Ten years ago Gavin McGeehan scored a goal in an All-Ireland minor final, Derry’s narrow defeat to Galway.  On Sunday, he will be cajoling from the other side of the white line, hoping to end a 15 year minor drought.  Michael McMullan sat down with him to recall his path back to Croker.

GAVIN McGeehan sits perched at his breakfast table in the suave Crowne Plaza Hotel, nestled in 85 leafy acres of Northwood Park in Santry on Dublin’s Northside.  It is All-Ireland day 2007 and Niall Conway’s Derry side are loading the system for the day ahead.

All is low-key.  Nerves are dictating the mood.

McGeehan is the focal point of the attack.  ‘Tam’, as he is better known, scored a goal in the Ulster Final and was the bain of full-backs all summer.

When Cork led 1-2 to 0-0 in the quarter-final at Croke Park, Derry needed someone to pull a rabbit from somewhere.  James Kielt’s kick towards the Davin End was a hit and hope, as it fell from the Drumcondra sky it was gathered by McGeehan’s vice-like grasp for Derry’s first score of the game.  It wasn’t much – but it was a start.

Between Killian Conlan’s rousing half-time team talk, that almost lifted the paint off the dressing room walls, Declan Mullan’s storming performance and Kielt’s thunderbolt to the net - Derry reeled in the Rebels.

Over two games in the semi-final, McGeehan, his club-mate Aidan Heron and Lee Moore (both now in Australia) tore Laois to pieces.  It was destination September – the biggest day of them all.

In the final, McGeehan took another full-back for a goal – this time Galway’s Colin Forde.  The story didn’t have a happy ending.  The dream was pulled from under their very feet like a thief in the night.  Tom Markham headed across the Shannon and the next morning the mood in Derry’s Crowne Plaza base was a sombre one.

Like the previous day, Monday’s breakfast table was devoid of any conversation.  Anticipation has gone but the void was replaced with regret.  The atmosphere could be cut with a knife.

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THE following year McGeehan was given the captain’s armband by Niall Conway and at club level led the Shamrocks to Ulster minor glory on New Year’s Day.

The next step was the toughest, Ballinderry’s senior squad was hiving with the county’s top forwards.

Opportunities were sparse and back and cartilage injuries kept McGeehan on the outside looking in.

Two years later, 2010, Conway was in charge of Ballinderry seniors and Lavey had them tied up in knots.  The championship exit door was looming but injury time substitute McGeehan sauntered onto the Greenlough pitch – almost unnoticed.

A Lavey kick-out went astray and when Conleith Gilligan found McGeehan in space the net rippled.  Ballinderry were still alive.  A goal by James Conway completed the job and the supporters shuffling to their cars were now unaware of Ballinderry’s Lazarus-like recovery.

When October came, McGeehan’s wing man from 2007 Declan Mullan and his Eoghan Rua team ripped Ballinderry apart in the county final and the dream was over.

Of Ballinderry’s five men on the 2007 minor panel, Connor Nevin and Declan Bell picked up county medals.  John Dubh (Devlin) ended up back playing for Ardboe.  Aidan Heron headed down under.

‘Tam’ was forced into the periphery.  In many other clubs, a forward line would have built around him.  But there is a fascination with Gaelic football in Ballinderry and when one door closed for McGeehan, another opened.

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PAUL McIver and Killian Conlan inspired him.  When Ballinderry won the 2008 championship, Paul Devlin and Martin McKinless were the ‘old school’ half of the management ticket.  Conlan (McGeehan’s first cousin) and McIver were the modern thinkers – two men who made an impression.

“Well, to be fair, I had worked under Paul McIver and Killian a lot,” McGeehan explains of Ballinderry’s ability to churn out top level coaches.  “Two members of the club I looked up to, for they took me at (the) Féile, in 2004 in Strabane.

“I have memories of when I was 11 or 12…I was going up to summer camps with Paul, working and learning with him from a young age.  At the back of my mind, I always wanted to go down that route of coaching and being involved with teams. We always had good men working with us within the club, they were passionate about it.”

With the genuine love for the game ‘from an early age’ McGeehan, though he didn’t know it, was about to make his first steps towards Croke Park.

Helping around the club developed into taking the U14s and U16s.  The next step was a partnership with Niall Conway in the club’s minor team.  There was no way back, he was head over heels into his new found passion.

“I was moved up into the development squads, then I managed the Derry U16’s myself in 2014,” he says.  “It is something I enjoy and getting to work for your own county is something really special.”

Then in August that season McGeehan’s phone rang - it was a call he didn’t expect as he explains.

“Working with the county at any level is a privilege and it is special.  Damian (McErlain) then contacted me about getting involved with the minors and being the person I am, there was only going to be one answer.”

McGeehan was back at university.  His time was precious – but so was football.  “I was studying my PGCE for a year but it wasn’t going to be a stopper,” he recalls.  “I knew I had to commit my time right to each thing.  It was a big year in my life but when I got the call to be involved in the Derry minors it was special and it is something I will always be proud of.”

When constructing a management team, getting the balance is important.  McGeehan had three key attributes.  There weren’t many players in the county he didn’t know about.  He had the enthusiasm to learn but more importantly he had a unique personality.  Quiet, yet able to mix with the players.  They were eating out of his hand.  In some senses, he was one of them – yet he wasn’t.

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A SUCCESSFUL county team involves lots of time together.  On buses and in hotels.  With 41 unique personalities - everyone is different and that is the challenge of management.  There are three brackets of people.  There are the regulars on the team – managing them is easy, they are getting game time and feel important.

Then you have the nine subs.  Some will be disappointed but know they have a role to play.   If the squad is competitive there are those relieved to have made the match-day squad.  The third category - the boys who ‘don’t make the 24’ – that’s the tricky bit.  McGeehan can relate to it and he remembers his playing days.

“I always felt for the boys that didn’t make the 24 but in my eyes, in my heart and in my mind I always knew they had done the exact same amount of work as me,” he explains.  “They did the same as me scoring or Andy Warnock saving a goal for us or James Kielt taking a point.

“It’s probably the toughest part about it.  It’s just a pity the rules are there you can only tog out that number.  As Lorcan McWilliams touched on the last day, you know, he mentioned the boys who hadn’t made the 24, it’s about the whole squad of 31, not about the boys on the field or the six that come on. I think that’s a key point.”

The 2007 chapter to the story has a similarity to the present day.  Winning in Croke Park brought the belief.

“Beating Dublin in Croke Park was an exceptional result for the current team.  Back then, Tyrone had just beat us in the Ulster-Final, it was a massive game, we went in as underdogs (against Cork), we just gave it everything we had, and we had the belief we could do it. The management back then had us in the right frame of mind.”

McGeehan will tap into that experience this week.  Since the start of the season, everything has been geared towards this.  The gym.  Kicking drills. Beating Tyrone.  Video sessions.  Watching the opposition.  It has all been done.

The squad won’t get faster, fitter or stronger.  This week is about the top six inches – focusing the mind.

“Kerry have been there year after year, they’ve got their Croke Park nerves out of their system and

are going in as massive favourites.  People talk about David Clifford, but other than him, Kerry have fourteen very good players and a strong bench like ourselves.

“But the (Derry) boys have trained really hard. It’s just about going out and giving it their all, leaving nothing on the pitch, trying our best to beat Kerry. It’s a special opportunity, these days don’t come around often, and it’s the last ever minor final.”

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IT’S November 2013 and Ballinderry are preparing to face Glenswilly in the Ulster Club Final, but the community has been shook by its very core.  Club stalwart ‘Nuggy’ (Gavin’s father Eugene) has passed away.  A family are hurting and a community are rallying around their every need.  The masses flock to the Drumenny Road to pay their respects.  Sport heals, if only for a few days.

The following Sunday Connor Nevin would lift the Seamus McFerran Cup on behalf of Ballinderry.  Manager Martin McKinless and Chairman Stephen McGeehan would pay tribute to those who were looking down from above.

Eugene McGeehan was present in Croke Park on that Sunday in 2007 – as proud as punch.  Like every championship day for the past three years, Grainne, Dan and Senan Conlan (Killian’s family) will collect Gavin’s mother Brigid on route to Croker - the bandwagon will be on tour.  Eugene is there in spirit.

“I come from a GAA family, my mother and father had always took me to games from a very young age,” Gavin recalled last week.  “They had me down at the pitch, taking me to training.  Daddy was very supportive, so is Mummy and back in 2007 when I think of what we achieved and Killian as well.

“What we have achieved over the last number of years, and Damian (McErlain) who lost his mother – they’d be very proud looking down.  It’s great to get back (to the final) and of course, you’d love those people to be there, they are always looking down and they are with us all the way.

“I think that has driven me on as well, to be successful and to push on, to know you are making everybody proud.”

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McGEEHAN is a doer.  That’s the type of person he is.  Our interview was supposed to take place the previous day but he was in Strabane sorting out gear for the final.  Getting the non-critical essentials out of the way early on is important.

It’s about finding a balance between generating a focus and enjoying the build-up.  Sitting in Owenbeg, looking out at the training field where the preparation for Sunday took place, our chat throws up the word ‘mature’ time and time again.  It is McGeehan’s reference to the current squad but they have never experienced what he has.  Not until this weekend.

“As a player I didn’t really change my preparation, I kept the same routine, kept everything the same as I would do for any other game.  Look, Sunday is a massive game, it’s just about trying to manage that as best we can.

“We will help the lads from that experience, we can draw on our experiences from 2007 that we can look back on.

“Would I change anything? There are wee things you would like to change, when you’re in the heat of the moment things happen, but it’s important for the boys now to go with their normal routine. We’ve been down to Dublin, we’ve had that hotel stay, maintaining routine and keeping calm going into the game is crucial.

On Saturday his fiancée Michaela will drop him to Dungiven to catch the bus.  He will be seated up at the front.  The players will file on and will be met with McGeehan’s welcoming handshake.  That’s the rapport he brings.  It will be the same at the Oak Leaf and at the Castledawson roundabout – until all 41 of the travelling party are present and correct.

As our interview draws to a close I get that same handshake.  That same warm, genuine feel that was beaming at the breakfast table ten years ago in Santry.

The last time Derry won the All-Ireland minor title, McGeehan was a tearaway full-forward for Ballinderry U12s.  A man to put the fear of God in defences.

That’s the first time I met Gavin McGeehan.  He looked scary but first impressions don’t always tell the full story.

Sunday is a tough assignment.  Derry set out to tame Kerry and bridge a 15 year gap.  If they can, there will be fewer people in Croke Park as ecstatic as the man that scored Derry’s last goal in an All-Ireland Final.

Sometimes there is a happy ending but regardless, ‘Tam’ will have left a lasting mark on the 2017 minor squad.  Maybe a mark deep enough for them to follow in his footsteps.

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