Gerard O'Kane carrys the Tom Markham Cup around Croke Park as Derry celebrate their 2002 All-Ireland minor final win over Meath (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)
Derry's last All-Ireland minor success came back in 2002 with Gerard O'Kane as captain. The Glenullin man looked back on the special year. Michael McMullan writes...
It's the Friday before the 2002 All-Ireland minor final and Gerard O'Kane waits impatiently for the final bell in St Patrick's College Maghera. Like a child on Christmas Eve.
As the clock drags its way towards four o'clock, various teachers drop by to wish him luck on the Everest of Sundays in Ireland's sporting calendar. A genuine warmth, willing him to bring back the silverware.
Exactly 12 months earlier, O'Kane was a spectator in Croke Park as the Tyrone minor team that handed Derry a 3-14 to 0-9 hammering earlier in the summer were held by Dublin. The Red Hands won the replay by 11 points, a side that produced eight All-Ireland senior winners, including Sean Cavanagh, Joe McMahon and Martin Penrose, who O'Kane marked.
When the next season swung into action, Tyrone ran Derry to a point in the Ulster Final. It was the closest anyone came, as Derry's unstoppable force romped to the All-Ireland with an average winning margin of 11 points across their six-game odyssey.
It was the first year of the back door and it included a 22-point mauling of Munster finalists Tipperary in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final.
O'Kane remembers a message from Dermot McNicholl, his club mate and fellow All-Ireland winning captain.
“He called to the house around that time and was just saying we had to beat what was in front of us,” O'Kane states.
One of the final knocks on O'Kane's classroom door on that everlasting Friday afternoon was from McNicholl. Standing outside in the corridor, the message was two-fold.
First, came the wish of good luck. It was followed by a word of advice. In 1983, McNicholl was left all alone in the Hogan Stand presentation area while the rest of the squad danced a jig of delight on Croke Park's hallowed turf.
“If you are lucky enough to win,” was the theme of McNicholl's warning. “There will be a guy come on the pitch and his job is to get the winning captain for the presentation of the cup....don't go to him.”
The man was head Croke Park steward John Leonard and as result, McNicholl missed the 'two minutes' of joy with his team mates.
“I was conscious of that,” O'Kane now knew. “The fella would've been just looking for the Derry number three.”
Thankfully for O'Kane and Derry, the prophecy came to pass. He got offside long enough to embrace manager Chris Brown and his father Gerard – then the County Chairman – before bouncing around Croke Park with the squad. The bliss of success.
“There is usually a rush to get the minor teams off the field,” O'Kane says. “But it didn't seem to be like that for us. We had half an hour after the final whistle. We had that time to spend with ourselves and do a lap of honour.”
They soaked up every lasting memory of an afternoon that saw Armagh wrestle their way past Kerry in an epic encounter to win their first senior title. The following afternoon, the teams' victory cavalcades would coincide at the Carrickdale, among thongs of fans and the sirens of the Garda escort, as both cups passed into the six counties, in the same year, for the first time.
“Both teams were in big Chambers' buses and when we arrived the Armagh people thought we were the Armagh team,” O'Kane recalls.
Both Kieran McGeeney and O'Kane, with the respective cups, flanked by owner hotel John McParland, a huge GAA man, they exited through a fire escape and onto a flat roof above the fans outside. A moment to remember.
“There were literally thousands upon thousands of people,” O'Kane adds.
It was a moment worth waiting for.
The unique aspect of that minor team was the spread of clubs. O'Kane and goalkeeper Eoin McNicholl hailed from Glenullin, but the rest were from across the county.
“The 14 outfield players were from different clubs, so we had a better balance,” said O'Kane.
Paul Young was the only survivor from the 2000 Ulster winning team. O'Kane was one of a handful on the 2001 squad. The rest were assembled by Chris Brown and his management team of Paddy Crozier, Charlie O'Kane, Bernie Henry and the late Aidan O'Brien.
In February, St Patrick's Maghera exited the MacRory Cup and 11 players were called up for county duty, as Derry began their assault on Ulster. Mickey Drumm, as O'Kane recalls, was very unlucky, having dislocated his shoulder and missed out.
It was never said, but the group knew they had the tools to give Ulster a shake. The management kept their powder dry and the squad grounded.
After a convincing 1-15 to 0-4 win over Antrim in Casement Park, thanks to 0-9 from Barry McGoldrick and a Ciaran Mullan goal, they were up against Cavan who were hotly tipped after a seven-point victory over Down.
Ciaran Mullan in action against Joe Ball of Tyrone in the Ulster final (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
“Cavan had a strong team, with Seanie Johnson, Mark McKeever, Anthony Gaynor, Paddy Brady and Sean Brady,” rolled the litany of names effortlessly off O'Kane's tongue.
It was the first season of the back door. Getting to a provincial final offered a safety net, guaranteeing a passage into the All-Ireland series.
“I remember Paddy and Chris saying to me, if we got over this game we wouldn't be far away from the All-Ireland.
“Cavan was a tough one, even though we only beat Tyrone by a point in the final,” Gerard offers.
It was a standalone tie on a Saturday evening in Enniskillen, due to GAA's accommodation of the Leaving Cert examinations. In a tight encounter, Derry pulled away and ran out four-point winners, 0-14 to 0-10. It was their passport to the summer.
Waiting in the final was a Tyrone team Derry had beaten in a challenge match in the lull before their Cavan showdown.
“They knew us inside out,” O'Kane states. It was a game Derry looked like leaving behind them, with Tyrone five points ahead entering the final 10 minutes.
“We looked dead and buried, we didn't play well, but something just clicked. We clawed back one or two points,” said O'Kane.
Aaron Cassidy came of the bench to kick a beauty, one of the six unanswered points as Derry clawed to victory, 0-12 to 0-11. There was another moment, the key one. Seated in the dugout, beside Gerard senior, was Derry selector, the Aidan O'Brien.
“One of the points came after a turnover by Paul Young. He made a block on their full-back on his way out and won a free,” states Gerard junior.
“It wouldn't have been Paul's style and Aidan turned to Daddy and said 'we were going to win it'... that was the turning point. We were probably the better team, but didn't show it in the first 50 minutes.”
By the time the giddy Derry squad filed out of the minor dressing rooms in Clones, the senior decider was under way and Armagh had the ball in the back of the net after an early error by Donegal goalkeeper Tony Blake.
The Derry players took up their seats and watched Joe Kernan's Armagh team of gladiators pick up the Anglo Celt Cup, a group that became the main billing ahead of Derry in Croker later in the summer.
Before celebrating with the team, later that night in Maghera's Walsh's Hotel, it was back home to Glenullin for O'Kane.
“My father was heavily involved and our house was a ceili house anyway,” Gerard states. “I can remember Danny McNicholl was there...and a few others waiting on me and the cup was there.”
For now, it was time to swap the tracksuit for the disco clothes and meet with the squad in Maghera.
On the way home from Walsh's Hotel, in the wee small hours, there was a stop off in Slaughtneil to finish off the celebrations.
“I'd say, and I'm not exaggerating, 15 of us stayed in Patsy Bradley's house that night,” he laughs.
“They have a third or fourth floor and his mother had blankets for us. I remember Mickey (Patsy's father) and three or four 'aul hands' sitting around the kitchen table.”
Derry's battles for supremacy were over, but they only just getting into their stride. It was time for their All-Ireland victory procession.
Tipperary were the first victims of that Derry machine in a 5-13 to 1-3 hammering in Navan, with Paul Young hitting 2-1.
Longford beat Meath in the Leinster Final, with 2-2 from dangerman Michael Hussey who was the championship top scorer that year, with a tally of 7-32. He got no change from Michael McGoldrick in defence, as Derry ran out winners by another big margin, 3-13 to 1-3.
“It left us feeling a bit undercooked going into the final, but minor football is a bit like that where you can build up big scores on a team,” said O'Kane
“We were still quietly confident that if Longford could beat Meath and we beat Longford by the margin we did, we would give Meath a game.”
Eoin McNicholl celebrates the semi-final win over Longford (Pic: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile)
The Royals were a more imposing team. None more so than at full forward, where O'Kane was tasked with marking man mountain Joe Sheridan.
“I was 5'11” and lucky if I was ten stone and he was built like a man. They'd a couple of boys at midfield who were the same and a strong half back line,” O'Kane adds.
“Maybe the wide open spaces suited us, we were full of footballers and had a lot of speed on our team.”
Time and time again, O'Kane would play in front and cut off the supply. It wasn't a tactic of the management. It was O'Kane's natural game and he had the experience of playing there for Glenullin seniors who reached the last four of the championship that season. Earlier in the year he played at centre back in the MacRory Cup, in front of full-back Mark Lynch.
When Conleth Moran came back to fitness after the Ulster championship, he forced his way back into the attack for the All-Ireland campaign. The unlucky man to lose out was Glenullin man Neal Mullan.
“I think they (the selectors) were toying with the idea of putting Mark to full-back, but I was playing well there, so they let it be and put Mark at six.”
Ciaran McCallion moved from centre back to the wing and Derry's formula was complete.
As with any final, comes the sideshow of free gloves and boots, getting measured up for suits and the arrangements for the banquet.
In the background, Paddy Crozier's eye for detail picked up a distraction seeping into the squad. On the Monday before the final, he called the captain to one side. It was time for a quiet word, one that would have a greater impact if it didn't come from the management. Another small detail in their quest for glory.
“In some ways it was a bit manufactured,” O'Kane admits. The squad headed to a corner of Owenbeg.
“We went and did our own stretching. We said we could buy all the tracksuits and suits, but you can't buy a medal. Is it about a night out in Dublin, or going down to win an All-Ireland? It meant more coming from us than the management.”
All the pieces were in place as the squad departed for their Burlington Hotel base on Saturday afternoon. It was packed with people and a strange change from their semi-final base out in Portmarnock. Any background noise didn't filter into a group on a mission.
A goal from Ruairi Convery put Derry into a position of strength and with Sheridan starved of possession, Meath moved him outfield to get him into the game.
It was a mark of Derry's defence and in particular their full-back line of O'Kane, Michael McGoldrick and Joe Keenan, who didn't concede a score from play on their way to the final.
“I sort of let the side down,” Gerard jokes about the final. “I conceded a point of Brian Farrell, who was moved across to me when they took Sheridan out.”
By that stage, Derry had one hand and four fingers of the other on the Tom Markham Cup. Title number four was in the bag.
“I remember standing with my back to the Hill in the second half and I could hear people I knew shouting behind me,” said O'Kane.
“We were comfortable in the last five or ten minutes, you were able to take in the atmosphere rather than being in the zone all the time.”
Referee Michael Ryan's final whistle made it official. Derry were champions and Gerard remembered to escape the clutches of John Leonard. It was celebration time.
The Derry players celebrate victory over Meath in the All-Ireland Final (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
Back at the Burlington, the staff had a guard of honour in place and upstairs, their suits were all laid out for the banquet.
After leaving the Carrickdale on the Monday evening, the squad were ferried up a packed Maghera street on an open top bus. A tradition that began with the 1965 minors. At Glen club, Gerard senior took the microphone to introduce the entire panel and management. A homecoming befitting of All-Ireland champions.
The following night, the cup was taken back to Derry City, before returning to Glenullin, the first club to host the squad. It was the start of a whistle-stop tour of every club in the county.
“We did every club in the county for the next four or five nights,” Gerard adds. “We'd get on the bus in Dungiven around half four or five o'clock and wouldn't be back 'til around 12. Looking back on it now, it was a bit mad with boys having to go back to school.”
It was striking while the iron was hot and inspiring the next generation of players.
The Derry squad joined Armagh for a civic reception at Stormont. John Dallat took the young Oakleafers on a tour of the building.
“I remember meeting Mark Durkan at the banquet in Dublin, and these were boys you saw on TV,” O'Kane adds.
“The week before the final, Mrs (Teresa) O'Hagan handed me a letter in class, addressed to me at the school from Martin McGuinness who was the Minister for Education at the time.
“I have pulled out that letter and have got it framed during lockdown, as well as the photos and all the jersies. I'm thinking how lucky I was. I have great experiences out of it and made great friends out of it...you instantly click with them straight away.”
A team that swatted all in its path to an All-Ireland title.
ALSO READ - Gerard O'Kane's take on progression to senior level CLICK HERE...
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