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Journeying to the top

Chris Brown looks back on seven seasons as minor boss

Journeying to the top

Derry manager Chris Brown is carried shoulder high after the 2002 All-Ireland minor final (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)

In seven years, across two different stints, Chris Brown led a Derry minor management team that delivered three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland. There were two other titles that escaped their clutches and he tells Michael McMullan of the memories along the way.

Ciaran 'Banty' Mullan starred on Derry's All-Ireland minor winning team of 2002, but a statement off the pitch left a lasting imprint on Chris Brown.

“He wanted to know why the journey had to end,” Brown recalls, as they bumped into each other at Bellaghy's 2018 league win in Claudy.

“I thought that summed it up as well as anyone could. For him, it wasn't about medals...it was about the journey,” Brown proudly states.

During almost three hours of chat, the memories across his seven years as minor manager were consistent and bounced between two themes - camaraderie and leaving no stone unturned. Armed with talent and a management that dovetailed to perfection, everything else followed the natural course.

Brown first took charge in 1995 for two seasons, before coming back in 2000 for a second term. Charlie O'Kane and Paddy Crozier were his trusted wingmen throughout. There weren't many players in the county they didn't know and Crozier's list of contacts knew no bounds.

Ballerin man Mickey Bradley, the county's Youth Officer, came on board at the start. Bernie Henry and the late Aidan O'Brien later joined.


Paddy Crozier, Bernie Henry, Charlie O'Kane, Aidan O'Brien RIP watch on as Chris Brown addresses guests at Derry's All-Ireland banquet in the Burlington Hotel in 2002

In four of the years, Derry were beaten by the eventual All-Ireland champions. They lost the 1995 final to Westmeath. A late Johnny McLoone free drew the Ulster final the following year, before Donegal prevailed in the replay by the narrowest of margins.

The bitterest pill was the Kieran Murphy affair in 2000. The Cork midfielder, despite being booked twice, stayed on the pitch and won three kick-outs in the crucial finale of the Rebels' one-point All-Ireland semi-final win.

Brown began each season with a tedious trial process. Every player was 'definitely' offered their chance to shine. There was an acknowledgement of lads pulling themselves out of bed at an ungodly hour, wanting to wear the Oakleaf jersey.

“We spent November, December and into January with trials,” Brown recalls.

Players who made it as far as the arduous circuit training sessions in Clady school hall had made the final panel.

“From talking to Bernie Henry, he always goes back to the camaraderie around Clady school...he never forgets that,” said Brown.

There was also ice skating at the Jet Centre in Coleraine and swimming at Derry's Templemore complex, to help marry players from different schools and clubs.

Tempers frayed from the row after the 1996 MacRory final between St Patrick's Maghera and St Mary's Magherafelt. Laughing at each other's ice skating skills – or the lack of them – was part of the perfect cocktail.

Also, Paul McFlynn and Stephen McGeehan addressed their respective schoolmates. The bridge needed mended.

Brown's management style 'wasn't draconian' and there was always plenty of banter along the way.

The management would promise the team a weekend away in a swanky hotel in a leafy estate, tied into challenge games with Dublin or Laois. They attended the NFL final and Paddy Crozier would've had a Saturday Croke Park tour arranged.

“We always told them they were going on a magical mystery tour and they didn't need to know where they were going,” Brown offers.

He can still picture Johnny McBride and Enda Muldoon's expressions when the squad were met at the door by a nun at Dalgan Park where they were staying.

“It was a nunnery with wee hard beds,” Brown laughs.

“The boys had fun,” he said of all the teams he was involved in. “I would say...and stand by it, they never regretted going to training.”

It was about combining a sense of belonging and a will to win in the panel. Everyone bought in.

“Johnny McBride was a great captain,” Brown points out. “He was as fine an underage player as I saw in Derry.”

After a challenge game in Carryduff one evening with the 2002 team, the kitchen had stopped serving at the nearby Ivanhoe Inn and Gerard O'Kane remembers the squad dining at a nearby McDonald's on the county board tab.

That was the craic along the journey Ciaran Mullan spoke about. The management were the same, They lived in each others' pockets. Sponsor Carhill Cars provided a people carrier for a scouting mission to the Munster final that year and away they went to run their collective eyes over Kerry and Tipperary.

“We left no stone unturned,” Charlie O'Kane told Brown.

In 1995, their trip to watch Galway in Connacht flagged up a serious battle in the All-Ireland semi-final. The Tribesmen had Michael Donnellan, John Divilly, Padraic Joyce and Derek Savage in their ranks.

Trailing by a point with five minutes to go, McBride launched a high ball towards the fringes of Hill16.

“Muldoon got it among a group of players to score the winning goal,” Brown remembers.

“They came with a storm in the last five minutes.  We did an awful lot of work on defending and it wasn't putting everyone behind the ball like it is now,” said Brown of their approach, which also included long kicking in training.

Beating Galway was a big deal and despite all bases being covered in team meetings, it was hard to guard against complacency ahead of their final date with Westmeath, but there was no fairytale ending for Derry.

“They had a class team,” Brown said of Luke Dempsey's side. But his thoughts were still tinged by Muldoon's disallowed 'perfectly good' goal.

Again, Brown remembers the off the field development. Letting the lads off in Cookstown's Greenvale Hotel on the way back from games. Players from different corners of the county stayed in each other's houses. Building friendships for life.


Westmeath celebrate after beating Derry in the 1995 All-Ireland minor final (Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile)

They were a kick of the ball away from retaining their Ulster title the following year. His vivid memory of the final replay defeat to Donegal was the late Adrian 'Eggy' Heaney.

“He ran until he could run no more,” said Brown, recalling going out onto the pitch as the Castledawson man received medical treatment.

“He was targetted and sore all over. I remember him saying 'Chris, I can play no more'...he had played himself to a standstill.”

Like midfielder Conor McCusker on that same team, Eggy was taken too soon.

“Like a lot of other players, Conor didn't know when he was defeated,” Brown added.

***

Brown describes Derry's 2000 crop as 'probably' Derry's lost generation of footballers. After the grit they oozed on their way to winning Ulster, they deserved more than the unfair hand they were dealt later in the summer.

They were led by Glen's Sean McKenna, who Brown describes as his on-field general.

“I can still see Jim Kelly's pass over the top to Ciaran O'Neill for a goal chance (against Cork), he had an unbelievable left foot” Brown added. “The like of it, I have never seen in my life and I have watched a lot of football.”

Senior teams get years to build. Minors are different. You get one shot. It's about getting over the first round and from there, anything can happen. That year, Derry trailed Cavan in Breffni Park when Gavin Donaghy launched a high ball into the goalmouth where his brother Marty flicked home the winning goal.

“You can count statistics and 101 things...that's luck,” Brown admits.

They faced All-Ireland champions Down in the next round. Kevin McCann's goal put Derry in control, but Down were far from finished. When Benny Coulter was moved to full-forward, McCann was moved back to full-back.

“He made a block to win us the game,” Brown recalls of their one-point win.

In the final against Tyrone, Cormac O'Neill's goal made the difference.

“He soloed it all the way down the field and inter-passing and hit a daisy-cutter to the net...I can still see it yet,” said Brown.

“It (running the ball) wasn't the game we were trying to play, but it was drifting away from us and he took the bull by the horns.”

By the time they faced Cork in the All-Ireland series, Brown and Aidan O'Brien had made the eight-hour round trip to Limerick to see Conrad Murphy run the show in the Rebels' semi-final win over Clare in Munster.

“He was as near old James McCartan as I ever saw," Brown said of Murphy.

At the time, Antrim senior player Kevin Brady was involved in a coaching role with Derry county board. Brown saw him as a similar player to Murphy and was lined up against Chris Collins in their in-house training games. Their research and planning worked a treat. Murphy was called ashore after 26 minutes, after Collins didn't give him a kick.

Ten minutes into the game, Gavin Donaghy – who had already notched 0-2 – was 'taken out' with a bang to the eye that, on Dr Ben Glancy's advice, ended his afternoon.

The game was hanging in the balance, with Cork 0-13 to 0-12 ahead when Kieran Murphy was shown his 'second' yellow card for a hand trip on Jim Kelly.

“He was through for an easy point or, knowing Jim, he could've buried it,” states Brown.

Within a minute Derry were level, but Murphy won three kick-outs in the remainder of the game. It was enough to put Cork, inspired by six points from captain James Masters, through to the September showpiece.


Kieran Murphy is shown one of two yellow cards by Gerry Kinneavy in the 2000 All-Ireland minor semi-final (Pic: Aoife Rice/Sportsfile)

After the game, the Cork camp declined all media interviews and the Derry camp were livid. An appeal was drafted, but failed.

“That irked me, even though I tried to play it down,” Brown says of the entire scenario. “That should never have happened.”

Derry fan Eugene McIvor left his seat in the stand to inform the management of the second yellow. Paddy Crozier

had also put the case to the linesman. At the time, Brown wasn't totally sure Murphy picked up the first booking.

“If I was 100 percent sure, in my own mind, I would've taken the team off the field until they took their man off the field,” he said.

It would take two years, but Brown would take Derry to the top of the tree.

***

There was no stopping the Oakleafers in 2002. They needed six unanswered points to see off the Red Hands in the Ulster final. But, Brown points to their semi-final win over Cavan as the crucial encounter.

“It was our Armageddon,” Brown states. “They were as good a team as us...they were unlucky.”

The Derry boss feels that had Breffni midfielder Paddy Brady not been forced off with an injury, it would've been a different outcome.

“We wouldn't have been in an All-Ireland final. He was a big strong player, he got injured. It (Brady's absence) gave us a leg up in that match.”

Derry also needed all their defensive resolve to fend off a Cavan attack that had Seanie Johnston and Mark McKeever at its core.

Brown refers to another slice of luck, when McKeever pulled on a goal chance. His shot rolled across the Brewster Park sod before going 'inches' wide of Eoin McNicholl's left-hand post.

“Our lights would've been out,” Chris admits. “It was in the first half, but in a tight game, a goal is a big score.”

Derry went into a 0-14 to 0-8 lead before Cavan stormed back in the closing stages to kick the last two scores.

Brown speaks of the 'outstanding' Paul Young.

“Cavan had three 45s in the closing stages, that tells it all...we couldn't get out of our half. Barry McGoldrick came back to carry the ball out” said Brown.

After the Ulster final, there was a feeling that Tyrone could navigate the 'back door' and face Derry further down the line. A Galway team that included star forwards Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong was also on the radar.

On the day, Derry accounted for Tipperary in the Quarter-Final, Brown sent the management's silent partner Mark McVey - who worked in the background on analysis - on a scouting mission to Hyde Park to study the Tribesmen. Meath ended up prevailing by a point and McVey came back with his findings on the Royals.

It was a trip well spent. Another part of the puzzle was in place. The squad also made two journeys to Carryduff for challenge games on a pitch that's dimensions were close to Croke Park.

One of the games was a win over a Rostrevor team who had made the Down SFC semi-finals. It reinforced the management's belief that they had a special team at their disposal.

“And the lads knew it too themselves,” Brown added.

He was full of praise for the efficient work behind the scenes of Danny Scullion. Along with Patsy Mulholland and Aidan O'Brien, he made sure everything was dealt with.

“Gerard O'Kane was the Chairman and he was at our beckoned call,” Brown adds. “He attended a lot of our meetings and nothing was going to be too much trouble to him.”

Physios Sean Moran, Anne Boylan and Moira Jane Devlin (nee McEldowney) made sure the players were in perfect shape.

The late Patsy Monaghan would arrange for the squad to train at Magherafelt for the session before a championship game and the Lennon family made sure the squad were fed on the morning of a match.

On the eve of the All-Ireland final, the squad got offside from the hullabaloo of the Burlington Hotel to Shelbourne for a night of dog racing.

“That's all they talked about, what dogs were winning...it was the perfect distraction,” Brown outlines. “We could've been playing Ahoghill the next day for all they knew.”

The next morning, Fr Frank Diamond celebrated mass in the hotel. In keeping with how the management treated the players, he brought the sermon down to their level. Everything was jovial and relevant.


The Derry players celebrate after winning the 2002 minor All-Ireland (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)

That afternoon, all 31 players togged out – seven more than permitted. One of the team's sponsors would pay the fine, if indeed there was one. This was about the players. This was about Derry.

After the near misses of 1995 and 2000, the Tom Markham Cup was coming back to Derry. As he made his way into the VIP area after the game, Brown bumped into Noel O'Leary, who played in Cork's win two years earlier.

“He was there with his mother,” Brown remembers. “They were so happy for us. That's GAA people for you, they always appreciate and praise your effort.”

Tyrone man Dermot McCaughey somehow made his way in the bowels to Croke Park to congratulate Brown and his squad.

A week later Brown received a call from Ulster Railway Cup manager Brian McEniff, enquiring about captain Gerard O'Kane with the view to selecting him.

Nine of the panel returned for 2003, including seven starters. But, minor football is about getting over the first hurdle. Tyrone's Damien 'Daisy' McDermott kicked an equaliser in the minor game.

Tragedy struck when Patricia Bateson, sister of James, died in a car crash on the eve of the replay. Only for the Tyrone board and minor manager Martin Coyle's intervention, the game would've have taken place that afternoon. Something for which Brown is eternally grateful.

Derry had a stonewall penalty waved away in the first half of the midweek replay, but still looked like they did enough until McDermott drilled a close-range free to the net and that was the end of the line.

Mark Lynch was captain for the last two for his three minor seasons with Derry.

“I think it says it all, he played centre back as 16 year-old,” Brown points out. “I can never forget the contribution Mark Lynch made to Derry football and our minors, he was a fantastic player – I would put him up with one of the best.”

Brown and his management team would stay for one last throw of the dice in 2004, but lost in the first round to eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone at the first hurdle. A traffic jam on the way home forced the Derry bus to take an alternative route home from Clones.

“Paddy Crozier got Mickey McGurk to stop the bus at Eglish graveyard,” recalls Brown.

“There wasn't a sound on the bus because they knew they didn't play well, everyone went and stood at Cormac McAnallen's grave and it brought reality back to them.”

That afternoon was like Ciaran Mullan's words 14 years later. Playing minor football was about the journey. Win the first game and the summer could open up. That was the excitement.

Chris Brown and his management gave seven different groups of players the chance to grow.

ALSO READ - Gerard O'Kane looks back on his memories of captaining Derry to the 2002 minor All-Ireland CLICK HERE...

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