Player availability is allowing boss Gallagher to concoct a winning formula at last
Perception has been in a close, constant battle with reality when it comes to Derry football over the last seven years.
They are about to face Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final in Ballybofey and while the neutrals are desperately hoping for a competitive game in the provincial Championship, Donegal natives are nervous and Derry’s faithful believe they have their best prepared team in years after half a decade of disaster.
In charting the fall and rise of their fortunes since they were beaten in the Division One league final by Dublin in 2014, various theories have been advanced and accepted.
Top of the taste makers has been their former 1993 All-Ireland winner, Joe Brolly. In general he has sounded a note of pessimism around his native county as they began their slide, relegated from the top flight in 2015 and ultimately spending a year in Division Four in 2019.
Criticisms of who was filling certain roles in the management structure were advanced, including a Tyrone man in charge of the Under-20 team (who won an Ulster title and contested another), as was a declaration that the county was in dire financial state, later proven otherwise.
Things weren’t looking much more optimistic in his eyes after the county board appointed Rory Gallagher as manager in late 2019.
During a live broadcast of a podcast, he said: “Rory Gallagher, what the f***?”
In front of a live audience and warming to his theme, he lampooned: “Pass it back, pass it back, pass it back, give it to the keeper, oh Jesus don’t kick it, don’t kick it, don’t kick it…” before pretending to fall asleep.
It got the crowd going for an event that was essentially light entertainment. But in taking a scattergun approach to Derry’s trials, he never noted the most significant factor; most of their good players weren’t and hadn’t been available to the county for years.
The lazy line spun about Derry was that club rivalries stunted any chance of harmony when it came to putting on the white jersey with the red band.
It hasn’t been that, but rather a single club’s excellence across two codes that has been the damaging variable. In the years that Slaughtneil swept to Ulster glory in football and hurling, there is a direct correlation with Derry league performances.
The first year they won Ulster was 2014 and their All-Ireland run ended with defeat to Corofin in the final on St Patrick’s Day.
By that stage, Derry had five league games played of the 2015 league, with a loss, loss, draw, loss and loss record. They slid into Division Two.
In 2016, the club’s footballers beat Kilcoo in the Ulster final, and the hurlers beat Loughgiel. The season ended for the small ball on February 25 with defeat in the semi-final to Cuala, while the footballers marched all the way to a St Patrick’s Day final again, this time to defeat by Dr Crokes.
By then, Derry’s league campaign was in tatters, an opening-round draw, a loss, a win and a loss. Two days after the final, the Slaughtneil players were coming to terms with their loss and in no fit shape to take part in Derry’s round five defeat to Galway.
Now, consider the personalities who were actually absent.
Derry’s best man-marker in Karl McKaigue. The new model attacking full-back in the supreme Brendan Rogers. A young emerging talent that would seamlessly step into county football in Paul McNeill. Derry’s natural leader, Chrissy McKaigue, the engine of Padraig Cassidy and the creative spark of Christopher Bradley.
Finally, we come to the 2018 season when they slid into Division Four. At the start of that year, Slaughtneil were preparing for semi-finals against Nemo Rangers (football) and Na Piarsaigh (hurling). Their players missed the first four rounds of the league that year, with Derry losing three of them.
Player availability: that’s what it has been and it’s what happens when you take four players out of the back six for the majority of league campaigns.
And now, Gallagher is winning the approval of even Brolly having been able to have the space and – critically – the time to develop his own team.
But he will not be satisfied with a slow, steady climb through the leagues.
Whisper it, but Derry may just be back.