Derry must be willing to suffer to succeed

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“To succeed, all I need to do is suffer.”

The thoughts of the late, great Muhammad Ali, the world’s greatest sportsman, and someone who knew a thing or two about success against the odds. With hindsight it’s easy to look on Ali’s remarkable career as inevitable but that does a huge disservice to a fighter who transcended his sporting world. His famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman is the perfect example of a competitor’s refusal to accept the limitations others placed on him. Ali was 32 years old and not the force of old, having lost a bit of his speed and reflexes since his 20s. Almost no one associated with the sport, not even Ali’s long-time supporter, Howard Cosell, gave the then former World champion a chance of winning in Zaire.

History tells us a different story unfolded, one almost every sports fans of a certain vintage can recount even now, some 46 years later. Yet history doesn’t always tell us of the huge efforts Ali invested to win that fight, the personal sacrifices and the countless hours of training away from the glare of the cameras and his unique ‘showbiz’ personality. But watch any one of a number of excellent documentaries on that, or indeed any Ali fight, and his ‘suffering’ is there to see.

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The Derry senior footballers probably feel a bit like George Foreman did all those years ago after their Ulster Senior Championship exit but they shouldn’t. This defeat wasn’t a knock-out blow for a squad which has the potential and talent to bounce back.

Rory Gallagher gives some words of encouragement to his Derry players during the second half water break on Sunday in Celtic Park.Rory Gallagher gives some words of encouragement to his Derry players during the second half water break on Sunday in Celtic Park.
Rory Gallagher gives some words of encouragement to his Derry players during the second half water break on Sunday in Celtic Park.

Post-match Rory Gallagher was longer than usual emerging for media duties due to a post-mortem that must have hurt the players and management but this can be part of Derry’s ‘suffering’ if they choose it.

The Oak Leaf boss is on record as saying he doesn’t want to waste time scouring the county for new players. He’s not interested in the perpetually moving Derry conveyor belt of players that we’ve witnessed over recent years. It makes for great press when we have constant new additions but it’s not the recipe for success. Gallagher has the players he wants and is prepared to back them. That should be music to the ears of a squad who proved on Sunday they should be competing at a higher level.

As a footballer, a manager’s confidence is a precious thing, and Gallagher has seen plenty of successful panels down through the years. He recognises those same ingredients in Derry but there are no short-cuts. If the success ‘pie’ takes 30 minutes in the oven, 15 are going to leave a bitter taste.

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Ironically, Armagh are the perfect template and provide frustrated Oak Leaf fans with an illustration of what it takes to build success. Only two years ago Kieran McGeeney’s team were in Division Three. Next season they will be competing at the top table against the Dublins, Kerrys and Donegals. That’s where Derry need to be. Indeed, it’s easy to argue that the need for league success currently outweighs that of the championship. Derry must get out of Division Three next season, nothing else will do.

That regular exposure to a higher grade of football has helped Armagh and was arguably the difference between progression and exit on Sunday. Derry didn’t do a lot wrong, especially in the second half, and but for some wasteful shooting during the critical period when Jamie Clarke was in the ‘bin’ would probably be lining up to face Donegal in the semi-final.

Throughout the game, Armagh showed the benefits of six years of conditioning under McGeney whereas Gallagher is barely six months into shaping his Oak Leaf squad.

Ciaran McFaul will be a pivotal cog in whatever Derry side eventually emerges over the course of Gallagher’s reign though and the Glen man was superb from a deep lying play-making position on Sunday. He was the best player on the pitch, his passing often deserving better movement from team-mates.

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Armagh were content to lie deep and allow Derry possession, knowing frustration is always the biggest enemy of the anxious. Under achievement instils that anxiety and probably explains the ill advised shots from McFaul, Brendan Rogers and Shane McGuigan during Clarke’s absence. It was the game’s crucial period and Derry were just that bit too anxious to make the numerical advantage count.

The Oak Leafers never quite nailed down Rory Grugan who was linking play and he revelled in the space while Oisin O’Neill was excellent, as was the free taking of brother, Rian, but it was Armagh’s formation and their clever and constant attacking rotation that caused Derry difficulty rather than any individual brilliance. That comes from years of training and playing together and when you have men like Clarke, Grugan and the O’Neills operating within such a structure it can be formidable.

The first half was the main source of frustration for Derry. They could and should have been closer than the 0-11 to 0-5 interval deficit. Emmett Bradley fisted one effort against the post and hit two others wide but it was the ease with which Armagh gained a number of their scores which will grate Derry even more than the wayward shots in the opening 35 minutes.

Jarlath Og Burns and Clarke were both afforded far too much space to shoot while Oisin O’Neill and Conor O’Neill benefited from sloppy Derry defending with points that proved crucial in the conclusion.

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It meant Derry were having to work much harder for scores than Armagh and that ultimately proved a bridge too far but it’s something that can be remedied with work.

Considering there were eight Ulster Championship debutantes on the field for Derry by the time the full time whistle sounded, this was a first step rather than a finale for Derry, with Gallagher stressing the need to stay together and stick at the process over the coming months. That’s is critical.

Last season Derry were more than competitive against Tyrone so fans will be wary of false dawns but this squad Gallagher has assembled has a different feel to it. Armagh came probably just too soon in terms of the teams’s evolution but it can be a marker with the 2021 season which is just around the corner.

Gallagher used the lockdown well, as has been evidenced in every Derry display since the resumption, but you don’t catch up on Division One teams in six months, no matter how much talent and potential you have.

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Football at the top level has gone professional in everything bar the money and there’s no point waving your arms and claiming, ‘It’s not fair’. If you want to compete at that level, the only answer is collective hard work over a period of time from talented players. Derry already have the talent. That’s beyond dispute. The question now is, how much are they willing to suffer?

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