“Now what's done is done and what's won is won,
And what's lost is lost and gone forever.
I can only pray for a bright brand new day,
For the town I Iove so well.”
Children all over Derry await the visit of Father Christmas to bring magic into living rooms across the county.
The most wonderful time of the year.
All those years ago, I remember asking for a full Derry kit and a pair of Patrick boots. For no other reason than because Damien McCusker wore them. And he could kick the ball further than anyone else.
To my joy, they were folded neatly on the sofa on Christmas morning.
It was 1987 and Derry were Ulster champions. I donned the lot. There was no under armour in those days. A Baltic Christmas morning was irrelevant, I bounded straight out to the back field, ball in hand, for a morning of kicking.
Watching the recent footage of Derry’s 1993 celebrations brought the memories flooding back. But there is the shuddering realism of how far away from the top of the pile we are.
But there is a trend. I was chatting to former Derry minor selector Mickey Bradley, who called into the office during the week. The obvious enthusiasm for the minor teams of the 1980s hung on the Ballerin man’s every word.
He spoke of the 1983 team he assisted manager Eamonn Coleman with. Johnny McGurk, Dermot McNicholl and Damian Cassidy were on board. Damien McCusker was behind Don Kelly in the pecking order for the number one jersey. Five future winners of Sam a decade later.
The 1989 crop were again the minor kings of Ireland. Bradley was still involved, this time under John Joe Kearney’s management.
Playing against Offaly in the final that year were Anthony Tohill, Karl Diamond, Declan Bateson, Dermot Heaney, Eamon Burns and captain Gary Coleman – who all went on to lift Sam.
Derry haven’t won the Tom Markham Cup for 16 years. Regrettably, the spine of that 2002 winning team - Eoin McNicholl, Gerard O’Kane, Mark Lynch, Patsy Bradley and Barry McGoldrick – went on to play senior county football without winning a championship.
Thankfully, the stock is beginning to rise again. Like the era Mickey Bradley enthused at, Derry have contested the last four Ulster minor finals – winning two of them.
There has been an appearance in an Ulster U21 final and the inaugural Danny Murphy U20 Ulster title.
Last season the U15s won an Ulster Development blitz, beating Cavan in the final.
All shoots of hope.
But, for me, there are concerns. Conor Glass, Callum Brown and Anton Tohill, who all won Ulster medals, are now plying their trade in AFL.
None were the finished article, but each had the body shape to develop into an inter-county senior player.
Brown and Tohill struggled to force their way into their respective Derry minor and MacRory Cup teams.
Conor McManus didn’t cut the mustard in his earlier years. One of Derry’s greatest defenders Kevin McCloy didn’t set the world alight initially.
Everyone develops differently.
I was at a school final last week and watching St Pius’ Aaron Donnelly in action, he has the potential and physique to be a county player. The vision for a pass and a terrific kicking style. But with soccer clubs trying to snap up his signature, he could be another loss to the game.
I also think back to Eunan O’Kane’s ability to pick out a pass, but his loss to soccer is also significant.
I know we can’t keep harping on about the players who are no longer here. Lack of regular games, the attraction of the bar stool and the bright lights and the need to emigrate to find work.
Three bigger reasons for the talent drain.
In a relatively small county like Derry, where the city hasn’t been adequately tapped into, the net needs to be cast until it bursts. So loss can be easier absorbed.
We cannot put all the eggs in the same basket - of the top players or the star-studded teams.
The wider a base, the higher the pyramid.
As published last year, Derry sat in the top three in terms of money being brought in for coaching. There is also a strategy being implemented, with help from the Ulster Council, to develop Gaelic games in Derry city.
There have been great strides made at development squad level, but the resources need spread into the smaller clubs and schools.
Not every club has a Mattie Brady – who is pretty much Bellaghy’s dedicated strength and conditioning coach. One look at the club’s minor team tells you all you need to know about the three year programme he put them through.
Under Mickey Moran, fitness and strength guru Ollie Cummings was the secret weapon to Slaughtneil’s success. In conjunction with the club’s highly rated physio Moira Jane Devlin, they kept the club’s overused limbs – across both codes – in full working order.
Some of Coleraine’s players have expertise in the fitness industry. It isn’t feasible for clubs to all have this level of expertise.
Smaller clubs don’t have the same way of generating income for outside fitness experts or might not have anyone within, armed with the knowledge.
Chrissy McKaigue in St Mary’s Limavady and Benny Marron, the GAA Development Officer in St Mary’s Magherafelt, are welcome additions.
But, as I have mentioned before, every school should be given the same opportunity.
That’s where I feel the county’s development squad theme needs to extend its arm. With a decrease in schools’ budgets and more pressure for results in the classroom, a helping hand would go a long way. Even on a regional basis.
Think of the difference if every player was afforded the same opportunity to physically develop.
With the Ulster Colleges and Vocational Schools organisations now merged, the Derry schools have more access to playing at the top level.
With last week’s job cuts in Ulster GAA, following the cessation of the Curriculum Schools’ Programme it demonstrates how Stormont (or the lack of it) has sold our children short. The GAA will need to step in.
But further up the ladder, at post-primary level, if schools were given more investment they could be become another level of development squad. Between club and county.
While the county’s senior team embarks in a season on the bottom rung of the ladder, the underage county squads, clubs and schools have never been in a healthier state.
It is time to unite all three.
While the children await the visit of Santa, the Gaels of Derry hope for a county they can shout from the rooftops about again.
Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal have all done it.
It’s time Tyrone’s challenger in Ulster wore red and white.
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