there were some nights you were nearly throwing up and where the weather was atrocious, but you still loved every minute of it. I loved spending time with that group. I’d like to think all those lads are friends of mine now.

BC: After 11 years playing for Derry, do you feel institutionalised?

BH: It can have that affect. People maybe say: ‘There’s a county player’ but you’re also a father and a teacher and all the other things that go on in your life.

People assume county football is the only thing going on with you. We all have good days and bad days in and out of sport. So, you can feel institutionalised a bit.

I took a summer off to go travelling around America in 2016 and I took a short break at the start of 2019, before we got married. So those breaks definitely helped prolong my inter-county career. So, I was able to enjoy life outside it as well because it can be all-consuming.

BC: Where does your two goals against Monaghan in the 2022 Ulster semi-final rank in your career?

BH: It’s definitely up there. Nothing will top winning two Ulster titles and the thrill of the 10 or 20 seconds after the final whistle.

On a personal level, there were plenty of days where I felt I didn’t contribute to Derry, so to contribute two goals in an Ulster semi-final was absolutely brilliant. The year before we were in a great position to beat Donegal and I had a chance but hit the crossbar. The sleepless nights I’ve had over that. So, to be in the position to score two goals to get us to a final, I was delighted.

BC: Can you sum up your Derry career?

BH: It was a rollercoaster – even going up and down the divisions. We had so many good and bad days, but it’s been totally worth it for me. The sense of pride that my family got out of it and to represent your club as well as your county – you can’t buy that feeling.

I remember we won the Division Three final by beating Offaly at Croke Park and I had my daughter out on the pitch, which was just class. To be able to inspire the next generation is a privilege too.

I grew up watching Derry matches with my mum and dad and I’d come back home and play in back garden imagining that I was Enda Muldoon, Anthony Tohill or Paddy Bradley. Now the young ones are wearing Derry tops and we definitely have inspired the next generation. For a while there wasn’t a strong aspiration to play for Derry as the club scene was maybe more important. But the last few years and the excitement among the young people has been incredible. So, I take great pride and satisfaction that we’ve done that.

BC: In more recent times you became a bit of a cult hero among Derry fans. There were banners at games with your name on them. How did that make you feel?

BH: It was very surreal. Obviously at the time when we were going through Ulster and the All-Ireland stages you had to block it all out and focus on the matches. I suppose after the season was over, you reflect on it, and it was good craic for everybody that was involved.

I’ve no idea how it started. I know a lock of the ‘Screen boys brought a banner [a picture of Heron and a goat] to the Ulster final and it just snowballed from there. I never got to the bottom of who ran the Twitter page. I’ve a couple of ideas but they might come clean now.

Benny Heron with his kids at Croke Park
Benny Heron with his kids at Croke Park Benny Heron with his kids at Croke Park