In the couple of days before Derry fetched up in Omagh to face the defending All-Ireland champions, the bush telegram got very busy indeed.
Among the Derry support, a rumour was sent up into the sky like a flare. The speculation was around their centre-back Gareth McKinless, some believing he was keen on spending the summer in America.
The night before the game itself, a picture of him in a nightclub appeared on social media, which was like petrol on the flames.
Not only did McKinless turn up, but he was the central figure in the game, pushing up to play midfield on Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy and driving him to distraction until Kennedy kicked out, and was sent off.
Afterwards, Derry manager Rory Gallagher was asked if he had been in negotiations with McKinless in an effort to persuade him to stay.
Gallagher laughed it off.
“I don’t deal in rumours. I didn’t have a conversation about that with anybody,” he said.
“He never mentioned to me about going to America. He mentioned to me he wanted to get better, he wanted to improve and work on his rehab. I just see him in training five, six, seven days a week and am in touch with him.”
And with that, he gave the moment a bit of levity, looking down at his daughter and adding, “This girl here is practising her Gareth McKinless bounce. Be a shame if he went off to America and we didn’t see that.”
The ‘Gareth McKinless Bounce’ is a thoroughly subtle and clever manoeuvre that the Ballinderry man has in his locker. It’s not the easiest to explain in print but, in basic terms, McKinless is a very strong and fast ball-carrier, with superb close control.
When he faces up an opponent with space in behind, he makes his initial break out either side. When the defender commits to the tackle, they are already, to some extent, off balance.
Having done a solo with his foot before he throws the shimmy, McKinless then cuts across the defender, dipping low to get a low centre of gravity and taking away the defender’s ‘space’ as he levers himself in behind, bouncing the ball across his body.
At this point, the defender is in grave danger. A stray leg can end up as a trip, and if there is space behind, the overlap is on. The choice is to foul, or get on your bike. And not too many can catch McKinless when he gets the half-yard, even when he is carrying the ball.
Given the prestige of the counties that Derry have accounted for in this Championship – beating Tyrone and Monaghan in one fortnight is some going – McKinless has become a bit of an overnight sensation. It’s understandable in some ways.
Until this year, since their Ulster semi-final in 2011, Derry won just one Ulster Championship game, a 0-12 to 0-11 triumph over Down. McKinless was not involved.
One man well aware of his talents is Peter Canavan. His column on the Sky Sports website after the win over Tyrone said: “Once the news came out that Emmett Bradley wasn’t playing, it looked as if Tyrone would have a serious advantage in terms of physicality around the middle of the park.
“To counteract that, Derry played Gareth McKinless as a midfielder on Brian Kennedy, just for the kick-outs. If Tyrone secured possession, McKinless dropped back as a sweeper. His first-half performance set the tone for Derry.
‘The Ballinderry man was winning breaking ball around the middle, he was cutting out attacks, but he was also moving forward. He was fouled for a point, and kicked a score himself.
‘His first-half display typified everything that was good about Derry.”
After the Monaghan game, Canavan kept up the praise.
“Physically, they look to be in great shape. And when the gun was put to their head, they were able to come up with the answers on Sunday,” Canavan wrote. “The core of the team is made up by some of the best players in the country; Brendan Rogers, Chrissy McKaigue, Conor Glass, Gareth McKinless and Shane McGuigan.”
Close observers of Derry have known of McKinless’ potential to be so much more than what he was before.
In the 2021 Division Three final, Offaly withdrew a forward against Derry. Gallagher re-jigged his defence to leave McKinless the free man. In a pair of golden boots, he made a series of rampages through the middle of the defence that were a joy to watch.
That was the first sighting of McKinless Version 2.0. He always had potential, but wasn’t always putting himself in the frame for his county.
During the first lockdown, the Derry squad placed a huge emphasis on strength and conditioning. By the end of it, McKinless was spat out the other side as a man with considerable muscle and power to match his adventure.
When he faces Donegal on Sunday, they will be sure to place emphasis on how they deal with him.
Going back to the 2013 Ulster Club final, Ballinderry met Glenswilly. Michael Murphy had the ball in the net after 25 seconds but thereafter, McKinless did a serious job on the man who had captained Donegal to the All-Ireland the previous year.
A couple examples of him stripping Murphy of the ball led to him being crowned Ulster Club Player of the Year.
The two will cross swords on Sunday, both men central and critical to their respective causes. That’s how far McKinless has come.