Sport is littered with sliding door moments, a juncture between the closely intertwined paths of success and failure.
These moments are not always readily apparent to spectators; not always evident even to those involved but once in a while such moments play out in the full gaze of the public eye.
June 27th, 2015 was such a date.
Prior to that year the recent Oak Leaf minor record in Ulster was underwhelming at best. In the 20 years before 2015, Derry had appeared in only three Ulster Minor finals with a 13 year gap going back to Chris Brown’s 2002 winners. There was no shortage of effort, no lack of will but direction was needed, an over arching strategy aimed at returning Derry to the top table.
Ironically the catalyst for such change would emerge from Brown’s team in the form of the prodigiously talented Chris Collins. A knee injury ended what could have been one of the great Derry football careers for the centre-half back but it couldn’t stop Collins’ influence on Derry GAA. Indeed his appointment in February 2007, at only 24, as Games Development Officer would prove the catalyst for change that has seen Derry contest five of the last seven Ulster finals at minor level alone.
Among other initiatives, Collins started ‘Go Games’ in Derry, the breeding ground for so many talents; talents like 2017 Ulster minor winning captain and current Derry senior, Paudie McGrogan who, 10 years after he was first flying around Owenbeg as a smiling child for Newbridge in the ‘Go Games’ was leading Derry out in an All Ireland minor final. Collins’ influence was, and continues to be, immense.
But back to 2015. It’s fair to say Damian McErlain’s young Oak Leaf side had come in under the radar. It wasn’t that they weren’t fancied, it was just that most had already decided the Ulster, and possibly All Ireland titles, would be heading to Donegal that year via Declan Bonner’s hugely talented Tír Chonaill squad.
And so we arrive at June 27th and a Derry semi-final double header with Brian McIver’s seniors due to meet a Donegal team whose manager, a certain R. Gallagher of Fermanagh stock, would have a future role to play in the tale. It didn’t work for the Oak seniors that balmy Clones evening against Mr. Gallagher, but wheels were already in motion even before the senior throw-in, wheels that have carried Derry to this weekend’s Ulster Senior Championship final.
Like this weekend’s senior decider, McErlain’s 2015 team - a team including Conor Glass, Shane McGuigan, Shea Downey and Michael McEvoy among others - were underdogs, at least in the eyes of unsuspecting onlookers. Yet this was THE pivotal game for McErlain, Collins and the new Derry structure which had been slowly building foundations across the county. Participation was up, facilities had improved at clubs where underage success was never in short supply and the links with schools had been widened and strengthened.
Those were all huge steps forward but the acid test remains your county teams; your shop window for the masses to gauge (however superficially) the health of Gaelic Games within a county. Derry had been playing the long game with Collins but it was time to deliver, time to prove to any doubters that the hours, weeks, months and years of unheralded, unseen work being conducted across the county had a tangible end goal. A statement was needed and 2015 provided it.
Conor Glass was well known to all Derry GAA fans long before his seven points helped McErlain’s team to an injury time 0-11 to 0-09 lead on June 27th seven years ago. In an ideal world Derry’s performance would have been statement enough that day but championship football is an unforgiving arena which is cruel to all but the victors and deep into the third minute of three added, ‘Project Derry’ was about to have the rug pulled from under it.
With anyone in red and white whistling for full-time and Donegal piling on the pressure, Antrim referee Sean Laverty spotted an infringement in the square and Bonner’s men had a penalty. One kick to change the trajectory of two teams. One kick to change the trajectory of a county.
Conor Doherty was the Donegal player who bravely stepped up to face Callum Mullan-Young. Clones held its breath. His kick was well struck but rising, rising just enough indeed to clear the bar and the Derry we now recognise was born.
It’s oft forgotten this was a semi-final. Nothing was won yet such was the impact of that victory that the Ulster final victory over Cavan tends to get over looked. It really shouldn’t but talk to anyone within Derry GAA and they will point to that day in Clones. Hidden behind the disappointment that the seniors had lost was a realisation that the landscape was changing in the Oak Leaf county, that the work of Chris Collins and countless coaches and administrators was taking root.
It was 2015 that kickstarted the run of underage success that has fed the resurgence at senior level but Collins and Co. were not seeking to create one quality minor team, rather a system of development that could fuel future success. To that end 2015 was the first block, the cornerstone if you like but it’s been built on in 2017 and 2020 with tiers upon tier slowly beginning to reach senior level over the past few seasons as Derry once again climb the league tables.
But perhaps it’s time for another sliding doors moment, another leap rather than a step forward, just as the semi-final was seven years ago. Perhaps it’s already happened with the victories over Tyrone and Monaghan or perhaps it was Monday, September 2nd 2019 when a certain R Gallagher resumed his role in the Oak tale.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’ll be Sunday, May 29th 2022 back in Clones. Who knows? But isn’t it great to be dreaming big again. And all thanks to one kick in the Clones sun.