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Derry make most of the Mac magic

By Declan Bogue

The question of Derry manager Brian McIver accommodating Eoin Bradley and his soccer commitments with Coleraine this season has tediously dragged out, but when one considers his first season in an inter-county management job, the retired teacher from Ardboe was always consistent.

Brendan Devenney had a long, hard look around himself in Breffni Park after a defeat in the 2005 qualifiers and wondered what he was getting out of Gaelic football.

"It was taking the bloody heart out of me," he recalls wistfully.

A couple of seasons before he had put down a good season playing soccer with Limavady and it hadn't gone unnoticed. Portadown had Setanta Cup and Uefa Cup matches coming up and needed the manpower. He got a call and took it from there.

"I just wanted to have sporting experiences. I felt we were out of the running in Donegal and I wanted to win something," he says.

The appointment of Brian McIver as Donegal manager made him think, but by that stage he had just bought a house and signed contracts.

McIver said he would keep an eye on him during the club Championships. But neither side felt he could combine both sports.

One man who did heed the call was Kevin Cassidy and he was immensely impressed with McIver and the approach to weights that team trainer Ryan Porter brought. It was all new and exciting for Donegal.

But Cassidy was a man of habit and used to enjoy going for one last drink on Easter Sunday before knuckling down for the Championship. He had a couple of bottles with a meal and by the time it reached McIver's ears he had been blue mouldy with drink.

He was banished from the panel. But while McIver had a change of heart, Cassidy made arrangements to go to America for the summer and wasn't for changing them.

It remains a measure of both men that they went on to enjoy a close relationship, with McIver even poised to make Cassidy his captain for the 2009 season before his untimely exit.

A popular theory among Donegal support holds that Jim McGuinness was the only man that could lead them to the promised land, but certainly McIver sowed some seeds in the players' minds of what was needed to get there.

"Most of the groundwork was done by Brian. He was the man who brought in strength and conditioning along with Ryan Porter and he turned our heads towards what it takes to compete at that level and eat at the top table, as he always refers to it," explains Cassidy.

"A lot of the boys would not have lifted weights before Ryan came in and we probably didn't use him as much as we should," referring to Porter's continued success with the Monaghan team under Malachy O'Rourke.

In the first season, Donegal gained promotion to Division One. In Championship they made it to an Ulster final against Armagh and to an All-Ireland quarter-final one-point loss to Cork.

Devenney and Cassidy were back the following year and they went at the league campaign hammer and tongs, winning Donegal's first ever league title, beating Mayo in the final.

However, there was a feeling that when Championship came round they were running on empty – even after overcoming old foes Armagh courtesy of a looping Devenney shot that Cassidy barrelled in after, causing goalkeeper Paul Hearty to take his eye off the ball as it dropped into the net.

A heavy defeat to Tyrone was followed by backdoor wins over Leitrim and Westmeath before the county board squeezed in two rounds of club fixtures that added weariness to already tired legs before they met Monaghan in the next round.

Devenney identified fatigue as the killer.

"We were playing Armagh in a McKenna Cup game at the start of the year and we had to lay down a marker because we lost so heavily to them. We came hopping out of that dressing room in January to beat Armagh in a McKenna Cup game!

"I remember the same dressing room in Healy Park again, and there was nobody hopping out to play Monaghan in the Championship.

"Not to make excuses, but that was our fifth Championship game in a row. Is it any wonder we were a bit flat?"

The momentum of previous years were lost somewhat in 2008 but Donegal were making plans for 2009. They held a meeting and Cassidy was set to be named captain before the situation blew up.

A delegate proposed a vote of no confidence at a county board meeting – without being instructed to do so by his club. McIver actually won the vote in comfort, but as soon as he heard about it, he left.

"Looking back now it was badly handled at county board level.

"Every player wanted Brian to stay, we were all set for another year," remembers Cassidy.

But his enduring legacy was the guidance he and his backroom staff gave a tender team that would later bloom into All-Ireland champions.

No wonder neither man is surprised with his impact in Derry.

"He surrounds himself with good people that he can trust and the players can trust," says Cassidy.

"When we were there he brought in big Adrian McGuckin who had a massive impact.

"The impact he would have had on players' personal lives, never mind football lives, would have been massive."

Devenney agrees, saying: "Derry are a sleeping giant in Ulster, good schools system, great underage, but yet the county team seem to have nonsense hanging over them.

"McIver has come in and in only two season seems to have whipped them into shape.

"Paddy Tally is training them too, the boys have responded to the system and although they took a bad beating from Dublin they have shown other counties around that level that with the right commitment they can pull it together and achieve."

But, hopefully, not too much ahead of Sunday, the two joke.

Belfast Telegraph

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