The difference 371 days has made to Derry football.... and the bus companies are delighted!
Just over one year ago - 371 days to be precise - after their last visit to headquarters, Derry experienced an altogether different Croke Park at the weekend
I remember sitting in Croke Park on March 30th, 2019 when Christopher McKaigue rather sheepishly lifted the Division Four title after defeating Leitrim. The celebrations were similarly muted on Saturday, June 19th last year after Offaly had been despatched with a minimum of fuss. Anyone unfamiliar with the 0-21 to 1-06 scoreline would have had to ask which team had won such was Derry’s stoic, business-like demeanour as they departed the capital.
Both those trips to Dublin had a ‘fish out of water’ feel to them; a distinct ‘Derry don’t belong here’ shadow lurking in the background which undoubtedly contributed to the low key, almost embarrassed acceptance of silverware. Of course, there were reasons they were there - some controllable, some not - but it was hard not to think back to those recent dates when Derry’s fifth fantastic finish of the day was flashing past Clare keeper Tristan O’Callaghan on Saturday afternoon. It was difficult not to think back and compare the emotions involved.
You see the strange thing about last Saturday was the over-riding feeling that - unlike those trips of 2019 and 2021 - the All Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-final in front of over 50,000 fans was somewhere this Derry squad very definitely DO belong.
Nerves were at a minimum as the Oak Leaf media assembled for a quick pre-match cuppa in the excellent press facilities under the Hogan Stand. The accepted wisdom was if Derry played well they would win but the most refreshing aspect was the confidence that they would. There’s no guarantee of victory in any sport but good teams - the top teams - they guarantee performance and Derry are arriving at that point. They’ve gone from talented but unpredictable to skilful, efficient and reliable, even on the biggest days.
And don’t be fooled by the ‘only Clare’ nonsense being pedalled by a few after the 5-13 to 2-08 victory. Clare may have been the weakest of the last eight, but they’re a tried and trusted Division Two outfit who earned their place in the quarter-finals. Colm Collins’ team are no pushovers, just ask a Roscommon team that will be playing Division One football next season if you need a second opinion.
And that’s what was so impressive about Derry on Saturday. They looked a level above the Banner County, they looked like a higher Division team doing a professional job on an underdog. It’s been an evolving job under Rory Gallagher since that successful Division Three campaign but he now has a squad which offers him options as witnessed by Brendan Rogers’ move to midfield and an more attacking role for the imperious Conor Glass.
The notion that the only Derry threat is Shane McGuigan has proved without foundation in this championship run as well as Niall Loughlin, Gareth McKinless, Paul Cassidy and others have all stepped up to the plate at different junctures while Benny Heron is responsible for a thriving cottage industry in Ballinascreen poster making that may need to be advertising for staff shortly!
And there’s no danger of Rory Gallagher allowing anyone to get carried away by a first semi-final in 18 years. The speed with which the Derry players disappeared after the match illustrated they weren’t interested in basking in the glow of a quarter-final victory they saw as just another step forward.
Galway will be a considerable step up in class on July 9th. Anyone who witnessed the league meeting in Owenbeg would have known that even before the dramatics of Sunday’s thrilling victory over Armagh but it’s a relatively new sensation for Derry fans to be able to approach such a huge fixture knowing you will get a performance. It may or may not be enough for victory but the hard work, dedication and ability of these Oak Leaf players has restored Derry’s footballing pride and for that alone they deserve another army of thousands to descend on Croke Park in two weeks time.
The Derry bus companies must be making a fortune!