Updated: June 9th, 2023
It’s June. It’s summer. For Derry minor footballers it’s been a season like no other.
Tomorrow in Carrick-on-Shannon, thirteen days after their epic Ulster final victory, Derry play their thirteenth competitive game of the year. Add in three challenge game encounters and the panel have been together sixteen times on a match day.
In years gone by that’s three to four seasons worth of game time. The split season has brought a paradigm shift to the intercounty minor experience.
It’s a format that Derry manager Damian McErlain has spoken in favour of in recent media interviews. Now in his fourth minor championship campaign, with his third Ulster title as manager secured, the Magherafelt club man is well placed to comment on the player development piece.
The training to games ratio has changed significantly meaning that the opportunities for players to learn their craft in the championship environment has increased.
It’s evident that the number of games have stood to this group. Even though not playing particularly well throughout large portions of the Ulster final the players found a way to win. Not everything in Gaelic football, as in life, goes as first planned. It is how we adapt and keep going that matters.
Speaking to his fellow club man and Gaelic Life journalist, Michael McMullan, following the Ulster final, Derry captain Fionn McEldowney remarked on their determination to remain calm and work through any on-field issues, particularly during the extra-time period when down to 14 players.
“You could see what we did with the man less…we did what the seniors did. We kept the ball, kept it moving, kept it out (of contact)…” said McEldowney of what turned out to be a remarkably similar set of circumstances to the Ulster senior final in Clones.
Success breeds success.
Fionn McEldowney is a dual Ulster colleges All-Star 2023 whose father Colin ‘Co’ McEldowney was joint captain of Slaughtneil when they won the Derry SFC for the first time in 2004. Colin McEldowney also won an Ulster U21 football medal with Derry in 1993 whilst Fionn’s uncles Francis and Fergal played with Derry seniors and on the successful Slaughtneil teams in recent years.
Minor football is a once in a lifetime experience. Senior players can play as a group for a decade or more. For minors it’s Mayfly-like. One summer, maybe two.
During these formative years the role of parents with any young sportsperson is vital. Without the steadfast and careful support of parents across Ireland the GAA would not be what it is today.
It perhaps partly explains the many generational family connections between previous Derry teams and the current minor team.
Corner forward Oisin Doherty is younger brother of current Derry seniors Conor and Mark Doherty.
Conall Higgins is a younger brother of 2023 U20 captain Dan Higgins, an All-Ireland winner two years ago. The boys’ grandfather is Colm Mulholland who played centre half back for Derry in 1958 All-Ireland SFC final. Charlie Mulholland is another grandson of the great Lavey man.
Odhran Campbell is a son of former Donegal senior footballer Paddy Campbell. Paddy is also a former Derry minor manager and was selector with Declan Bonner last year for Donegal seniors, as well as a former manager and stalwart with the Steelstown club in Derry City.
Dara McGuckin is a son of Adrian McGuckin jnr, an Ulster minor winner in 1995 and captain of Ballinderry Shamrocks when they won the All-Ireland club title in 2002. Dara’s grandfather is Adrian Snr former Derry player and assistant manager with Eamon Coleman. Adrian snr won an All-Ireland minor medal with Derry in 1965 and is famed for trailblazing schools success with St Patrick’s, Maghera spanning three decades. An amazing lineage.
Cahal McKaigue’s father Padraig played goalkeeper for Derry minors in 93 and 94. Padraig is a first cousin of Chrissy McKaigue.
Johnny McGuckian is a younger brother of current Derry senior panellist and Watty Graham’s Glen player Conleth McGuckian whilst Tommy Rogers is a cousin of current Derry senior Brendan Rogers.
Ger Dillon is a son of former Derry senior coach Barry Dillon (Ulster SFC final 2011) who played on the Derry minor team of 1992.
It’s a recurring theme.
Two summers ago a remarkable piece of Derry football history was made. Charlie Diamond, a forward on the winning Derry team, emulated his father Karl (1989) and grandfather Tommy (captain, 1965) in winning the All-Ireland minor title.
In an article in 2014 celebrating 25 years since the victory of 1989, Karl Diamond spoke fondly and vividly of his teenage experience. Trips to Portstewart Strand, chicken and chips at The Imperial Hotel in Garvagh and John Mulholland’s Lada sweating its way over the Glenshane were joyous young memories.
In a quote that didn’t make the final article Karl Diamond crystallised what makes the minor age grade special.
“People talk about who will play senior. To me that’s not relevant. Some will and that is great. But for many these days are the pinnacle of their sporting lives in a Derry jersey. That should be celebrated in itself.”
Since Tommy Diamond lifted the Tom Markham Cup in 1965 the county has claimed sixteen Ulster minor titles, with four coming in the last nine years from seven final appearances. That’s seven times Derry minors have reached the last eight and beyond of the All-Ireland competition. These are good times by anyone’s definition. Statistically they are the best in the county’s history. In the only comparable period of minor success, Derry qualified for seven Ulster finals in the eleven year period from 1980-1990.
There are hundreds of stories and memories therein, but today we look forward, salute and celebrate the class of 2023 and the memories they have already banked.
The tradition continues.
Derry (vs Galway), Carrick-on-Shannon, Sat 10 June, 3.30pm
1. Jack McCloy
2. Fionn McEldowney
3. Finbar Murray
4. Luke Grant
5. Cahir Spiers
6. Cahal McKaigue
7. Odhran Campbell
8. James Sargent
9. Tommy Rogers
10. Eamon Young
11. Ger Dillon
12. Johnny McGuckian
13. Rory Small
14. Conall Higgins
15. Oisín Doherty
16. Karl Campbell
17. John Boyle
18. Darach McGonigle
19. Dara McGuckin
20. Dylan Rocks
21. Deaglán McNamee
22. Kevin B Mullan
23. Lee O’Neill
24. Gabhan McIvor
25. Caolan Higgins
26. Patrick Birt
27. Rory McGonigle
28. Charlie Mulholland
29. Caomhin McNally
30. Faolan McNicholl
31. Fintan McIvor
32. Finbar McShane
33. Zack Gavigan
34. Jude Mulholland