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19/10/2021

Derry GAA in the 1980s: Croker Oakers

The final pieces of the All-Ireland jigsaw

Derry GAA in the 1980s: Croker Oakers

Derry celebrate winning the Ulster championship in 1987

Derry's footballing history is a journey of peaks and troughs. When Danny Quinn stepped aboard, the roller-coaster was pulling out of the station and in part two of our focus on the eighties, he tells Michael McMullan of the final steps towards the summit.

ALSO - Read Danny Quinn looks back the early 1980s

By the time Bellaghy ended a seven-year gap to win the 1986 Derry title, Danny Quinn and success went hand in hand.

It marked his third full season as a senior club player, but the roots of a winning mentality were firmly established. Under the guidance of the late Tom Scullion, a 12-time senior champion, Quinn picked up an U16 medal in 1981 before developing his game during a stellar MacRory career that helped him graduate to the county minor team.

Almost in the same fashion, Derry's senior side began to blossom in the first half of the decade. Minor and U21 titles morphed into a production line that gave the county an exciting base. One that would last. A win over Kerry in the Centenary Cup and an Ulster final appearance in 1985 combined as a step on an escalator careering to the top level.

When Castleblayney came to Bellaghy in the autumn of 1986, Eugene 'Nudie' Hughes was too hot for the Tones to handle as the Monaghan giants edged home on their way to a first Ulster title.

Within weeks of Bellaghy's exit, Danny Quinn was casting his eyes down a letter of invitation to join the Derry senior panel for the 1986/87 season. It was the days of the league sprawling either side of Christmas.

At the time, Tom Scullion was part of an 'experienced' three-man Derry senior management team that included Phil Stuart and Jim McKeever, who made a lasting impression on Quinn during his time at St Mary's in Belfast.

Danny made his debut against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and despite familiar faces from his school and Derry underage days around him as they boarded the plane, the nerves were kicking in. This was the big time.

“Big Plunkett (Murphy) was the captain and he asked me to sit beside him on the plane on the way down,” Danny remembers.

“All I remember of Plunkett was watching him playing. There was the odd league game down in Bellaghy and I wouldn't really have spoken that much to him.

“He was class...him and Joe Irwin.  Brian McGilligan and Tony Scullion were also there, they were all full of craic.”

When Danny took his place at full-back, John O'Driscoll, a face from his past Derry exploits, trotted in his direction on the edge of the square.

“I was on him in an All-Ireland U21 semi-final the year before, so I knew the way he played,” Danny points out. “He was very strong and was in and around the international rules team at that time.”

That was Danny on the the inter-county scene. In early March, Derry's win over Longford saw the Oakleafers edge out Kildare and Donegal to secure second spot and promotion to Division 1 for the following season.

A late Noel McGinn goal knocked Derry out of the 1986 championship and put Tyrone on their way to the All-Ireland final, but by the time the 1987 campaign arrived Down were the fancied horse. It took a replay for Tyrone to see off Antrim on the first step of their title defence, before Armagh eventually ended their hopes.

Derry travelled to Newry in the first round, with a forward line that included only Damian Cassidy, Enda Gormley and Dermot McNicholl from the previous seasons' defeat to Tyrone.

There was also a restructure that Brian McGilligan say goodbye to outings at centre and full-forward during the league, to partner Plunkett Murphy at midfield. The Dungiven duo outplayed Liam Austin and Greg Blayney to give Derry a platform.

In attack, Gormley hit eight points and Cassidy's left-footed goal led the charge to a 1-12 to 2-7 win. It took a replay and a late Paul Kealey goal to see off Cavan in the semi-final, setting up a decider with Armagh.

Orchard corner-back Vinny Loughran was sent off following an altercation with Cassidy and Derry raced into a seven-point lead midway through the second half, with McGilligan managing to fire over a fine score from close range, kicking with his back to goal. Armagh did make a fight of it and Derry were forced to hold on for a 0-11 to 0-9 victory and their fifth of seven provincial senior titles.


Phil Stuart, Patsy Mulholland, Paul McCann, Tom Scullion and Jim McKeever celebrate with the Anglo Celt Cup in 1987 (Pic: Danny O'Kane) 

For Danny Quinn, who was nominated for an All-Star in his debut season, there was no defined turning point in the season, but more of a natural progression.

“I think it was the underage coming through and boys had got used to winning,” he said. “I came into the Derry setup, I was used to playing on Maghera and Derry underage teams that had won.”

During the eighties, Danny was one of 17 Derry players to play in a Sigerson Cup final, as QUB, UUJ and St Mary's began to rise to the top. Dermot McNicholl won three titles in all with UUJ. The winning trend continued with Anthony Tohill, Brian McCormick and Stephen Walls playing on QUB's winning team of 1993. Eamonn Burns, Dermot O'Neill and Joe Brolly had also tasted final action. It was another piece of the developmental jigsaw.

“That also helped to have boys playing at that level,” Quinn added. “Derry players would've been saying we can compete at national level at minors, schools and colleges. If we are doing it at those levels, then we should be able follow on to senior level.”

Now it was time to look south. Kerry's golden generation came a cropper in Munster, but Meath and Cork had already emerged from the rubble and new pretenders to the crown.

***

Before the days of Owenbeg, the county teams trained around the clubs. Greenlough was a regular training base for the senior footballers in those days. A snooker table surface, it was in the general direction of the motorway for the Belfast-based students' route back to the big smoke and close enough for the players from across the rest of the county.

As Derry primed themselves for an All-Ireland semi-final date with Meath, disaster struck one night as Dermot McNicholl broke through from midfield. In full flight, as he galloped for goal, ping went his hamstring. For Derry's talisman, it was a race against time and twice weekly ultrasound sessions.

A Saturday fitness test at the team hotel on the eve of the Meath showdown passed McNicholl fit to play, but his hamstring gave way the following day in Croke Park as he ran towards his centre-forward berth. After confiding in the management, McNicholl went to full-forward, where he gave Mick Lyons plenty of food for thought.

Derry trailed 0-6 to 0-1 early on when McNicholl latched onto Joe Irwin's kick from defence. After a run through, he didn't have the power in his kick and Michael McQuillan saved easily. It was a rare goal chance for a side who took a full 48 minutes to score from play. If only McNicholl had another week. Meath ran out 0-15 to 0-8 winners on their way to back to back All-Irelands.


Dermot McNicholl in action for Derry during the 1984 season (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)

“He was one of the best players and forwards in Ireland at that stage and him getting injured was a massive loss to Derry,” points out Quinn.

Was McNicholl's injury the difference in Derry winning the 1987 All-Ireland? After a brief pause and with the benefit of hindsight, Danny replies.

“On the day, Meath were a better team than us and created more chances. A fit Dermot would've been very useful and in his prime, he was very hard to mark.”

The same can be said of Damian Cassidy at club level.

“Thank God he (Cassidy) played for us, for 10 years he was the best club forward in Derry and I wouldn't like to have tried to mark him,” Quinn adds.

“I came up through underage with him, there was an understanding and I knew when he'd run for the ball and I'd give it to him.”

After being familiar with finals in Croke Park at different grades, their senior debut on the big stage was a step up and a huge 'experience' to Derry.

“That was the biggest day that we'd been involved in,” Danny continues.

“Derry hadn't been there since the seventies. It (1987) was a good team, with a lot of good footballers. We weren't that far away, but at the same time Meath went on an won another All-Ireland.”

It was familiar territory through the decade. Aside from losing All-Ireland finals, the Dublin minor and Cork U21 teams that beat Derry at the semi-final stage went on to lift the title.

“Even in my third year of U21 (1987) Donegal went all the way to the All-Ireland after beating us in the first round in Bellaghy,” Danny remembers of an afternoon they lost Henry Downey to a broken leg in the first-half.

“Any team we got beat by, were all good teams and went on and won All-Irelands. That Meath (senior) team and even those Cork U21 teams were littered with former senior winners.”

In 1988, Derry surrendered their Ulster senior title at the first time of asking as Down got their revenge. A Greg Blaney point had the visitors six points ahead at Ballinascreen. When Damien McCusker slipped taking the resultant kick-out, Mickey Linden raced through to notch a goal and deliver the hammer blow.

The eighties ended with a two-point defeat at the hands of Donegal in the Ulster semi-final, with both teams fielding eight of the respective teams that would take Sam north at the start of the next decade.

In the minor game that day in Clones, Eunan O'Kane rescued Derry with two goals when sprung from bench to sink a resurgent Cavan. It was the turning point in a season that would see John Joe Kearney's side march to headquarters in September and land another All-Ireland title. It was another link in the chain.


Derry - 1989 All-Ireland minor champions

Gary Coleman captained the side, with Anthony Tohill, Declan Bateson, Eamonn Burns, Dermot Heaney and Karl Diamond also graduating through to inter-county senior level.

“That's what you need every three or four years, to boost what's there,” Danny states. “We were very lucky to have all the minor and U21 teams coming through. By 1989, we had also experienced defeat a few times and were dying to win a bit more. Those boys coming through were always going to help that.”

At the turn of the decade, Lavey showed the way again with a club All-Ireland to add more fuel to a train that was starting to pick up momentum.

The final piece of the puzzle arrived when Eamonn Coleman returned from working in England to lead a management team that would bring Derry to the top of the mountain. As the years ticked towards 1993, the levels of preparation were cranked up.

With two weeks between games, Danny would've been among a handful of players to turn out for Rainey Old Boys' rugby teams. Enda Gormley's accurate place-kicking helped elevate him to the first team.

“Denver Friel from Bellaghy would've got us involved and I remember in the second row, big Sean McGuigan and Brian Heaney playing at the time, big lumps of men,” Danny recalls.

During a year teaching in Termoncanice PS, Danny was coaxed by Brian Forrest to play on a local Limavady basketball team in a local league. He found himself part of a carload with Glen trio Enda Gormley, Damien McCusker and Dick Cudden

“It was great craic and helped keep you fit over the winter,” said Danny, who later played every Monday night for over a decade in Newbridge hall both with and against the players he came up against on the football field.

“Eamonn (Coleman) wasn't too tight on us if we didn't have a friendly game in between. You'd have trained (for Derry) on Sunday and had a league game the following week.”

In time, other codes faded and it was time to get to work. Winning the 1992 league sharpened the focus that Sam Maguire was within touching distance.

“We didn't make the final breakthrough until 1993 and it took it, to get all that together. Winning the league made you think you were good enough to be up there,” Danny remembers. “Getting beat in the Ulster final that year (1992) was catastrophic.”

It was time to pool everything together and Derry seniors was the only show in town.

“Mickey (Moran) was with Eamonn and everybody knows how good his training is and when you see what he has won since at club and county level, it is unbelievable what he has done.

“Eamonn, Mickey, Harry (Gribbin) and Dinny (McKeever) had all those players to work with, those who came through the 1980s.

“Then we decided we would do everything right and we were lucky to have Henry, he was a great leader at the time.”

Danny also points to the regrets of the near misses over that golden era. With the back door, another All-Ireland senior title was a real possibility. Even on the Ulster stage, after 1987, Derry needed to wait six year to get their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup again.

Quinn's phone number was one of those dialled by Damian Cassidy when setting up Derry's new Games Development Committee to help oversee the next stage of the county's development.

After decades of success coming in cycles in Derry, Danny feels the glass is half full and Derry are not that far away from getting back challenging at senior level again, reciting the recent success stories.

Slaughtneil have been to two All-Ireland club finals and Bellaghy and Lavey minors have delivered Ulster minor titles.

St Patrick's Maghera were back in the MacRory Cup Final. Magherafelt schools – St Pius and St Mary's – are knocking on the door, with Derry minors and U20s coming to the fore.

“In the seventies, that cycle came from the minor and U21 teams of 1965 and 1968. Those boys came though to win Ulster senior championships.”

He knows they are not easily won. For all Derry's dominance of the underage bracket during the eighties, it only delivered two senior championships. In Quinn's opinion, that's where the county needs to get to. He feels they are closer to that conversation than most realise.

“We really need to be winning Ulster championships at senior level,” he states. “We can't be that far away.”

A chat with Danny Quinn is as interesting as it is enjoyable. Facts, memories and enthusiasm flow effortlessly through the conversation. It's like you are sitting in the back of the Derry team bus on the journey of a lifetime.

“I could talk about it all day,” he jokes.

When the Anglo Celt Cup returns to Derry, he won't be far from the glistening piece of silver and happy to see the baton in the hands of the next generation.

ALSO - Read Danny Quinn looks back the early 1980s

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