Derry football took off in 2015 but will 2022 be the year it returns in big time?

The sport is littered with sliding door moments, a crossroads between the tightly intertwined paths of success and failure.

These moments are not always readily apparent to viewers; not always obvious even to those involved, but every now and then such moments play out before the eyes of the public.

June 27, 2015 was such a date.

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Derry’s Conor Glass with the Anglo Celt Cup at the Ulster Final Press Event at the Fir Trees Hotel Strabane last week. (Photo: John Merry)

Prior to this year, the recent Oak Leaf Minor record in Ulster was underwhelming at best. In the 20 years leading up to 2015, Derry had only appeared in three Ulster Minor finals, within 13 years of Chris Brown’s 2002 winners. There was no lack of effort, no lack of will, but direction was needed, an overarching strategy aimed at putting Derry back at the top of the table.

Ironically, the catalyst for such a change would emerge from within Brown’s team in the form of the incredibly talented Chris Collins. A knee injury ended one of Derry’s greatest footballing careers for the centre-back, but it didn’t stop Collins’ influence at Derry GAA. Indeed, his appointment as Games Development Officer in February 2007, aged just 24, was the catalyst for changes that have seen Derry play five of the last seven Ulster finals alone at minor level.

Among other initiatives, Collins launched ‘Go Games’ in Derry, the hotbed of so much talent; Talents such as 2017 Ulster Minor captain and current Derry senior Paudie McGrogan, who 10 years after first flying through Owenbeg as a smiling kid for Newbridge at the ‘Go Games’, brought Derry into an All Ireland minors final led. Collins’ influence was and is immense.

But back to 2015. It’s fair to say that Damian McErlain’s fledgling Oak Leaf side had slipped under the radar. It wasn’t that they weren’t thrilled, it was just that most had already decided the Ulster and possibly All Ireland titles would go to Donegal this year via Declan Bonner’s extremely talented Tír Chonaill squad.

And so we arrive on June 27th and a double header in the Derry semi-finals with Brian McIvers senior who will meet a team from Donegal whose manager, a certain R. Gallagher of Fermanagh tribe, has a future role in the story would. It didn’t work for Oak Seniors on that balmy Clones night against Mr Gallagher, but the wheels were in motion even before the seniors’ throw-in, wheels that carried Derry into the final of the Ulster Seniors Championship this weekend.

Like this weekend’s senior decider, McErlain’s 2015 team – a team that included Conor Glass, Shane McGuigan, Shea Downey and Michael McEvoy among others – was an underdog, at least in the eyes of unsuspecting viewers. But this was THE defining game for McErlain, Collins and the new Derry structure that was slowly laying foundations across the country. Attendance had increased, facilities had improved in clubs where underage success was never scarce, and links with schools had expanded and strengthened.

It’s all great progress, but the acid test remains your district teams; Your showcase for the masses to assess (albeit superficially) the health of a county’s Gaelic Games. Derry had played the long game with Collins, but it was time to deliver, time to prove to all doubters that the hours, weeks, months and years of unannounced, unseen work being carried out across the country had a tangible end goal. An explanation was needed and 2015 delivered it.

Conor Glass was well known to all Derry GAA fans long before his seven points helped McErlain’s team to an 11-0, 09-09 stoppage-time lead on June 27 seven years ago. In an ideal world, Derry’s performance on the day would have been statement enough, but league football is a relentless arena, cruel to all but the winners, and well into the third minute three added ‘Project Derry’ threatened to have the rug pulled out underneath.

With everyone in the Red and White calling for full-time and Donegal ramping up the pressure, Antrim referee Sean Laverty spotted an infringement on the pitch and Bonner’s men had a penalty. A kick to change the trajectory of two teams. A kick to change a county’s trajectory.

Conor Doherty was the Donegal player who braved Callum Mullan-Young. Clones held their breath. His kick was well hit but rising, rising just enough to cross the bar and the Derry we now know was born.

It is often forgotten that this was a semi-final. Nothing has yet been won, such was the impact of that victory that the Ulster Final victory over Cavan is often overlooked. It really shouldn’t be any different than speaking to anyone within Derry GAA and they will reference this tag in Clones. Beneath the disappointment of the seniors’ loss was a recognition that the landscape in Oak Leaf County was changing, that the work of Chris Collins and countless coaches and administrators was taking root.

It was 2015 that started the streak of underage success that has nurtured resurgence to the senior level, but Collins and co. weren’t trying to create a quality small team, but a developmental system that could nurture future success. To that end, 2015 was the first block, the cornerstone if you will, but 2017 and 2020 built on that, with level after level slowly reaching senior level in recent seasons while Derry once again climbed the league tables.

But maybe it’s time for another sliding door moment, another leap instead of a step forward like the semifinals did seven years ago. Maybe it already happened with the wins over Tyrone and Monaghan, or maybe it was Monday September 2, 2019 when a certain R. Gallagher resumed his role in Oak history.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s Sunday May 29th, 2022 back in Clones. Who knows? But isn’t it great to dream big again? And it’s all thanks to a kick in the Clones sun.

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