DERRY GAA: Tough questions lie ahead after Oak Leaf relegation

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Germany win the World Cup; Scotland says ‘No’ to independence and the ‘ice bucket challenge’ grips the globe.

Sorry, that was 2014 but if people want to continue talking like it’s 2014, then, yes, Derry are Division One finalists.

It’s not 2014 and people need to stop talking like it is. Indeed, some need to stop talking like it’s 1993!

This year marks 20 years since the Oak Leaf county lifted the Ulster Senior Football Championship. Only twice in the interim years has the county even made the final (2000 & 2011). Derry have seven Ulster Championship wins in total. Only Fermanagh - yet to taste success - have less in the history of the competition.

That’s not league football of course but Championship is the true gauge we’re told and those facts don’t make pretty reading. Some would do well to remember them whilst scratching their heads on social media and wondering, how did we end up here?

The post-mortems are in full swing but it’s only in the movies that we get a big reveal and the evil mastermind who caused all the trouble is unveiled. This isn’t Hollywood. There’s no big reveal to solve the problem and Derry are in Division Four because that’s where the last four years say they belong.

It isn’t Damian McErlain’s fault. It’s not Damian Barton’s, nor is it Brian McIver’s. The situation is a culmination of factors which have at their heart an underlying apathy toward the success of the county team.

Every Oak Leaf Gael wants the county team to succeed but that’s not the question we should be being asking. The question people should be asking is, ‘How much do we want the county team to succeed and what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?’

It’s not an easy question to answer and much more complex than a few hundred words allows. The past decade has seen the emergence of full-time county set-ups taking on part-time county set-ups and as the elite moves further into the distance, the problem becomes more acute for counties like Derry.

Strong Derry clubs are continuously cited as the problem and there’s no doubt that the strength of the club can be the weakness of the county in the present era. The professional nature of the game at the top level now makes it impossible for players to balance family, life, work and two hugely demanding sporting masters. And for trying to do so, they are often pillared and criticised or described as not caring enough for either club or county. The players can’t win.

The Derry club championship has always been held in high regard but if the club scene was truly so strong would Slaughtneil have dominated the past four years with such relative ease?

That’s not the Emmet’s fault. They are a superb template for clubs across the country and there’s little doubt that had Derry had the Slaughtneil contingent available, they would not be starting next season in the bottom tier. At least five, possibly more, Slaughtneil players would be starters and that’s losing a third of your team to begin with but arguments over personnel merely paper over the cracks.

Danny Heavron, Emmet McGuckin, Ryan Bell and one or two others have a strong case as to why they deserve to be in the panel but that’s a manager’s choice and it’s not like most possible county players in Derry haven’t had a chance over the past four years. Derry’s turnover of players in that period has been huge.

The most worrying trait from that is the comfort with which players feel entitled to walk away or not join up in the first place. Not being selected for a few games should not be reason enough to turn your back on your county. It’s easy to look at that and say the players don’t care but nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t go through what these boys go through because you don’t care but it’s almost a curse these days to be a talented footballer because your life is no longer your own.

When Damian McErlain came in he made the conscious decision to base his plans around the successful minor teams that took Derry to three Ulster minor finals and one All Ireland final. That is a sound plan and remains so, even after Sunday. It wasn’t as if he was dispensing with a trophy laden blue-print but now is the time to be steadfast.

So far almost everything has been to blame and I’m sure Vladimir Putin must be waiting to have his name mentioned in the next County Board meeting.

Even Celtic Park got a mention on the list of culprits which says everything. It wasn’t so much of a problem back in 1993.

Negativity is the easiest thing in the world, especially negativity without culpability. Derry county football is now at its lowest ebb so we go back to that question, ‘How much do Derry Gaels want Derry to succeed?’

As a county, Derry has done its best to serve club and county and deserves huge credit for refusing to dilute the club game but as professionalism increases, tough decisions lie ahead, especially if the national calendar can’t be sorted.

That problem is out of Oak Leaf hands to an extent. The first focus has to be inward. Only 445 bothered to turn up when Derry defeated Wexford two weeks ago. Admittedly it wasn’t the most attractive fixture but a week previously when Armagh needed backing, Damian McErlain’s team faced a packed Athletic Grounds, roaring their side on and it won Armagh a tight game.

‘How much do we want the county team to succeed and what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?’

Answer that honestly and Derry will be back.