If there was an 11th commandment which forbid us from coveting our neighbouring county, then I would be a serial sinner every time I visited Healy Park.
On Sunday, I was a Derry man working in Omagh, and once again my gills were green with envy.
It was dismal, dank and grey — a day purpose-built for the sofa. But more than 4,000 hardy souls still braved the incessant rain so they could watch the McKenna Cup clash between Tyrone and Derry.
At a conservative estimate, all but 200 of the crowd hailed from the host county. I met Tommy Donnelly (Lissan) and Kevin Toner (Bellaghy) on the way into the ground. Tommy and Kevin never miss a Derry game.
In Tyrone, there are hundreds of fanatical supporters like Tommy and Kevin. In Derry, there are a few dozen.
When Derry host Jordanstown on Saturday night in Celtic Park, the ground will be largely empty. After playing in front of 4,000 in Omagh, the Derry players will be lucky if there are 400 in Celtic Park.
A stranger might conclude that Derry folk just aren’t that interested in football. But nothing could be further from the truth. Football is an absolute obsession in Derry.
And Derry people go to games. They just don’t go to county games. I have been at underage club matches which have attracted larger crowds than county fixtures.
What is the problem? One popular theory, which gets a regular airing outside the county, is that club rivalry is so intense that players and supporters struggle to unite behind the Derry flag.
This is a total fallacy. Truth be told, the bitter factions caused by rows at club games probably reached its peak during Derry’s most successful period. When the late Eamon Coleman was in charge, Lavey and Dungiven were at each others’ throats. Before managing his football team, Coleman had to act as mediator and negotiate a truce between a few of the warring individuals. Derry still won their first and only All-Ireland title.
The reason Derry supporters don’t attend county games is more complex. In essence, there is a physic difference between Tyrone and Derry supporters.
The typical Tyrone man identifies himself first and foremost with his county.
Ask a Donaghmore man where he is from, and he’ll answer: ‘Tyrone’.
Ask a Dungiven man where is from, and he’ll say: ‘Dungiven, (sir)."
In other parts of Derry, loyalty to place is even more extreme. Townlands can even take precedence. Ask a Bellaghy man where he is from, and it would be no surprise if he said "Ballynease" or "Ballyscullion".
And there is a good reason why so many Derry men identify with their clubs first.
Club football in Derry has been, and continues to be, of a very high standard. Consider Derry’s record in the club Championships. Three clubs (Bellaghy, Lavey and Ballinderry) have lifted the All-Ireland club title.
Kerry (Austin Stacks, Castleisland Desmonds, Dr Crokes and Laune Rangers) is the only county with a better record. With three different winners, Derry is tied with superpowers such as Cork (Nemo Rangers, St Finbarr’s, and O’Donovan Rossa) and Galway (Corofin, Caltra and Salthill/Knocknacarra).
The strength of Derry club football is even more pronounced when the Ulster provincial Championship is examined. Six Derry clubs (Bellaghy, Ballerin, Ballinderry, Lavey, Dungiven and Loup) have won the Ulster title. No other county comes close. Armagh’s tally of three (Clan na Gael, Mullaghbawn and Crossmaglen) puts the Orchard County into a distant second place.
It’s also worth noting that only one Tyrone club (Errigal Ciaran) has ever managed to win the Ulster club title. No Tyrone club has ever won the All-Ireland crown.
The success of Derry clubs isn’t limited to the senior grade. Derry also tops the charts of the Ulster minor club Championship.
Given the continued strength of club football in Derry, it can be difficult to understand how the county has gone 14 years without winning an Ulster senior title.
A major part of the problems stems from how success is viewed in Derry. We believe there is a recipe. The All-Ireland winning team of 1993 was backboned by players who had won MacRory and Hogan Cups with St Patrick’s Maghera and All-Ireland Vocational titles with St Pius, Magherafelt.
For years Adrian McGuckin (St Patrick’s) and Brian McIver (St Pius) produced a conveyor belt of players for successful Derry minor sides. Eleven players from the ’93 team were coached by McGuckin (eight) and McIver (three). Since McGuckin and McIver have retired from teaching, the trophies have dried up.
Between 1980 and 1990, St Patrick’s Maghera lifted the MacRory Cup seven times and the Hogan Cup twice. During the same period, the Derry minors won the Ulster Championship six times and the All-Ireland title twice. The Downey brothers, the McCusker brothers, Johnny McGurk, Anthony Tohill, Enda Gormley, Dermot McNicholl and Damien Cassidy all graduated from those teams.
Since 2000, Maghera has won the MacRory and Hogan Cup on one occasion (2003). During that time Derry has won the Ulster minor Championship twice.
Because there has been a lack of success at colleges and minor level, there is a widespread belief within Derry that the talent pool no longer exists. However, Derry’s record in club competitions undermines that theory.
If Derry is going to return to winning ways, the county’s fans might have to reconsider what constitutes a successful formula.
For guidance and inspiration, we should look to the tips of the island as both Donegal and Kerry have proved that a series of all-conquering underage teams is not a prerequisite for success at senior level.
But until such times as Derry start winning trophies, the players will have to get used to playing in front of tiny crowds.