GAA talking points: Derry now a model of stability and consistency

With every chance Galway and Mayo will meet in championship, this is the latest instalment in an evolving narrative where both are desperate not to let the other out in front again
GAA talking points: Derry now a model of stability and consistency

CONSISTENT: Gareth McKinless and Niall Toner of Derry celebrate a goal during the game against Dublin earlier in the league. Derry are now a model of consistency. Pic: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Mayo and Galway get up close and personal again 

Despite all the close games between Galway and Mayo over the last three decades, when the counties shared the points on the opening night of the league in January, it was the first time since November 1997 that Mayo and Galway had drawn in a league game.

Rescuing the match with the last kick was extremely satisfying for Mayo, especially when they were desperate to stop losing to Galway in MacHale Park. Having failed to record a home win in league or championship since the 2014 Connacht final, Galway looked set to extend that winning sequence in January until Ryan O’Donoghue landed the equalising score with the last kick of the match.

There were times when some of those home defeats were almost too much for Mayo. At the end of their league meeting in Castlebar in March 2019, the TV cameras flashed to a Galway supporter holding up a placard in the cold, night air. ‘Seven in-a-row’ it read. It was only the type of pre-scripted stunt that could be pulled out after the game but, at the time, the Galway supporter was more than confident than he would get the chance to get the first public dig in.

It was Galway's seventh time beating Mayo in four years. When the sides had met the previous May (2018) in Castlebar, Galway had won another taut and tight arm-wrestle. By that stage, Mayo were at their wits end from being on the receiving end of difficult Galway defeats.

History and geography are at the root of every local rivalry, but enmity can often seep deep into the soil and feed those roots. And with Galway at that stage asserting a dominance over their neighbours that they hadn’t enjoyed in decades, and with Mayo desperate to arrest the trend, the rivalry between the two teams reached near boiling point.

That enmity really spilled over in February 2018 when Galway won their league game in Pearse Stadium at a canter, but the last 15 minutes was blackened by skirmishes and mini-brawls and three players were eventually red-carded in that period.

That Mayo team had never been bullied in the big championship matches, especially by Dublin and Kerry, but Galway bullied them that afternoon in Salthill. The experience gave Mayo a whole new edge ahead of their championship meeting three months later. And, yet, Mayo still couldn’t beat Galway. Again.

The pain of successive championship defeats to Galway in 2016 and 2017 was eased by Mayo recovering to reach the All-Ireland final in both of those seasons through the back door, but the dull ache lingered. Mayo players and supporters were even more uneasy over consistent defeat to Galway because it was tearing at an open wound.

When the sides met again in the 2019 qualifiers in Limerick, it was the biggest qualifier game since the seismic Kerry-Tyrone clash in Killarney in 2012. Mayo were desperate to disprove the theory that Galway tactically had their number under Kevin Walsh, but they were also hell-bent on atonement.

Mayo simply couldn’t countenance a fourth successive championship defeat to Galway in four years. It didn’t happen. A Mayo win brought down the curtain down on Walsh’s five years in charge, while also marking a turning point in the route of the relationship.

After Mayo walloped Galway by 15 points in the 2020 league, Padraic Joyce said that it was the “most embarrassing day” of his career. It didn’t get any better for Joyce when Mayo beat Galway again in the Connacht final in Salthill five weeks later. It got worse again in July 2021 when Mayo dismantled Galway in the Connacht final in Croke Park.

Galway arrested the slide last April when beating Mayo in the Connacht quarter final in Castlebar by one point. The draw in January showed again how tightly matched these sides are. Again.

After Mayo reached successive All-Ireland finals in 1996 and 1997, before Galway won the All-Ireland a year later, a familiar pattern defined the relationship for over a decade, where two championship victories in-a-row was the most any of the counties could manage against each other.

Then Mayo beat Galway five times in-a-row between 2009-’15, before Galway took out Mayo in three successive years between 2016-’18, and then Mayo responded with three wins in-a-row between 2019-’21. Galway stopped the bleeding last year. And with every chance the sides will meet in championship this summer, Sunday’s league final is the latest instalment in an evolving narrative where both counties are desperate not to let the other out in front again.

Derry’s stability is their identity 

At the end of the 2021 seasons, Rory Gallagher was handed a three-year extension to his term as Derry manager. Gallagher had just completed his second year of a three-year term but, having secured the Division 3 title as well as pushing Donegal to the wire in Ulster, handing Gallagher an extra three years was a strong show of confidence from the Derry county board in the Gallagher project.

Everything about that project has been governed by progression and stability. Before Gallagher arrived, Derry had been rife with instability and dysfunction. Between 2008 and 2019 Derry had used 107 players in the championship.

Commitment was a major issue. “People were saying one thing and doing another,” said Gallagher before last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. “There was a lack of respect to put the team first, a lot of individual ego that thought they could do what they wished, at a cost to the team. There was a level of indiscipline at training, in attendance at training and the way they went about their business. It wasn’t enjoyable.” 

Gallagher initiated a total clear-out, moving on a host of players which had played a lot of games for Derry over the previous five years, trimming down the squad to an ultra-committed bunch that has only lost four games since the autumn of 2020.

En route to last year’s Ulster title and All-Ireland semi-final, Derry had probably the smallest squad in the championship, with just 29, including five U19s and one U20. Gallagher and his management wanted to invest in those players rather than have bodies on the panel just for numbers.

Squad numbers got so tight early on in the year that Derry had only 22 fit players for the McKenna Cup final. Gallagher never wavered because no other county has been more consistent in terms of selection over the last two seasons.

In their five championship games last year, Derry started the same 15 players, while they used three substitutes - Emmet Bradley, Lachlan Murray, and Ben McCarron in all games, along with Paul McNeil in four of their five games. And they were all introduced in the same order.

It’s been a similar trend throughout this league, as Gallagher and his management have effectively played the same team throughout the campaign, with the exception of a couple of minor changes in different games.

The only game where there was any real change was against Cork last week when Derry had already secured promotion beforehand. Ryan Scullion started in goal while some other players started in different positions but, even with some experimentation, Conor Glass and Chrissy McKaigue still came off the bench.

Against Dublin again on Sunday Gallagher will go back to his tried and trusted formula, both in terms of personnel and performance. Since last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat, Derry are unbeaten in 11 league and McKenna Cup games. After a decade of instability and inconsistency, Derry are now a model of stability and consistency.

Jackson’s stats keep rising 

The first time the wider footballing public ever heard of Mark Jackson, it was easy to sit up and take note; in Wicklow’s championship win against Offaly in 2018, Jackson kicked an incredible 0-7 from eight shots, five frees and two ‘45s.

Goalkeepers regularly chalk up scores now from placed balls but scoring seven of them was a unique achievement, especially five years ago, and particularly in the championship. Jackson further embellished his status that afternoon when saving a penalty.

The Baltinglass man was only 19 at the time, but he had shown his class, composure, cool temperament and brilliant kicking ability just a year earlier when helping to guide the combined Wicklow Schools team to the Leinster senior football semi-final in 2017. In a thrilling semi-final against St Peter’s Wexford, Jackson’s performance was all the more impressive again considering the hostile atmosphere in which he executed some of his kicks. Jackson also made a series of first class saves the same afternoon.

His kicking prowess though, really sets him apart. After kicking 0-2 against London in February, the BillHillWicklow website showed how Jackson had scored more than 100 points in league and championship. That tally has now risen to 110 (71 in league and 39 in championship).

Jackson didn’t score against Wexford but he bagged 0-2 or more in Wicklow’s other six league games this spring, notching 0-4 against Waterford. Jackson scored 0-2 against Laois but uncharacteristically missed four frees that afternoon.

Off Broadway, Jackson’s freetaking has been a consistent theme of Wicklow’s scoring total for years now. And in Croke Park on Saturday evening, the wider football public should finally get to witness how much of a weapon it really is.

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