All Ireland SFC Semi-Final
How far has the journey been for Derry?
Let us take you back to February 10, 2019 and a 600-mile round trip to Fraher Field in Dungarvan.
The team did an overnight trip and secured their third successive victory in the National League, beating Waterford 2-12 to 1-8 to win a Division Four game.
For supporters, it involved a 16-hour trip. Twenty-seven in total showed up.
One-time county PRO Dermot McPeake wrote a piece for the match programme on the day and mentioned every one by name, identified by the pictures taken of the paltry crowd.
It meant a 5.30am start for Steven Doherty, formerly of Glack O’Connor’s and now living in Derry city. He picked up his brother Simon and they made their way to Derry to lift Limavady man Paul McIntyre.
“Are ye players, lads?” asked the gateman in all seriousness as the trio entered Fraher Field five minutes before the Derry team bus arrived. That enquiry alone was worth the 600-mile trip.
“Probably the best thing about games in far flung corners of the country is that the players and management are that glad to see you, and you get a chance to chat to them as you collectively dander pitch side before the game,” says Doherty. He has spent time as a sportswriter, but when it came to Derry, he could never bring himself to affect a professional distance.
Even this year, the Derry support was small. For trips to Dr Hyde Park to face Roscommon, or Cusack Park to play Clare, there was barely 50 Oak Leaf Ultras present. McPeake travelled down with current PRO Ciaran McRory and Derry Operations Manager Stephen Barker.
Realising they were running a good bit early, they stopped off somewhere in the midlands and watched a good bit of one half of a club Junior B game.
Something strange and wonderful happened as spring came around and Derry headed to Omagh to face All-Ireland champions Tyrone. The crowd that day made their voice heard and they knocked their nearest and dearest off their perch, before a pitch invasion.
For the Ulster semi-final against Monaghan, the base began to swell. But not by much. At the upper end of estimation, there were 4,000 Derry fans in Omagh. 7,000 in Armagh for the Monaghan game.
In 2011, Derry sold 5,000 tickets for the Ulster final. This year it was 18,000. One county board figure reckons around 50% of that number had never been in Clones before.
All jerseys in the O’Neill’s Magherafelt store were sold out, with queues snaking out the doors. Any replenishments were hungrily bought up thereafter.
The arrival of Rory Gallagher as manager has dovetailed with some excellent players coming of age and a county board that have spent years sorting out their coaching structures. It has brought them back to where they were once upon a time.
Former county player Gerard O’Kane got a knee-high view of the Glory Days of the ‘90s, as he tagged along with his father, also Gerard, who would later become county board Chairman.
“We wouldn’t have missed a game anywhere. I thought back to my own childhood and thought I would like to give my son those sort of memories too. I think that bit is catching Derry people’s imagination as well.
“I didn’t go to the Roscommon game but I did go to a few Derry games this year.
“For a few reasons; club football is usually on a Sunday, the Ulster League, friendlies, training on a Sunday morning.
“I also made a decision that my wee boy, Ethan, is 10 now and he is not mad into Gaelic football but my nephews are. So we said we would take them to as many games as we can. And now, he can talk about McKinless, Glass, McKaigue, Lynch, all of them. Six weeks ago, he wouldn’t have known one of them.”
During his playing days, he experienced the peculiar relationship the Derry support base has with their senior football team.
“It’s difficult to explain. I have been at both ends of it,” the Glenullin man explains.
“In 2004 it was my first year playing for Derry and we reached an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. It was, I think, one of the lowest-recorded attendances in the last twenty or so years.
“Kerry people probably expected to beat us and Derry didn’t traditionally have a big support. And I think it was 35,000 people there.”
That year, his father was county Chairman. He makes the point that in a stadium that can hold over 82,000, the Derry contingent of just over 12,000 was completely lost and drowned out.
He lands another anecdote.
“Three years later we played Armagh in Clones, and it was, in inverted commas, ‘The Derry 500.’ We beat them in Joe Kernan’s last game in charge and there was literally 500 Derry people in Clones after we had been beaten by Monaghan before it (in Ulster). There was an apathy towards the team but we were fit to go out and play that Armagh team who won an Ulster the following year.
“We got on a bit of a run again, played Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final, and from a crowd of 500, there was 14,000 there from Derry six weeks later!”
This Saturday, there will be a healthy atmosphere with an attendance of over 60,000 expected.
Derry might also benefit from the old-fashioned quaint tradition of Ulster teams supporting each other, with the Cavan support sitting on after their Tailteann Cup final against Westmeath.
Derry are enjoying themselves; the team, the management, the supporters. In the online world, Benny Heron memes proclaim him as the G.O.A.T and a win at the weekend would signal a tipping point of supporters entering a phase of happy delirium and partisan exuberance.
As pointed out before, there are various strands that have brought them to this point, but they have been galvanised by Rory Gallagher’s management.
O’Kane looks at one specific example. Gareth McKinless is in All-Star form. For years, he wouldn’t have been interested in Derry. He wasn’t interested in sharing a dressing room with players from other clubs.
“Up to this year, Gareth McKinless played one Championship game with Derry in the last eight years. One!” exclaims O’Kane.
“McKinless would have told you he wouldn’t have sat in the same room as Slaughtneil players, all this sort of stuff. But now he is pulling his weight, Rory had a conversation with him and said something that clicked.
“The more time they have, the more they trust each other.”