DERRY GAA: ​Masters prove life in the old Oak dogs yet!

​EVERY great journey begins with a first step, and Derry Masters will make their bow when they play their first game in the All Ireland Masters series tomorrow at Owenbeg.
The new Derry Masters panel at a recent training session at Owenbeg. the team start their league campaign this weekend against Donegal.The new Derry Masters panel at a recent training session at Owenbeg. the team start their league campaign this weekend against Donegal.
The new Derry Masters panel at a recent training session at Owenbeg. the team start their league campaign this weekend against Donegal.

Without doubt it will be a tough first day back at school for the debutant Oakleaf veterans, facing a side well-seasoned and successful at Masters football. Derry will host reigning 2022 All Ireland Shield champions, Donegal. A late Paddy McNulty goal sealed the title for Donegal against Galway side in a highly competitive final at Connolly Park, Sligo.

Masters football aims to provide players over 40 years of age the chance to pull on their county colours and represent the county in an All-Ireland Championship each year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The GAA Masters, in its current guise, has been in existence since 2014 when Galway and Mayo contested both the 2014 and 2015 All Ireland finals. The league has grown from strength to strength since then, with as many as 23 counties now fielding teams for the forthcoming 2023 season.

Indeed, for such a storied county like Derry, with its rich footballing tradition, it seemed such a pity for them not to participate until now at this more mature age grade.

But having watched on from the sidelines for too long it was finally time for the Oakleaf County to awaken and take its place amongst the Masters combatants.

Former Derry star Paul McFlynn explained how he first became involved in the project. “It had been on my mind for a year or two. You’d see on Twitter the likes of Tyrone winning All Irelands at the Masters and you’d be getting texts from boys saying, ‘When are we going to get our act together?’”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

McFlynn, who made his Derry senior debut away to Kerry in 1996 as an 18 year old under Brian Mullins, would go on to play for Derry for a decade. And the idea of once again pulling on the hallowed red and white Derry top had been occupying McFlynn in recent years.

“It had actually been in the back of my mind since the club thirds had been up and running,” he explained, “And I always thought we could see a natural progression to the Masters with a lot of Thirds players in that Over 40s bracket.

“I got speaking to various people then to see if it would be viable,” continued the Loup man. “I got chatting to Stephen Barker (Derry Chief Executive), and to various players around that age category to see if they would be interested. I saw there was a definite interest for boys playing so I approached the GMA - the Gaelic Masters Association, the body which runs the All Ireland Masters series. I had a chat with them and we went from there.”

Numbers have been impressive at recent Owenbeg training sessions, with the likes of former inter-county greats Paddy Bradley and Kevin McGuckin rubbing shoulders with classy club footballers like Brian Mullan from Glenullin and Glack’s Jimmy O’Connor.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We’ve had four sessions now and it’s been going well,” explained McFlynn. “We’d have a panel of 50 but with players having so many commitments you’d have 30 or so on any given day.”

Asked just how ambitious Derry can be in their first season in Masters Football, the former Derry player remained modest. “There’s definitely a sense of going into the unknown for us. But we’re hoping that we can be competitive and you just want to give a good account of yourself.”

Derry will begin a six game league campaign this weekend at Owenbeg, with away trips to Antrim and Tyrone to follow. Games against Down, Cavan and Louth complete Derry’s league campaign, with the top sides going into play-offs.

“The county board are fully supportive and behind us, the boys have trained well and we have a good management team in place.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Slaughtneil’s James McGrath and McFlynn’s former Derry team mate, Ronan Rocks complete that 2023 management team.

“It was something we talked about this last few years,” said Rocks with his usual no nonsense enthusiasm. “It’s alright talking about something but it’s a different matter doing it. And to be fair to the likes Paul McFlynn and Stevie Doherty they took the bull by the horns and made it happen.”

Micky Moran called Rocks into the Derry senior squad in 1995 in Celtic Park. The Bellaghy man made his Championship debut in 1997, before calling time on his intercounty career due to cancer in 2003.

Rocks has reinvented himself as a sweeper/keeper in recent weeks at Owenbeg training sessions and brings a real Tony Scullion level of infectious intensity on and off the pitch.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I’m enjoying it,” he continued with a twinkle in his eye. “It was a ‘feeling out’ process at the start. We didn’t know who was going to be showing up, what the calibre of player was going to be, who was going to be managing even. I had a whistle in my pocket and next thing I know I’m the team coach!”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s opening fixture, the former Derry man is anticipating a tough encounter.

“Donegal are very well experienced at Masters football and it’s a tough fixture to start us off. I think they won the All Ireland Masters Shield last year. But even not knowing how teams at this age set up these days – do they set up defensively or do they go old school? That’s all a learning curve for us.

“But when that first whistle goes on Saturday you’ll see the fire still burns as brightly in the lads wearing Derry tops as it does in me.”

Derry Masters v Donegal Masters – Saturday 2pm at Owenbeg. All welcome!