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Determined Daniel doing it for his pal Aaron Devlin

By Declan Bogue

Recovering from a dislocated knee sustained last year means that a place on the Derry bench for the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final might come "a week too early" for Daniel McKinless, but if life has taught him something in the last six months, it is patience.

Last summer, his club and county team mate Aaron Devlin passed away after being struck down with meningitis.

Gathering up for training with Derry and Ballinderry over the winter, they have missed that effervescent presence of 'Dook' in the dressing room. But McKinless insists that his spirit lives on.

"I grew up with Aaron," the 23-year-old teacher recalls.

"Every team I played on, he was there. He would have hung around with us boys, played soccer with Cookstown Youth and grew up together."

Those that live in the hearts of others never die, however. McKinless says that the memory of his friend helps him in times of adversity.

"It's an extra incentive for me every time I go out to play, I go out with that reminder of Aaron. You bring it forward in big games and when things get tough, you look to him for a bit of help at times."

Footballing wise, McKinless believes Derry have been robbed of a special talent.

"It is a big blow, because he was such a talented footballer. An amazing ability. I don't think we got to see at times how good he was," he explains. "In the under-21s, he would have played centre-half back in our team that got to the Ulster final. I think that's the best football he ever played, absolutely flying, dictating games.

"I can think back to Clonoe in the Ulster Championship, he destroyed them by himself and it's just a shame that you will not be able to see that in the future."

That's why some footballers might approach an occasion like a Dr McKenna Cup final with a blasé attitude, but McKinless knows that the losses in his life equip him with a highly-developed sense of perspective.

"Every day you get up, it gives you a new appreciation for life itself," he says.

"Whether it's football, everything you do, you just really appreciate it that wee bit more.

"It's the McKenna Cup and it's January, but you are going out to play Tyrone. Your arch-nemesis. Every game you play it is going to be a battle. I am sure there will be 7-8,000 there."

A primary school teacher by profession, McKinless makes the journey into Tyrone territory every day to St Mary's Primary School in Carland, just outside Donaghmore. The football chat is incessant.

The morning after Tyrone beat Derry a fortnight back in the group stages of the McKenna Cup, a little girl knocked on his door, asking: "Mr McKinless, are you sad?

"I said, 'Why would I be sad?'"

She answered with: "Because Tyrone beat youse!"

He continues: "So you get a lot of stick. I wear a lot of Derry gear around and even though this is just the McKenna Cup it still creates quite a bit of a buzz as there is a real bite to those games."

In an area such as the Loughshore, people live for the craic around the Tyrone and Derry rivalry. In the mid-90s, it was almost poisonous, with unusually-edgy atmospheres when the two teams would routinely go to war with each other.

There were a few flare-ups, and a few comments passed in the wake of the last match that threatens to re-ignite the rivalry. With new manager Damian Barton a very passionate presence on the sideline, Derry will not want for motivation in laying down a marker against Tyrone.

"Anytime you go to play Tyrone it will be a tough game and a battle," is McKinless's view.

"(Tyrone manager) Mickey (Harte) is a seasoned campaigner and I am sure that he will not want to be beaten by Derry, every time he goes out he wants to win and that is just football.

"If the boot was on the other foot I am sure it would be the same. You play to win and that is just it."

If the Derry County Board had chosen differently, Daniel and his brother Gareth, named to start at wing-back tonight, might be playing for their father, Martin, who was in the frame for the job.

He brought an incredible record in club championship football. As manager of Ballinderry in 2006, 2008, 2011, '12 and '13, he never lost a game in the Derry Championship. He took a year out and spent it with Derrylaughan in Tyrone, bringing them to an Intermediate Championship.

The first county championship game he ever lost came last year, when he was in charge of Ardboe in Tyrone.

"He had an interview, he doesn't really tell you much, but I think he wanted more experience, to see how the thing operates and for future reference," admits Daniel of his father.

In the meantime, things are progressing under Barton. McKinless points to the subtle changes around the place.

"It's not even the way that we are playing, it is more of a team and a group, there is a real buzz. You are enjoying your football and that is down to the attacking style of football that we are now playing. The energy Damian has brought to the set-up has made it really enjoyable."

It all feeds into a night like tonight, where neither Barton or Harte will want to concede a single inch. Of course, bigger and more important challenges lie ahead, but that won't take anything from the hits and the effort required under the Athletic Grounds floodlights.

"I am sure Mickey does not want to lose to Damien and Damien will not want to lose to Mickey," McKinless agrees.

"We will see what happens and it will be a big boost for whoever wins but it will not be the be all and end all."

Perspective has taught him that.

Belfast Telegraph


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