FOOTBALLERS, as a rule, are not the most expressive of types when confronted by a posse of tape recorders but Kevin McGuckin needed just three words to sum up the mood of an entire county at Casement Park last January.
“Same old Derry,” the corner back sighed. It may only have been a McKenna Cup final defeat to Down, but the result re-emphasised Derry’s depressing predilection to fall flat on their faces the moment they look like achieving something.
Flick through the archives from the last few championships and they are as likely to have lost a qualifier in Longford as reached an All-Ireland semi-final.
“The thing that has been missing from Derry football this past 10 years has been consistency,” admitted manager Paddy Crozier during the league campaign. “We found it hard to play two good games in-a-row.”
The reason appears to be belief, or a lack of. Dermot McNicholl was a member of the county’s only All-Ireland winning side in 1993 and he has watched a generation of footballers mature to adulthood in his roles as teacher and coach at St Pat’s school in Maghera.
“We have failed for years to deliver on the potential that other people always seemed to think was there.
“Maybe people inside Derry haven’t always held the senior team in the same regard as others from different counties.”
Underachievement isn’t just some dirty habit Derry have picked up of late. It’s in their DNA. Their first Ulster senior title was only won in 1958. Only three have come in the last 32 years, two in the last 20. Not exactly heavyweight material.
Even their ‘golden era’ is coloured with regret. The 1990s saw Sam Maguire winter in the county for the first time but one more Ulster title and three league successes in the next seven years was a poor return for the talent they had. Belief wasn’t the issue then. Instead, the team was split down the middle by the ousting of manager Eamon Coleman and a house divided did not stand for long.
“We had damn good footballers but you would question whether or not we were managed effectively,” said McNicholl.
With players like Paddy Bradley, Fergal Doherty and McGuckin in tow, quality is still thick on the ground and, whatever about previous regimes, no-one can complain that the ship is rudderless this year.
The arrival from Armagh of trainer John McCloskey may well be the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. His “Armagh mentality”, as one onlooker terms it, has changed mindsets. “He has adopted a harder line,” says Bernie Mullan, a local journalist and long-time GAA official.
Looking back, the McKenna Cup and McGuckin’s downbeat demeanour seem to belong to a different era but Crozier isn’t the type to buy into all the hype on the back of just one spring campaign.
“Paddy Crozier is an extremely cautious guy,” says Mullan. “It is one game at a time with Paddy. He is one of these perfectionists.’’
Crozier may not be reaching for the champagne just yet but he will have noted the creeping optimism in the Derry air as they embark on their Ulster campaign tomorrow against Donegal.
Message boards, so often an oasis of bile and bitchiness, are exuding good cheer in Derry. Posters gush over Paddy Bradley and express their delight that the best players in the county are all on the county squad.
The demographic of the team is encouraging, with a plethora of players aged between 24 and 27. The panel has even been described as the county’s best ever.
That includes the class of 1993 and the manner of their win over Kerry in the league decider seems to have ended any debate on the pliability of the panel’s backbone.
Derry have lapsed briefly back into their old ways with that McKenna Cup final no-show and a dismal performance in Salthill but the graph has absorbed such bumps and continues to strain skywards.
The sight of Donegal should serve as a cautionary tale given what happened to the 2007 league winners last summer and no-one in Derry needs to be told that they have never won Ulster in the same year as any of their six league titles.
Past disappointments remain ingrained in the memory however and no-one in Derry is about to get ahead of themselves just yet.
“Nobody is pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes here in Derry,” says McNicholl, “because the feeling is that we still have a lot to prove.”
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