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Rory Gallagher has been the key to transformation of Derry as they close in on first All-Ireland title since 1993


Rory Gallagher's management has lifted Derry to new heights

Rory Gallagher's management has lifted Derry to new heights

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Neil Forester of the Steelstown club in Derry city

Neil Forester of the Steelstown club in Derry city

©INPHO/James Crombie


Rory Gallagher's management has lifted Derry to new heights

By any stretch of the most fevered of imaginations to rise of Derry is Boy’s Own stuff.

From also-rans not so long ago scratching about in Division Four of the National League, they are now the kings of Ulster once again.

And, remarkably, they are just two games away from the All-Ireland Final where they could be in line to win the Sam Maguire Cup for just the second time in the county’s history having lifted it back in 1993.

Clare stand between them and the next step in that mission, this Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, but here we take a look at 10 things that have transformed the Oak Leafs.


The most obvious change, naturally. For some, Gallagher’s hyperactivity on the sideline and vocal presence might not be to their taste, but it is evidence of a man entirely consumed in the game.

Pair that with a knowledge of football that he openly admits borders on obsessive, then it is a powerful mix. Whatever it is he has, the Derry players have bought it in spades and have total confidence in him, even after all the tough love he will have dished out since he arrived.

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In the Ulster final, he took off two substitutes he had sent on. Not too managers would even attempt it, but he didn’t think twice.


At the point Gallagher took over Derry, they had just won promotion out of Division Four and ran Tyrone to six points in Healy Park in the Ulster Championship, before being beaten by Laois in the qualifiers.

When lockdown came, it gave Gallagher a chance to get his teeth into the panel and their physical conditioning in a way that might not have been possible in any normal year with games coming and providing a constant distraction.

By the time action resumed, Derry had a different game plan, but more crucially the players had the stamina to play it.


Current captain Chrissy McKaigue was over with Sydney Swans before his two-year rookie contract was not renewed in 2011.

Regardless, a figure as austere as McKaigue brought back a lot of the lessons from Australia and applied them to himself as a Derry player.

Conor Glass played 21 senior games for Hawthorn before he decided he would rather come home.

Anton Tohill followed in the footsteps of his father by going over to Australia for a spell, and while he got very limited game time in his three seasons with Collingwood, he lived the life of an athlete for three years.


Take a look at the clubs represented on the Derry side that started the Ulster final. It’s basically Greater Maghera.

Magherafelt, Slaughtneil, Newbridge, Glen, Bellaghy, Lavey, Ballinascreen and Greelough are all within several miles of each other. The only real outlier is Gareth McKinless who hails from just 16-mile away in Ballinderry.

Ben McCarron who has featured as a substitute in a couple of games is the only one from a far-flung corner in Steelstown, from Derry city.

But essentially, the team is made up of frontline players from one small core in the south of the county. This lends them a closeness and overwhelmingly local identity.


Not playing club Championship games in the lead-up the inter-county Championship has been an enormous factor in all of this.

In years gone by, Derry were drawn to get a round or two of league games played off in early season. This put players in difficult positions with clubs demanding more out of them than their county role might have comprised, while it also compromises the training load that a county manager can target.

Even three injuries to this present Derry squad would do severe damage to them. So the split season has had an obvious positive knock-on effect.


Mickey Donnelly nurtured most of this Derry squad at Under-20 level

Mickey Donnelly nurtured most of this Derry squad at Under-20 level

©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Mickey Donnelly nurtured most of this Derry squad at Under-20 level


The core of this current senior team went through the hands of Damian McErlain at minor level and Mickey Donnelly – a Tyrone native – at Under-20s.

McErlain reached an All-Ireland final and won two Ulster titles with teams that included Conor McCluskey, Conor Doherty, Paul Cassidy, Oisin McWilliams, Padraig McGrogan, Shea Downey, Declan Cassidy and Ben McCarron, and going back to 2015, Shane McGuigan and Conor Glass.

The last two were gone by the time Donnelly took on the same group for the Under-20s, but he still delivered an Ulster title and kept the winning habit.


Each county is drawn to making boasts about their facilities. Just this week the Offaly complex, FaithFul Fields, was getting the big shout out about how well their players are looked after.

But all that counts for nothing unless there is a certain feeling at play. A particular culture.

The Owenbeg complex, just outside Dungiven, is now in use by teams from Under-15 up and everything about is focussed towards excellence, such as the glass-fronted gym where players can see their team mates train outside while they rehab from injuries.

It’s ok having a swish place to call home, but this house is built on hard graft.


Neil Forester of the Steelstown club in Derry city

Neil Forester of the Steelstown club in Derry city

©INPHO/James Crombie

Neil Forester of the Steelstown club in Derry city


In 2018, the Derry senior squad went to the heart of the Creggan to train at the ground of Sean Dolan’s GAC.

In previous years, Derry have trained in Celtic Park so the idea of training in the city is not entirely new. But this was the first time they went to a club and the Sean Dolans underage teams were able to meet the players, a move designed to give a leg up for hard-working Games Managers in the city such as Brian O’Donnell and Neil Forester.

Developing the city is a long-term project, but the success of Steelstown in winning the All-Ireland Intermediate shows the potential.


In 2011, Damian McErlain, who would later go on to become senior manager for two years, placed Niall Loughlin in a Development panel.

A decade of work went into the like of Loughlin, who stuck the course.

Coaching and Games Manager Chris Collins also fought his own quiet revolution. Since 2015 they reached six Ulster minor finals, four All-Ireland semi-final and two finals.

This is all backed up by the work done within the clubs, but Collins created a structure and pathway for underage players to progress that is continually being refined.


For practically all of Damian Barton’s time and Damian McErlain, the success of Slaughtneil meant the county team were without Brendan Rogers, Chrissy and Karl McKaigue and Paul McNeill for around half or more of their league campaigns.

That’s four of the starting county defence at the time. It will not be a problem going forward with the change in competition structures.

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