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Barton not ready for chain reaction to end

Cycling enthusiast aiming to guide rejuvenated Derry to Croke Park

By Declan Bogue

Published 23/07/2016

Turnaround: Damian Barton’s Derry have flourished since a weak surrender to Tyrone
Turnaround: Damian Barton’s Derry have flourished since a weak surrender to Tyrone

A few weeks ago, Derry found themselves low on numbers for an 'A' versus 'B' training game.

Damian Barton, their 54-year-old manager and an All-Ireland winner in 1993, stepped up onto the edge of the square. When the game had finished, he had 1-4 to his name.

Gung-ho. That sums him up.

Almost too much, at times; such as when he was handed an eight-week touchline ban for getting tangled in a spat during Derry's defeat to Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup final.

Nine weeks on from an ugly defeat to the Red Hands in the Ulster Championship, he and Derry are now 70 minutes away from being in the last eight of the All-Ireland race, should they take care of Tipperary in Cavan this evening.

"At the end of the day, it is 24/7," Barton says of his duties as an inter-county manager.

"Then there are the other uncontrollable issues such as the stuff in the media. These people need to stand on the sideline, go to training two or three times a week and take calls at two in the morning!"

He is a three-dimensional character outside of this narrow prism of Gaelic football. A technology teacher in St Patrick's Dungannon, his wife Roisín volunteers for Marie Curie and the pair have hosted numerous charity fundraisers such as 'Strictly Come Dancing' at his club, Sean O'Leary's Newbridge.

Roisín can't get enough of charity cycles, having turned pedals in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. A few years ago, Damian joined her for a trip through the Rocky Mountains.

"If I went out, I would do 40 or 50 miles," he says.

"I did the Giro Legacy event last year but didn't have time this year. I thought it was awesome, the Mournes, coming down into Rostrevor and the crowds with all the roads closed and the camaraderie…

"It's another sport in a different dimension. You meet a different type of person."

He's tried other things, but they just didn't work the way football does.

During the hottest day of the year on Tuesday, he remarked: "It would be a sin to be playing golf" before going back to pulling weeds on his daughter's lawn.

He would hate the term, but in his managerial beliefs he is new-age, talking about the importance of flexibility, yoga and Pilates. In a recent matchday programme, Oak Leaf player Ger O'Kane was asked for his worst training drill and replied: "Damian Barton's array of stretches on the terra firma".

And yet Barton attracted mockery in the wake of their Championship loss to Tyrone. The week after, his former team-mate Joe Brolly even attached a mock-up death notice mourning the loss of Derry football in his column.

However, he won't be drawn into commenting on it, instead preferring to talk about another former team-mate, current selector Tony Scullion, and their roll around the Breffni Park sideline celebrating last weekend's win over Cavan.

"Tony is a very passionate fella, GAA in the truest sense. There are no back doors, no agendas with Tony, certainly not one of self-promotion," he says.

The win over Cavan, after being four points down at half-time, followed the victory against Meath, after being seven points behind at the interval, which came after the triumph over Louth. Looking back, Barton feels they focused too much on strategy against Tyrone.

"Maybe what we were doing was a little bit foreign to the boys, even though Derry's record over the last number of years has been fantastic defensively," he says of the four goals shipped that day.

The Oak Leafs were one of the first counties to grasp their opportunity in the back door in the early years, blindsiding Tyrone in the 2001 quarter-final and avenging their earlier defeat in Ulster.

The chaos of hastily-arranged match-ups "has been good for us," insists Barton.

"If you draw comparisons to how teams should prepare for the provincial Championship, you are preparing, preparing, preparing.

"It's an awful lot of emotional stress, emotional pressure. If things don't work out, it capitulates in a game scenario. The recovery through the qualifiers is very good."

Talk of being relaxed prompts a discussion on his sideline demeanour and that ban.

"This is my first year managing the county team. I have a lot to learn as well," he admits. "This game of ours lives and breathes and it takes on a life of its own.

"If it demands, maybe not purposely, giving out to an official or calling a decision that you don't agree with, that's what happens."

He makes no apologies for doing what he can, but he never imagined he would be within 70 minutes of playing at Croke Park.

"Would I have taken the opportunity that day in Celtic Park, if somebody would have said to me? I would have said you are kidding me," he adds.

"That's the beauty of this game."


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