It’s 13 seasons since Derry beat Tyrone in championship football. Barry Gillis was the goalkeeper in the 2006 clash at Healy Park. Michael McMullan sat down with him to talk rivalry and the changing face of goalkeeping…
It was 2006, May 28 to be precise. It was championship Sunday.
The customary cheers that greeted the closing bars of Amhrán na bhFiann had scarcely died down.
Goalkeeper Barry Gillis placed his hat into the goals at the town end of Healy Park. On turning to face the play, he was greeted by the opening credits of a blockbuster.
It was time to stand up and be counted.
“I turned around and the full-back line had the Tyrone full-forward line by the throat,” Gillis still recalls.
Within a minute, Owen Mulligan and his marker Kevin McGuckin both saw yellow.
“It set the tone. There was a sense that we were not going to lie down.”
It was Derry’s last championship win over Tyrone and Gillis, now the goalkeeping coach, is the only link that will disembark the bus for this Sunday’s clash.
“Before the ball is threw in, you don’t know if you are going to win a game,” he states about playing in championship action.
“…But that day, there were tell-tale signs that we are not going to lie down.”
Derry’s mid-table division 1B campaign didn’t set the world alight. It was nothing to suggest they’d chin the All-Ireland champions in their own back yard.
But for Gillis, the league was always a means to an end. The interim period until the championship throws in, that’s when performances are buffed to a shine.
“The league gets you game time,” Gillis offers, while hailing Crozier and his management team’s role in preparing them for championship.
“It is what you do whenever the league is finished and until that championship week…that’s what matters.”
Holding Tyrone scoreless for the entire first-half didn’t hinge on one stand-out factor.
“It was a combination of things,” Gillis states, with the benefit of 13 years of hindsight.
“That was a consequence from the unfolding of the game. There was never any system or plan put in place for that.”
For the affable Gillis, while they were underdogs, the end result wasn’t a shock. There was a ‘serious quality’ of footballer in the Derry dressing room. The perfect mix of youth and experience.
Paddy Crozier’s planning was to a tee. Meticulous backroom team member Martin Heaney distributed video footage of Tyrone’s key men to their Derry markers, as homework.
Liam Óg Hinphey knew in advance that he would be tasked with tracking Sean Cavanagh. He enlisted the help of Mark Lynch. For a ‘solid month’ the Banagher man would man mimic Cavanagh’s trademark dummy.
The pieces were being assembled.
Brian Dooher’s superhuman fitness levels were the talk of Ireland but U21 player Joe O’Kane was handed the job of marking him.
No stone was left unturned.
On the morning of the game, Crozier had invited his friend and All-Ireland winning manager Eamonn Coleman to address the squad after their pre-game meal on route to the game.
“Wee Eamonn came to see us at The Elk,” remembers Gillis.
The players were asked pull their seats around. There wasn’t a sound, but for Coleman’s motivational tone.
Gillis didn’t reveal the exact words, but it was another ingredient in the cocktail of motivation they would later unleash at Healy Park.
“I think it’s fair to say that Eamon’s love for Tyrone wasn’t at its highest for the four or five minutes that he spoke – there is no getting away from that. He didn’t miss.
“He probably respected them for what they done as footballers but he wasn’t their biggest fan.”
It gave the Derry squad another edge, as they walked to the bus. Had David Coldrick threw the ball up in the Elk’s car park, Gillis felt the result would’ve been the same.
‘This is our time’ was the message being drummed in by the management.
“From the minute we got on the bus, you could sense there was a change of atmosphere about the size of the task we were going into. We bottled it and took it up into Omagh,” Gillis states.
A video montage was played on board, depicting images of Derry teams being successful. Combined with everything else, it charged the emotions to another level again.
After having watched it ‘at least twice, as the bus pulled into the car park, Martin Heaney was requested to play it once more.
While some of the Tyrone players were signing autographs during the game’s preamble, the Derry players were instructed to get off the bus….not to look left or right, just straight ahead. Tunnel vision.
“There was only ever going to be one winner,” Martin Heaney still states.
Derry had every box ticked.
“Paddy knows football inside out and with the backroom team, they put this in place,” echoed Gillis. “We ran with it and the boys did whatever needed to be done.
"That’s the key thing, buying into what needs done and putting yourself in a position to possibly go and win the game. The odds were pretty much stacked against us that day.
“There is no getting away from the fact that you had one eye on the fact that they were All-Ireland champions.”
Some things went Derry’s way. Brian McGuigan and Stevie O’Neill were missing and Kevin Hughes was sent off.
Goalkeepers tend to hear more than most with just their thoughts for company, but Gillis’ focus didn’t allow him to decipher any negativity coming from the home crowd. Derry’s focus wasn’t half-baked.
“But, you could hear the murmurs when going up the tunnel at half-time. We probably thought, not to score in the first-half was unknown territory by a Tyrone team operating at that level.”
Was there a feeling that Derry had them finished off?
“No. We all know the quality of footballer they had at that time. They were going to come back in some fashion,” Gillis felt.
“Never mind that they were playing Derry in a championship match. It was their own pride and self-esteem. It was up to us to go through the steps that had got us to that point where it was six nil.”
With his experience of defeating the Red Hands’ will Gillis be asked to relay his experiences this week?
“Not so much,” he replies. Management teams are structured so everyone has their role.
“As regards this week, 2006 will have no relevance if I am honest. It is a new set of players and coaches. Derry is in a rebuilding process and there is no doubt that Tyrone is further down the line.
“Even physically … in terms of their development. That’s not to say…football is football and anything can happen.
As a goalkeeper, Gillis’ was the mainstay of Derry’s defensive from 2004 until 2010. The initial pathway was anything but straightforward.
Magherafelt minors were playing a league match against Slaughtneil and Paddy Crozier spotted a 16 year-old Gillis playing at midfield.
Crozier liked what he saw and called him into the county minor panel. They would later lose the 1996 Ulster final replay against Donegal. Gillis didn’t taste championship action but the experience was seen as invaluable.
“I hadn’t even the driving test at the time and Paddy was lifting me going through Magherafelt.”
The following year, with Conleith Gilligan in goals, Gillis didn’t make the championship match-day panel for their defeat to Monaghan in Clones.
Then, in his final season, he was handed the number one jersey against the Farney side.
It was playing for Maghera Colts that he first played in goals.
“I usually played outfield in the soccer too….but at five-a-side tournaments we entered many teams and would’ve needed four goalkeepers,” Gillis explains.
He played, again outfield, in the Milk Cup alongside Maghera’s Mark Carmichael and Stephen Hawe, who was snapped up by Blackburn Rovers and managed Loughgall.
It was Eamonn Coleman who handed Gillis his senior league debut in 2000 against Kildare.
“Me and Paddy Bradley made our debuts down in Newbridge. I was left half (forward) and he was in the left corner.”
Later that season Derry won the league after a replay. Gillis didn’t play against Meath in either game.
With work taking him to Dublin, he stepped away from the county scene for ‘a few years’ until his career jerked in a different direction.
One evening early in 2004, the phone in Gillis household and his late mother Phyllis initially took the call.
The voice on the line was Mickey Moran, who was looking for a goalkeeper with the ability to sweep behind his defenders.
“He put the proposal forward to me,” Gillis explains. “It was a testament to how far ahead he was thinking.
“To have this idea of having someone who was comfortable on the ball, like a goalkeeper and full-back and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Tyrone beat Derry on Gillis’ debut in Clones but the Oakleaf bandwagon gathered momentum on the winding roads during a summer of progression.
“We drew Wicklow away in our first qualifier and then we got on a run and went to the semi-final against Kerry.
“At the time we thought ‘this was great’ and we’d be getting to quarters and semi-finals every year…but we didn’t get back to Croke Park until 2007.”
After losing out to Monaghan in Ulster that year, wins over Laois and Mayo helped Derry to the last eight of the All-Ireland series.
“It is one of those things in my career that was a real highlight,” said Gillis.
“We were playing our first championship game against the Dubs and I still have the memories of walking towards the Hill and your eyes were glazed looking up at it.”
Gillis described Paul Murphy’s first-half tally of four points from play one of the best performances.
It was a game that Derry could’ve won. While he played in two national league finals after that, it was the closet he came to the showpiece September Sunday.
Seated in the top deck of the Cusack Stand is the perfect spot to dissect the patterns of a game. In Derry’s league final win over Leitrim, all 16 of Thomas Mallon’s kick-outs were retained.
Six were contested but the rest were won strategically - designed on the training fields. Michael McEvoy’s running was one of the key elements but it still needed the accuracy of Thomas Mallon, who was minor goalkeeper in 2006 on the day Gillis wore the seniors’ number one jersey.
Gillis was enlisted in 2015 by Damian McErlain to coach the minor goalkeepers where he was central to fashioning a kick-out strategy.
One night early in the 2016 season, Oran Hartin arrived for his first session. The Limavady man’s kicks weren’t making the targets. Gillis, looked on, said little but didn’t give up on him.
Later in the championship, Armagh took Derry to extra-time on a wet Sunday in Clones. Ben McKinless was black-carded and Hartin was threw into the highest stage of his career.
He had three kicks in his time on the pitch but they were pinpoint, with conviction down the front of the Gerry Arthurs’ stand.
The evenings with different coloured cones for imaginary players had paid off.
“The change is seriously dramatic,” Gillis outlines of the difference in the goalkeeping position since his playing days.
Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley were formidable options to hit and the Magherafelt man remembers a plea one afternoon in Croke Park.
“Big Fergal said ‘put it out to me and if I don’t get it that’s my problem’. And you compare that to now, with the in-depth analysis of goalkeeping, like all parts of the game, it is massive.”
As his career ticked towards the end, realism kicked in of the importance of possession. Kick-outs left the ball in Derry’s court, with the onus on not giving it away.
“Now teams are operating and aiming for nearly 90 percent retention and in today’s game, more often than not, you’ll end up with a shooting opportunity, if you can win the ball from your kick-out.
“A goalkeeper now - not because I’ve been one – I would say is the most critical man on a Gaelic pitch, by a considerable distance. He is the man that sets the tone.
“The kick-outs are probably the most important thing for a ‘keeper now. Yes, you have shot-stopping and high-balls. They are not as common as they once were.”
Derry’s kick-out performance against Leitrim was a two way street. While he credits Mallon, there is more than meets the eye.
“The ‘keeper can only be as good as the man getting the ball or the movement. The (perfect) execution of the kick has to be delivered but the movement of the outfield players. It becomes easier if you have the options to hit the ball to.”
Recently Tyrone goalkeeper Benny Gallen scored a goal from play for his club Aghayaran, while Rory Beggan was a similar attacking role for Scotstown in last year’s Ulster club series.
“I wouldn’t be encouraging my goalkeepers to do it, I think they have enough to be dealing with, without having to come out the field.
“I can see where it works when you are creating the overlap. I don’t see a pile wrong with it but some day somebody will get caught out and that’ll put an end to it.”
On his role as a coach, which he sees as ‘challenging’, Gillis recognises the pressure on goalkeepers. He is with them every step of the way.
“If he has a good day, I have a good day and if things don’t go well – it’s vice versa,” he includes.
Somewhere around the perimeter of Healy Park on Sunday, the imposing frame of Barry Gillis will be visible. With an ear piece in place and a water bottle in hand.
While his mind may wander to that eventful Sunday back in 2006, Thomas Mallon and Ben McKinless are his responsibility now.
He will be keeping an eye.
Pic: Mary K Burke.
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