Kieran McKeever on the toxic and nasty rivalry between Donegal and Derry

For 16 years now, Kieran McKeever has carried a mantle that he doesn’t want any more.

Kieran McKeever on the toxic and nasty rivalry between Donegal and Derry

The Dungiven man remains the last Derry captain to have lifted the Anglo Celt Cup. He hoisted it in the Gerry Arthurs Stand moments after the man still in the limelight this week, Joe Brolly, rounded the keeper and drilled home a 70th minute goal to win the game.

It had to be at the expense of Donegal. Whatever both teams achieved in that glorious period in the early 1990s, nothing was done without a meeting of the old enemies. Despite the presence of Down on the scene, it was the Derry-Donegal rivalry that defined that period for both sides.

In ’92, on the greasy turf, Brian McEniff’s men recovered from Seamus Downey’s scrappy goal early in the second half. It was Derry who had dethroned Pete McGrath’s All-Ireland champions in the semi-final, and Derry who came in as favourites.

But led by their captain Martin McHugh, in front of 35,000, Donegal collected a second provincial title in three years. This one would result in a first ever All-Ireland.

The following year, the Ulster final should never have been played. Both sides agree on that to this day. St Tiernach’s Park was a swamp, saturated by rain. There was a Derry score early in the first half where James McHugh waited on the ball to hop up for him, only to find a faceful of dirt instead as it splashed dead on the turf, stolen away and put over the bar by Damian Cassidy.

That was Derry’s breakthrough that day. They would go on to win Sam Maguire themselves that September. The two sides became intimately familiar with each other around that period.

During an interview with rhe Irish Examiner about the rivalry with Down this time last year, former Derry defender Fergal P McCusker couldn’t help but be drawn on the games with the Tír Chonaill men.

“They beat us in the ’92 Ulster final and we beat them in ’93 in the muck in Clones. There were plenty of League games and playoffs between the two around that time and the rivalry there would have been fairly nasty and toxic.”

Their fledgling All-Ireland titles were won through each other. There was nothing much to separate the two, and Down, at that time but they all needed each other. Derry’s win over Down in ’92 was a source of belief for them, but they hadn’t the experience to finish the job off themselves that summer. Watching Brian McEniff’s men head to Croke Park and bring Sam Maguire back stirred them more than anything.

But after the mud-fest of ’93, and after the late Eamonn Coleman took his side all the way to the Holy Grail thereafter, Derry failed to push on. The following year’s defeat by Down, and the subsequent sacking of Coleman, tore them apart.

It would be five years down the line before they would win another Ulster title. It just had to be at Donegal’s expense. They, too, had failed to kick on. ’98 was their first provincial final in five years as well.

For all the blame that Jim McGuinness has taken as a manager for the dawn of ultra-defensive football, on that afternoon, he played on a Donegal side that were level with Derry after 69 minutes. The score, amidst the sunshine? 0-7 apiece. It was hardly free-flowing itself.

It was decided by Kieran McKeever’s two Dungiven clubmates. Brendan Devenney had just kicked a wide as Donegal threatened to go on and win it. Anthony Tohill got the ball and lumped it 70 yards, as far away from his own goal as he could kick it. Geoffrey McGonagle, not long off the bench, came charging out and won it. He fed Joe Brolly, who rounded the keeper and spent most of what remained of injury-time blowing celebratory kisses.

Footballing folklore tends to remember such moments. Yet much of the work to break the Tír Chonaill men in 1998 was done at the defensive end of the field. Derry’s full-back line excelled. McKeever won his duel with Manus Boyle hands down. Sean Martin Lockhart reigned equally supreme over Tony Boyle.

McKeever spoke after that game of the fear of losing. Even now, he sees that as the reason he took to playing corner-back after Fr. Sean Hegarty tried him there for the first time in 1991. He had never played there in his life, yet it was in the number two jersey that he would win an All-Ireland, two Ulsters, three National Leagues (he won his fourth at centre back) and an All Star.

And yet of all his career highs, there was no trough deeper than his next outing. History records that Galway won the All-Ireland semi-final comfortably, and Gary Coleman’s late penalty did gloss a five point defeat for Derry. However, there were only four in it with 22 minutes left when McKeever was sent off by John Bannon for a foul on Michael Donnellan.

“It hurts me every time I think about it,” he said in an interview a few years back. He’s always maintained it was harsh.

Derry’s recent record against Donegal is not good. They have only won three of the last eleven championship encounters.

For supporters, the rivalry has always been one-sided. Donegal have looked at Derry for a long time as their arch-enemies, their cross-border rivals. Yet, with the heartlands in south Derry and by the Lough Neagh shores, the bulk of Derry supporters naturally thought more of beating Tyrone. They hated Tyrone far more. It’s something that has perhaps backfired at times.

But those two great teams lived for those ‘toxic’ days. And coming out the right side of them opened doors behind which lay great prizes. If Derry win on Sunday, a pathway to taking Kieran McKeever’s unwanted mantle lies on the other side.

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