Mark Lynch in action during Derry's 2014 to Longford at Celtic Park. (Pic: Mary K Burke)
For 14 seasons, Mark Lynch spent the winter getting revved up for the National League. He was brought into the panel, in his final minor year, by Mickey Moran, during the 2004 run to the All-Ireland Semi-Final.
The following season was his first full year. In a range of roles, he was a mainstay until the end of 2018, Damian McErlain's first season in charge.
It's now his third year outside the inter-county bubble. Based in London during the week, he is overseeing work at the library of King's College, bang in the middle of the city.
Further down the Thames, hugging the river bank, the construction of the new Riverside Stand at Fulham's Craven Cottage also has his stamp on it. A decent kick in the wrong direction and the ball would've ended up in the water. Now, after reclaiming 13 metres from the river, the new stand is approaching completion.
After missing last season due to illness, he is on the road to recovery now. The preparations begin for Banagher's season. A glance at the championship dates gives him something to work back from. Peaking for September is now on the radar. Does he miss the county scene?
“I do, I'll not tell you a lie,” Lynch admits. Not one for training for the sake of being there, he misses the 'hell for leather' nature of the county scene. It's hard to let go.
“You miss playing at that standard, playing with the likes of Chrissy McKaigue and boys like that, the standards they live by every day,” Lynch explains.
“I don't like going to a session just to be there. You want a session to mean something and to improve you in some way.”
If everything slots into place and they stay clear of injuries, he expects Rory Gallagher's side to step out of Division 3 this year.
“I have a wee favouring for them,” he states. Longford is their first hurdle.
As a 16-year-old, Lynch cut through the centre of Croke Park in the summer of 2002, at the heart of Derry minors' all conquering side. They swatted Longford aside by 16 points in the All-Ireland Semi-Final.
It was the same year Derry seniors beat Longford at Pearse Park by 10 points in the second year of the All-Ireland Qualifiers. Of the seven meetings between the counties since, Derry dished out two hammerings to the Midlanders in the league.
One came at the heel of last year, the other was in 2013 at Celtic Park on a night Mark Lynch sustained a broken hand. As for the rest, in the championship, Derry failed miserably.
He can't put his finger exactly on why Longford became their bogey team. While not essentially fearing them as a team, the defeats kept stacking up.
There are a few elements he touches on. Complacency being one. The Pearse Park cauldron and tight pitch was another.
Add in Derry's typical post Ulster championship exit scene. Down a few players dropping off the radar and back to their clubs, without returning to the county fold, Derry would throw off the shackles in a gung-ho, give it a lash, approach to games.
“You want to hear Barry McGoldrick talk about the shoot-outs,” Lynch offers. As a student at St Mary's Belfast, McGoldrick would hear players from other counties talk of Derry and, laughing almost, at the Oakleafers' openness. They loved playing against Derry.
“When you end up in a shoot-out and it is literally anyone's game, if they were on fire that day,” Lynch agrees. Some they won, but more often they were shoved through the championship exit door.
His first taste came in 2006. After losing to Donegal in Ulster, Paddy Crozier moved Lynch from wing forward to centre back for their win over Kildare, setting them up for a tilt at Longford. The research dictated that Paul Barden was their key man and Lynch was assigned to him.
“I knew I had to be pulling away at Barden to stop him,” Lynch remembers of Derry's nemesis. Barden was pivotal to Longford's giant-killing status.
“I still think he should've got an All-Star,...he'd have got an All-Star on any other team,” Lynch believes. “He was a machine to catch when it came to covering the ground.”
On that afternoon, Lynch picked up a yellow card in an incident close to the sideline, where he experienced the intensity Longford brought to the game. Even from outside the wire, where an elderly Longford fan vented his anger at him, using every name under the sun. The language was colourful, to say the least.
“He was giving me the heavy (verbal abuse) at the time, I can still see his face,” Lynch adds. “They brought that atmosphere to it and especially in Pearse Park.”
Paddy Bradley's tally of 2-7 wasn't enough to propel Derry to victory, after leading by a point at half-time. Bradley equalised after three Longford points late on, but Paul Barden's long-range free dumped Derry out.
Six years later and just 12 months after reaching a first Ulster final in 11 years, it was back at Pearse Park after a 10-point hammering by Donegal in the Ulster championship. It seemed like every time Derry needed to 'make a statement' and rack up a big score, Longford would knock them further back. And out on their nose.
Two goals from Barry McGoldrick wasn't enough. Derry were aggrieved when Joe Diver had a late goal ruled out and they were back on the outside again.
The pattern continued the following year at Celtic Park against Cavan in the Qualifiers. The prize for the winners was a last 12 clash with London. But, on a balmy Saturday night, when Cavan trainer Peter Donnelly didn't even put Cavan through a warm-up due to the heat, Derry lost out in another humdinger, this time after extra time.
“I remember lying on the field afterwards and thinking 'here we are again', there was a chance of an All-Ireland Quarter-Final in Croker,” Lynch adds.
“Subconsciously we were thinking that (getting to Croke Park) and got caught on the hop and with Longford it was the same.”
Of all the defeats to Longford, 2014 hit hardest. In Lynch's own words, it was 'absolute mayhem' and embodied Derry's brittle championship performances.
Derry reached the National League final earlier in the season where they lost to a Dublin side putting down their roots for a total domination of the game. Despite a Kevin Johnston goal with 20 minutes remaining in their semi-final win over Mayo, Derry needed Lynch (2) and Enda Lynn points to seal the final berth.
That grit indicatied the Oakleafers had enough about them to give the championship a rattle, but they were again nipped by Donegal in Ulster. Fergal Doherty was forced off injured when Derry were going into a 0-6 to 0-3 lead, but a Leo McLoone goal early in the second half turned the game and was the difference between the sides. Longford were again waiting in the qualifiers, having been relegated to Division 4.
Derry were without seven starters from the Ulster championship for the visit of Longford to Celtic Park.
Lynch doesn't necessarly place their litany of championship exits at the door of the various management teams. After Ulster defeats, it was as if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Any preparation was upset by the lack of continuity with the revolving door constantly leading to a new-look team for the qualifiers.
“(Brian) McIver and (Paddy) Tally prepared us really well,” said Lynch of the build-up to that 2014 clash, but he remembers his own throwaway statement at a team meeting of needing to 'put 10 points' on Longford. There was a feeling, a subconscious and unspoken one, in the Derry camp they'd catch Donegal later in the All-Ireland series.
“You should never do that to anybody in championship football...to any team,” he now states. And definitely not Longford. They'd always tear into Derry.
Lynch regrets running for kick-outs in the 2014 clash, as Derry put on a full press and the space behind invited goalkeeper Damian Sheridan's booming 80-yard kicks on top of Paul Barden, stationed at wing forward.
For all Longford's play, Derry fought back from five points down to draw level with seven minutes remaining after goals from Benny Heron and Mark Lynch. But it was short-lived.
“In the next kick-out, they rammed 'er to the top corner,” Lynch adds. Sheridan's kick left Longford two on two and when Longford substitute Mark Hughes buried to the net, it rocked Celtic Park by it's very foundations.
“If you get into a shoot-out and a team gets a goal or a big score...their momentum lifts and our head drops,” Lynch summarises. “That seemed to be the way we lost all our games.”
Fast forward to 2016 and it was more of the same. A first-round exit, this time against Tyrone, sent Derry into the mire of the qualifiers. Wins over Louth and Meath put Damian Barton's side up against Cavan in Breffni. An Emmett McGuckin goal kept Derry in the game until Lynch, with seven points in all, powered Derry over the line.
“You are walking away happy that you won,” Lynch said, referring to their win over Cavan. “You are not really analysing it correctly and that is the difference between the top teams and us.”
They were back in Breffni for a Round 4 clash with Tipperary, with a place in the last eight up for grabs. After a slow start, a Lynch goal shot Derry back into the game. Even when an error from Thomas Mallon led to a Tipp goal, Derry battled back and when Eoghan Brown palmed home late in the game, a Quarter-Final spot was still up for grabs.
But in a frantic finale, Conor Sweeney swung over two points and Derry were again chasing the game. And right at the death Brendan Rogers snatched a shot that went wide, rather than having the composure to work out an equaliser. Among the players, there was confusion over the score. Many thought there were two points between the sides.
“Whenever it came to the heat of a battle in a qualifier, we reverted back – myself included – to needing to score more than them,” said Lynch of their approach.
Any plans laid for their Ulster campaign were gone after the break. Rather than polishing over any rough edges, it was often back to the drawing board.
“I have saw you writing (in the County Derry Post) about the turnaround in players (on county panels) and you are dead right,” he added
“We were either struggling for numbers. You'd lose an Ulster championship game, you had seven or eight weeks until the qualifier.
“You were either going in with a minimalised panel and everybody was (again) fighting for a place. The only way you could prove you'd play well would be to attack. We were all out attack, it wasn't setup that way, but su admits, while he is not a fan of defensive football, there is a need to find the mix. Donegal are the example.
Of the eight championship games between the counties during his career, Lynch was only on the winning team twice.
“You have to make very good decisions and manage it throughout the game. At times you'll attack, there are times you'll slow the game down.
“You need a variation of it all and that's what I like about Michael Murphy. He might not be in the game, driving through the middle and scoring. He is going around the field managing things...taking the heat off the defence, taking a pass to calm things down.
“They might play the ball for a couple of minutes and they might find a gap to go for it.”
As Derry go into this weekend's league, Lynch doesn't expect any of the games in the tough division to be entertaining. It's not Derry's fault. It's not Rory Gallagher's fault. That's just football now. And the Banagher man, looking from the outside in, is hopeful of witnessing the Oakleaf rising again...and an end to the shoot-outs.
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