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21/10/2021

Dermot Heaney: Ever the gentleman

The story of one of Derry's greatest ever players

Dermot Heaney: Ever the gentlemen

Dermot Heaney takes the Sam Maguire Cup back to Anahorish PS in 1993

Ten years ago the ever-popular Dermot Heaney retired from football with an intermediate championship medal tucked in his pocket, after a decorated career for club, school, county and province. Michael McMullan spoke to him as he delved into the memory bank.

***

Dermot Heaney talks with the same poise and footballing IQ he displayed on the fields of Ireland.

There is a quiet and unassuming excitement in his voice, of total contentment in the hand sport dealt him.

Every syllable resembled a play from his glory days. They were all the same. A vehicle of expression.

During lockdown, his wife Aisling produced a research masterpiece. A selection of pictures, accompanied by some 2,000 words, listing his honours and a selection of comments from his peers and those who watched him blossom.

Success followed him everywhere. Also, the comments translate into the story of an ultimate team mate. The type no successful team functions without.

Thirdly, at the top of the page was the translation of Dermot – without enemy. An evening fishing in Dermot Heaney's footballing repertoire backs up the 'gentleman' tag that has followed him everywhere. A legacy to be envious of.

The fact he was pigeon-holed as Derry's most underrated player spoke volumes of the wealth of talent within that Oakleaf golden generation who grabbed the headlines. But Heaney deserved every ounce of his success.

Thud, thud, thud. Evening after evening the gable wall at home was peppered with high ball after high ball. Up like a salmon. Time and time again. Laying the foundation for a career bossing midfield and being a magnet at full-forward. The ball always stuck. The definition of fulcrum.

Football was always part of life. His brother Kevin, cousins Eugene, Paul and the late Adrian 'Eggy' played for Derry. Dermot was 'very close' to Eggy, someone he rated as 'super' and one of the best club players of his generation.

Dermot's other brother Niall lined out with the 'Dawson, while Joanne – the oldest in the family - has All-Ireland medals with Magherafelt athletics club.

Their mother Anne Downey's brothers played with Bellaghy. When Dermot helped Castledawson to the 11-a-side 'B' minor league and championship double, his father Joe was along the line helping brothers Francie John and Tom O'Kane take the team. Dermot's parents became a fixture at the Broagh when, as Dermot jokes, it was 'frowned on' for women to even go to games.

He remembers coming in the evening from games, dropping the kitbag in the corner.

“How'd it go,” his father would ask.

“Daddy would've been at the game, but he'd want to hear how I thought it went first,” Dermot jokes.

“He was a big fan of football, an honest observer. Not one that their son could do no wrong. If you weren't having a good game, he soon told you weren't.

“They are the things that you remember that are important, more important for the people around you than it is for yourself.”

His uncle Eamon was a fine player and also left an imprint. With hindsight, Dermot doesn't know how he found the endless hours.

“It was him that got me to use both feet before there was any talk of coaching. He would've been kicking the ball to me steady, into my chest.”

At primary school level, Heaney and Newbridge' Dermot Dougan led Anahorish to the South Derry title. Roger Gribbin, who also played on the team, remembers the simplistic gameplan – get the ball to Dougan and Heaney, they did the damage.

South Derry Championship Winners, 1983

BACK (L-R): Hugh McLarnon, Dermot Dougan, Stephen McVey, Brian Heaney, Niall Martin, Stephen McCann, Tony McCann
FRONT (L-R): Noel Weir, Bernard Mullan, Seamus Diamond, Roger Gribbin, Dermot Heaney, Jonny Nugent, Raymond Gribbin

Organised football began at U14. Numbers were scarce and Dermot would always feature on the teams above his age. Getting enough players to field a team was often the challenge, with hammerings often at the end of the struggle against clubs picking from a wider base.

As St Pius, he flourished under Brian McIver and Brendan Convery, who had a lasting impression on Heaney and their All-Ireland winning teams.

As a second year, Dermot was a sub for the 1985 All-Ireland U16 win, before graduating to their winning team two years later.

On that side was future Tyrone defender Fay Devlin, as well as Gary Coleman, Jarlath Martin and John Mulholland, a trio that would play a part in his early glory days with Derry.

At that time, St Pius were always able to beat St Patrick's Maghera in challenge games, the same group that went on to win the Hogan Cup, including Eamonn Burns and Anthony Tohill. Derry's pieces were coming together.

***

Heaney made his county minor debut at corner-forward in 1988, a five-point defeat to All-Ireland champions Down at Ballinascreen, but was among seven of the team eligible for the following season.

While Maghera were marching to a first Hogan title, the rest of John Joe Kearney's minor team soldiered through the league, without winning a game.

A narrow defeat to Cavan in Cootehill saw Derry score four goals, two each for Heaney and Declan Bateson who was making his debut.

By the time the first round of the championship came around, Fermanagh were favourites, and Derry were pushed to the pin of their collar. They narrowly came out of Irvinestown and into a semi-final with Cavan, which transpired into a make or break afternoon with Derry staring into a nine-point deficit.

“That was complacency,” Heaney reckons. Running the Breffni men close in the league, with virtually half a team was a false reading.

“We thought we'd beat them easy in the championship. They played us off the park that day, only for Eunan (O'Kane) coming on and turning the game.

“The St Pat's boys were not around the panel long and it takes a while to get used to it. In the final, we hammered Armagh, I remember Neil Lennon playing for them.”

It took Derry into an All-Ireland semi-final with Roscommon, a game Heaney remembers for the cauldron of noise. It was his first game in Croke Park.

Roscommon hit an early goal, but in the next move a ball was tossed into the box, one full-forward Heaney wasn't favoured to win, but he did, earning a free for Burns to tap over. Derry were settled and Heaney won another ball for a Burns score and slammed in a goal after half time to kill the game. Before the final whistle, he had a hand two of Derry's further three goals.

In the final, it was like Cootehill all over again. He set up Bateson for Derry's first goal and had the favour returned with ten minutes to go with Heaney's goal clinching the All-Ireland.

But it was only the beginning.

***

Heaney's graduation from the minor ranks, coincided with Castledawson's consistent form at senior level.

Two years earlier, in 1987, they trailed Dungiven by two points. Manager Tom O'Kane threw teenager Heaney into the Dean McGlinchey Park cauldron for his debut. His youthful exuberance and ball-winning ability almost did the trick. A ball was flicked in his direction and he was away on goal.

“The defender got his fingertips to it,” Heaney jokes. “Whether I would've scored it was another matter, but we could've been county champions.”

Dermot Heaney nips in ahead of Swatragh goalkeeper Brian Óg McAtamney in a Derry SFC clash

Newbridge and Ballinderry were thrown out of the championship after a brawl in the other semi-final. The 'Dawson were back in the final in 1989, losing to neighbours Newbridge who were pipped by Lavey the previous year.

“We were going well until Newbridge got the man sent off,” Heaney states.


“Damian Barton moved back to centre half back to control the game and Liam Devlin got three goals. We were the better team, up until they went down to 14 men.”

Castledawson were back in the final in 1997, this time going down to a Dungiven side that would conquer Ulster. They lost star forward Stephen McLarnon early in the game with an injury he was nursing all week.

“He was a huge loss and we lost our way after that,” Heaney remembers.

It ended an eight-year period during which the 'Dawson knocked out of the championship by eventual winners.

“I'm not saying we'd have won it, but we had a good bunch of players at that time,” he admits.

The elusive senior championship medal came in 2010, at intermediate level. After going into semi-retirement, Heaney wanted to stay on and play for the reserves. A slice of action here and there at full-forward, to help the young players bed in.

Before long, his footballing brain was head and shoulders above reserve level. It's hard to dull the brightest diamond. Soon it was a starting role at midfield, before the senior management came calling for an impact when games were in the fire.

Going down the final stretch of the county final, they trailed Steelstown narrowly and in came Heaney from the bench. His reputation and size brought a cocktail of fear and respect which saw him triple marked. It allowed Paddy Henry and Niall McNicholl enough latitude to eke the scores to win the game narrowly.

“I never touched the ball,” Dermot jokes.

The 'Dawson finished their unbeaten season, by winning two rounds of promotion play-offs before bowing out in Ulster to Rasharkin, a game they felt got away.

Heaney's race was run. And a fruitful one it was.

***

Fresh from the 1989 All-Ireland minor win, came the call from Tommy Diamond to join the senior panel, but he felt he'd leave it until after Christmas.

By that stage, Diamond and Derry went their separate ways and in came Mickey Moran. Heaney made his debut in a league clash in Drumsurn. Heaney felt he did okay, but Down visitors ran out winners. When the panel was named in The Irish News the following week, Heaney's name didn't appear.

“That's the way it was back then,” Heaney remembers. “ It was before the days of text messages and messaging. Mickey asked me why I didn't attend, insisting my name should've been on the list.”

When the 1991 season rolled around, Eamonn Coleman was appointed manager. And with the fusing of a series of successful youth and school teams, boosted by Lavey's All-Ireland success, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. But Derry lost to Down in a semi-final replay.

“We wouldn't have won the All-Ireland that year, absolutely no chance. I think you have to suffer hurt to realise what it means, I know that sounds silly,” Heaney said, while also feeling they weren't ready.

“Ulster teams weren't winning All-Irelands at that time, but Down showed the way again. They had that arrogance about them, the further they go in a tournament the better they get.”

The following year, 1992, Derry won the first of four league titles. A week after beating Tyrone in the league decider, Heaney hammered in an early goal to sink Tyrone. After blowing a lead in Castleblayney, it took a Bateson goal to help Derry stem Monaghan's late tidal wave and Derry saw them off in a replay.


Dermot in action for Derry against Antrim in the 2000 Ulster SFC (Pic: Aoife Rice/Sportsfile)

It set up a blockbuster with Down in a sweltering Casement Park, packed to the gills for the meeting of league and All-Ireland champions.

“It was a cracking game,” Heaney states. “That's what you miss about knock-out football...it meant something.”

Derry fell to Donegal in the final, a defeat Heaney 'didn't see coming at all'.

“I don't think we were complacent,” he states. “I went out and had no energy, so I probably was nervous. This was the first big occasion. I was playing midfield and had a poor game, a lot of the Derry players had a poor game that day. We got a goal against the run of play to bring us back into the game and still couldn't beat them.”

The following year was payback. Dermot Heaney's thoughts were in tandem with every other member of the squad who has recalled the 1993 Ulster final, played in a Clones monsoon. Nothing was going to stop Derry. Nothing.

“Back in those times – like beating Down in '92 - we were rarely beaten by the same team two years in a row,” he said.

“Donegal go on about the conditions in '93 and if it had been a dry day...if we had played them on an airstrip or in a swimming pool, there was just no way we were losing that game.”

After that, Coleman turned up the man-management another notch, installing a new level of belief. It fed into the sight of Paddy O'Rourke and Anthony Molloy lifting Sam. Now, it was Derry's time.

But Heaney recalls the moment he told Coleman he'd be missing training on the Friday after beating Dublin to attend a U2 concert in Dublin.

Back then, nobody missed training. Starting players, panellists. Nobody. Coleman – and the rest of the players – wouldn't stand for it.

“I remember the night I told Eamonn I was going to the concert and it wasn't as if we were staying the weekend. I was going to be back for the Sunday session,” Heaney explains. He remembers the response to this very day.

“Well, if you are not starting in the final, don't be blaming me...that's the exact words he said to me. You just didn't miss.”

Heaney bopped to the vibes of U2 and started the final, where he turned in a towering performance. Like the minor semi-final with Roscommon four years earlier, he dug in when Cork were hammering into Derry early on.

When Derry dug themselves back from John O'Driscoll's goal, it was his trademark catch at full-forward that made Enda Gormley's equaliser and it was fitting than when referee Tommy Howard blew the final whistle, Gormley's fist-pass had the ball in Heaney's hands.

The endless hours of thudding the ball at the gable wall, his father's honest feedback and his uncle Eamon forcing him to use both feet had paid off in style.

“I have been exceptionally lucky to have come on the scene at a good time – for school, club and county,” he modestly sums up.

Iconic commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh's assessment went much deeper.

“Henry Downey’s second half display at centre back was crucial,” he said. “But I would rate Dermot Heaney’s 70 minutes of hard endeavour as the greatest single reason in making Sunday, September 19, 1993 Derry’s day of days,” he belted across the airwaves.

Eamonn Burns, who played against him at school and club level, but soldiered with him for Derry rates Heaney as second to Anthony Tohill of the best players he played with.

Midfield. Full-forward. He was a master of both, but when Derry were going to Croke Park in 1993 the team got shuffled up.

Burns remembers the gasps among the squad in the changing room of St Patrick's Maghera at a training session before the semi-final with Dublin when Heaney was listed at number 10. The first time he ever played there.

“But, he took to it like a duck to water,” Burns states.

When asked about the All-Ireland's that got away, Heaney mentions 1994. He laments the 2001 semi-final with Galway, surrendering control before being hit by Matthew Clancy's sucker punch.

In 1998, they were beaten comprehensively by Galway, one of their own doing. A week after beating Donegal, Derry played a challenge game before taking in the Tribesmen's replay extra-time win over Roscommon in Hyde Park.

“It was an awful game of football. We came out of the game laughing and it was the worst thing we ever did, we left thinking about who we were playing in the final,” he remembers. “As Donegal found out (in this year's Ulster final) you can't do that.”

In all, he is happy with his lot. The backdoor could've helped him pick up a second All-Ireland, though it could've seen Down or Donegal come back to pip later in the 1993 season.

The medals rest in a cabinet and the jersies are packed in a bag in the attic. Memories of a lifetime.

“You think back then, that it is going to happen again and we didn't make the most of it,” he sums up. “It was an unreal time to be involved, that friendship doesn't go away. You'd always bump into the boys and chat about those special days.”

Derry are coming with a batch of young players, hoping to mould together a team to climb the football pecking order. They will need a player like Dermot Heaney. Every successful team does. Someone who is underrated by everyone but those in the trenches with him.

Aside from the medals, that's the big Castledawson man's greatest legacy. All with a smile on his face.

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