16 May 2022

Sideline View: Finding that way to win - looking back at Derry's championship record

Derry have been unlucky with the draw in Ulster over the last two decades

Sideline View: Finding a way to win - looking  back at Derry's championship record

Derry's 2006 win over Tyrone was a rare championship scalp in the last two decades. (Pic: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile)

Every so often a championship clash will throw up a classic, one that will have everybody talking. End to end swashbuckling football that turns the stomach inside out.

Slaughtneil's shoot-out with Kilcar in Omagh a few seasons back. Derry's win over Dublin in the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final. Armagh and Kerry's blockbuster in the 2002 All-Ireland Final are some that instantly come into the mind.

But championship is about so much more. It is about character and pulling a result from somewhere, like a rabbit from a hat. I think about Dungiven's Ulster winning team of 1997. Their performance against Errigal Ciaran that day in Clones was brilliant. It was a convincing win, but they nearly didn't get out of the first round of the championship in Derry that year.

In two nerve-tangling encounters at Drumsurn, they escaped from Glenullin's clutches on the seat of their pants. Ruairi Boylan's 2-6 nearly toppled them in the drawn game, before coming through by a point in a replay, their lowest winning margin of the season, second only to a two-point Ulster semi-final over St Paul's of Belfast.

There are many others down the years, but when I think about the term 'championship team' those two games in Drumsurn rush to the forefront of my mind. A team finding a way to win, Glenullin dying with their boots on.

Chatting to Mark Lynch for a piece on Derry's encounters with Longford got me thinking. Are Derry really a 'qualifier team'?

More often than not, it was a sorry story from the house of pain. Before the qualifiers began in 2001, Derry were on the wrong end of two massive refereeing decisions.

Henry Downey's perfectly time shoulder charge on Paddy McKeever yielded a free in as their Ulster semi-final with Armagh sat in the mixer, with the Orchard County going on to win the first of two Ulster titles. Then, 12 months later, they got another soft free – with BBC commentator and former Armagh legend Jimmy Smyth admitting as much on commentary – to go ahead before Anthony missed a chance to level the game from a free well outside the 45.

Sifting through the championship records, I start to wonder how the mental scars could've affected the county as a whole.

Derry's runs to the All-Ireland Qualifiers yielded the 2001 tilt at Sam, only for running out of diesel coming down the final furlong of the infamous semi-final and Galway's Matthew Clancy delivering a hammer blow.

As the years went past, the challenge dwindled. The 2004 season ended in a comprehensive enough defeat to Kerry in the semi-final. There was the high-octane battle against the Dubs in the 2007 Quarter-Final and the defeat to Tipperary in the last-12 clash in Breffni in 2016.

Outside of that, Derry's championship record of the last 20 years is a reality check. Of the 75 championship games, there were 36 wins, 38 defeats and a sole draw, against Tyrone in 2003, Mickey Harte's first game in charge.

Derry have played 40 qualifier games, winning 24. Of the 16 defeats, three were after extra time and the only extra time win was over Cavan in 2004 at Celtic Park.

Of the 24 victories, only the 2007 win over Mayo and a one-point win over Armagh the same year jump out as scalps. The win over Monaghan in Clones two years later was of note. The rest, on paper, were games Derry were favourites in, including three wins from four against Cavan – the only county Derry haven't faced over the last two decades in the Ulster championship.

Then you have the Longford story with one win in four games. Add in two wins from four against Laois, another team Derry would fancy beating.

In Ulster, Derry have won just 10 times in 30 games, with that one draw thrown in. On the face of it, the result looks grim, but scratch the surface and 16 of those games were against either Donegal or Tyrone. Of that, 10 were in the first round.

The 2008 win, under the baking sun in Ballybofey, was Derry's only win over Donegal in eight attempts. Of the eight clashes with Tyrone, the famous 2006 win in Omagh, when the Red Hands were All-Ireland champions, is the only victory.

In fairness, that's a tough series of draws. Five of the defeats to Donegal came in an era when they were jostling in the pecking order behind Dublin. The same can be said for Tyrone.

But Glenullin would've been fair from Ulster club contenders in 1997, yet could've dumped Dungiven out on their ear. A team with the McKeevers, Brolly, McGilligan, goalkeeper Eoin McCloskey and rising star Paul Murphy.

As Derry go into this year's Ulster championship, they search for a first win in the competition since 2015 and there is a decent chance it will be Donegal again.

From looking back at the championship records, it changes the attitude on where Derry currently sit. Yes, there is a lot of talent coming along, but there is nothing that breeds growth like winning games. And especially when against the odds.

I think back to Castlebar in 2017. After being relegated from Division 3 and shipping a hammering by Tyrone in Ulster, Derry were seconds away from turning Mayo over. Conor Loftus bagged a goal to change the game and Derry went out with a whimper after extra-time.

Two years later, in the Ulster championship opener in Omagh, Derry had Tyrone momentarily on the ropes. But after Shane McGuigan's goal, they needed to attack the jugular even more. Darren McCurry had the ball in the net a matter of seconds later, as Tyrone outscored Derry 1-5 to 0-1.

Then there was last year's game with Armagh. If Derry had got anything out of the first ten minutes, when they were all at sea, they'd have had a brilliant chance of victory. That's three games and three massive uses of the word 'if', but that's where Derry's future lies.

Speaking before the start of this season, manager Rory Gallagher highlighted how Derry, in recent years, failed to win games that mattered. He mentioned championship and key relegation or promotion games.

The manner of both league wins so far point to a team that can have a real cut at the Ulster championship on the other side of battling for promotion.

Derry need to replicate Dungiven from that night in Drumsurn, in the 1997 championship. By hook or by crook, find a way of turning performances into results.

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Derry GAA

Conor Doherty of Derry, celebrates his side's third goal, scored by Benny Heron, during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Derry and Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds.

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