Ulster Championship win caps Donnacha's dream Derry return from injury

Amid the unforgettable scenes of Oak Leaf celebration in Healy Park on Friday night, one player was dressed with an infectious grin that suggested he could barely believe his luck.

On his back was the Derry No. 10 shirt and behind him were 16 months of hard toil, patience and rehabilitation from an injury that should have meant he never saw his minor year. But Donnacha Gilmore was offered an unlikely second chance by the Covid lockdown and seized it with both hands.

It was February 2020 when the rising Brian Ogs star suffered the cruciate ligament damage doctors warned would sideline him for the best part of 12 months. With the Ulster Minor Championship due to start against Armagh in a matter of weeks, Gilmore resigned himself to the role of frustrated spectator. Covid changed all that but even when his team-mates eventually did begin their twice cancelled Championship in December 2020, Gilmore was synonymous by his absence, but all the while working his way back.

Friday night was the culmination of that effort and worth every second of hard work as the marauding Gilmore produced a superb display at both ends of the pitch, knitting play together for Derry, shutting down Monaghan and bringing energy and direction to a superb Oak Leaf victory.

Donncha Gilmore capped a remarkable return to Derry's minor squad by helping lift the Ulster Championship title against Monaghan in Healy Park on Friday.

“Had this game taken place even six months ago I wouldn’t have been able to play,” explained the Brian Ogs teen, “I was lucky to get back when I did. With the year that was in it with Covid and what not, that gave me the time to come back with no pressure on me. I was able to take my time to recover but it’s really fantastic, unbelievable even, to come back to this and play in an Ulster final.

“I did my ACL and it was a very long rehab, very boring, but in one way I was lucky that it happened during Covid because that meant I didn’t miss too much in terms of matches. I had already given up on this Ulster Championship last year before things shut down. In fact I had actually given up on my next year as well which makes it even better to be back here on a night like this.

“I was still up every week at county training. I did most of my rehab up there anyway. Everyone was great when I was out, making sure I was still part of the panel and, yeah, it’s great to be back playing with the team and to finish off winning an Ulster title is fantastic.”

The Steelstown player admitted Derry were holding on at the end of a pulsating final and paid tribute to how Martin Boyle and his management team had prepared them.

“It was a great game and great result but very tough trying to hold out,” explained Gilmore, who is set to continue his studies at university in Galway after the summer, “Monaghan were loading every man forward and we were down a man so it was really great to hold out. The substitutes coming on helped as well, Ryan McEldowney scored a great point at a crucial time. It was an amazing feeling to hold out and finish up as Ulster champions.”

Derry now face Meath in the All Ireland semi-final this weekend in Newry, a match Donncha and his team-mates are relishing.

“It’s every player’s dream to compete for an All Ireland and I’m really looking forward to the semi-final. We have a strong team with a lot of character. We have been playing with each other for three or four years now and have come together as a really strong unit.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything more, especially with the management. As a squad we are very lucky to have the management team we have. They deserve a lot for credit for this.”