McIver looks forward to Derry v Tyrone
When Brian McIver heard the draw for the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup, what else could he do but smile?
The new Derry manager is only just hanging up his coat in the job, but already his fixture schedule rings out with past memories. Of different times and places, different faces. Not to mention a lot of familiar ones too.
On Sunday he takes a new-look Derry side to Healy Park to face Tyrone. As a footballer, McIver made his name with Ardboe, one of the O’Neill County’s most famous clubs.
But as a coach it was his work with Tyrone-Derry border straddlers Ballinderry Shamrocks, in winning the 2002 All-Ireland club title, that later propelled him to the Donegal job, before going on to an All-Ireland final as part of James McCartan's backroom team in Down.
“We drew Down in the Championship,” points out McIver. “So we were going to get either Donegal or Tyrone at the start of the McKenna Cup!
“Ah, you just go with it, you know. We have Tyrone in the first game, then we have UUJ and then Antrim so it's a good run in the McKenna Cup and we will see where we are at after that.”
The Ballinderry River flows into the western lip of Lough Neagh, dividing the two counties. Within the confines of the Shamrocks club, that mix has made for some lively debate down through the years.
During the '90s, the relationship between Derry and Tyrone seemed to be dripping with spite. Ulster Championship ties were combustible affairs that often spilled into naked acts of aggression.
The fact that some players from the Tyrone side of the border declared for the Derry county team doused another glugg of paraffin to the flames.
Hot evenings in Clones, like the 1995 Ulster semi-final when Tyrone overcame the All-Ireland champions from two summers earlier, despite having Pascal Canavan and Seamus McCallan sent off, were the order of the day.
Through it all, however, Ballinderry remained solid. Talk of splits were mere speculation.
“Ballinderry was always just Ballinderry,” McIver explains.
“There was never any dispute in terms of that. There definitely was a couple of years when the rivalry… the banter was good, let's put it like that. It's probably still as good, but not as intense.
“I live in the Tyrone half of Ballinderry and have always been a Tyrone man. But now from here on in that has to take a back seat and I am 100 per cent behind Derry.”
Right now, McIver has a massive job to do, rebuilding the shattered confidence of Derry, but he has been there before.
He took over a listing Donegal towards the end of the last decade and introduced a new attitude of abstinence and graft. The players took to him well but he left before he completed the job.
He admits he was not surprised to see them go on to lift the Sam Maguire.
“I had great time for the Donegal players, I really had, and I thought they took a lot of very, very negative publicity, mainly at the hands of a Donegal press. I couldn't blame anybody else for that,” he says.
Things finished up for him in Donegal with one of those typically circular county board meetings that had nothing to do with football and everything to do with politics. Once McIver felt he did not have full backing, he walked.
He continues: “I know the players did not want it to happen the way it did. From my perspective it gave me a chance to stand back for a while.
“Then I had a couple of years which I really enjoyed with Down and it gave me the appetite for another shot at it with Derry.”
Now that he’s back in the big time, McIver maintains that his role is one of nurturing a young panel through.
“The Derry side are a very young side, whereas when I went to Donegal there were a lot more established players. There is a difference in that extent,” he says.
But everyone on the Derry panel is going into this game on Sunday focused on the importance of the match and the work that lies ahead.
While McIver was assembling a panel for the season, he contacted veteran attacker Conleith Gilligan about pledging himself to the county for one final year.
Gilligan (pictured) politely declined, but he knows he could be missing out on something big.
“Generally when Brian comes in anywhere, in any job he has taken, very quickly he has won things or turned things around or done very, very special things,” comments Gilligan.
“I wouldn't be surprised if he did that with Derry — he's just that type of man,” adds Gilligan.
The road is long, but the journey begins with the first step this Sunday at Healy Park.