There’s a photographic mural on the interior wall as you enter Sean Dolan’s impressive new clubhouse at Piggery Ridge.
Toward the bottom of the collage of images, underneath a signed Slaughtneil jersey donated as a token of gratitude for use of the facilities, is a Dolan’s underage team from a few years back. Smiling on the left of the young team is Alan Grant, current Derry senior hurler and former Christy Ring All Star. On the right is the late Derry City captain, Ryan McBride and in the centre of the front row, his spiked hair dyed Dolan’s red, is current Irish international James McClean.
The Creggan has never been short of sporting excellence.
Strange then that Sean Dolan’s story has so often been one of sporting struggle. Bar the memorable treble year of 2009, Dolan’s has been a story of untapped GAA potential.
The times, though, they are a changing.
Last week, Dolan’s welcomed the Derry senior footballers to Creggan for an open training session awash with young players and parents alike. It was the latest sign of those changing times.
“Creggan people are proud of where they are from. We are proud of where the club is and that’s a big part of what we are trying to do. We really want to create that sense of community. It is a community club and we are tapping into it now,” explains Brian O’Donnell, Games Promotion Officer at the club and one of the driving forces behind the changing face of Gaelic Games in the city.
“You are really educating people. A lot are not from GAA backgrounds so it’s up to us to get to them early and explain what the GAA is about.”
That sense of community pride is evident within minutes of talking to Brian, but the Tipperary native still has a gripe about the journey that took him from Clonmel to Creggan in the early ‘90s,
“I’m always reminding the boys I missed out on seven senior championship medals by playing for Dolan’s,” smiles the former Moyle Rovers club man who can count double All Star winner, Declan Browne, among his former team-mates at Rovers.
O’Donnell has had no luck in Championship terms. He retired from playing 12 months before Dolan’s historic treble season under Geoffrey McGonigle but his impact off the field is laying the foundations for a brighter future, a future that looked in jeopardy as recently as December 2011.
The early hours of December 28th 2011 looked to have finished Dolan’s. What was eventually shown to be an arson attack left the clubhouse in smoking ruins and the club at a crossroads. For five years O’Donnell and a small band of members maintained only a nomadic senior team who relied on council pitches and fellow city clubs’ facilities to train and play matches. It was touch and go if they would make it.
“There was no point in getting the club rebuilt if we weren’t going to put the building blocks in place around it,” adds Brian.
“We were using council pitches; other clubs helped us out - Na Magha helped a lot - we played everywhere. We just kept the thing going.
“It was a collective effort and there were days when you thought, ‘What am I doing?’ and days when you felt like jacking it in. I think it will all be worth it. We know we have the footballers here in Creggan but we have to build the next senior team.
“Remember two years before the fire we had won the Junior Championship and a clean sweep of trophies. We had a couple of years playing intermediate football and then the fire hit.
“Around four or five of us on the committee and a dedicated bunch of players kept the football going. We were determined we weren’t letting it go and proved we were able to do it without a base but having that home is crucial to get the young people through the doors.
“We have big plans for the future. There is another big development happening over the next year or two. We are building an indoor 4G facility and a second floor on the club house with a gym and a social space which is so important. We are keen to push the cultural side of things with music and language as well. We need the whole package.”
Those plans are gathering pace and the state of the art clubhouse and pitch which greeted the Oak Leaf senior team last week undoubtedly caught a few players and officials by surprise but Dolan’s have never been a club to conform to expectations.
Creggan’s inner-city societal issues are something most clubs in the county would never encounter and Brian believes the club has an important role to play as a safe haven from any discourse.
“We don’t get into the politics side of things. We know where we are and know different people have various thoughts but we don’t get into it. When anyone comes through that gate it is football only.
“It is important for us to provide an outlet for the young people in the community. Creggan is a great community with great people and it’s up to us to build that parish feeling.”
And O’Donnell, who works alongside fellow city GPOs Eoghan Carlin, Matthew Maguire and Neil Forester, has no doubt where those first building blocks have to be placed.
“The schools are the only way the city is going to work,” he states emphatically. “It was only 2016 when we really got started at this. Since 2011 we had been running with just a senior team for five years, no kids at all at the club, and you cannot survive like that. You have to have players to replenish and we feel we have started that process but it is a long process.
“I knew when I took this on that it would be a long term role. This is a 15 or 20 year plan, we know change won’t happen over night. We are in no panic, no rush. We have to do things right rather than quickly.
“I can’t do this forever. I realise personally, I’m putting a lot of work in at present and that’s not sustainable either so we’re now starting to get more people on board in terms of coaching and if we do these things right, and put in a good five years, then the structures will be there to allow us to keep it going and growing.
“We have a great facility here. We’re lucky but for the city to work all the clubs need to grow together. Instead of all being at the same low level, we need to improve together and raise the standard collectively.
“We have a massive catchment area, almost half the population of the whole county, so we have to make it work.
“It’s been hard in the past when a lot of clubs didn’t have a base. You need a home. We have this new pitch and clubhouse now, Doire Colmcille have their new pitch and clubhouse, Trasna’s is on the go at the minute and that helps everyone.
“Even though we are all big rivals, at the GPO level, the four lads, we all work brilliantly together. We have the same ambition for the city. We all put the rivalry aside when we have to. Everyone wants their own club to do well, of course, but we can see the big picture as well.”
Derry City has long been the Oak leaf GAA conundrum no one could solve but perhaps that was because past generations have been seeking a ‘magic pill’ or ‘silver bullet’ style approach where there was never going to be one. No one simple cure for the complicated and cultural shift that is needed.
Instead collective thinking and simple hard graft are finally showing reward making inroads, not just in Dolan’s but also in Doire Colmcille, Doire Trasna, Na Magha and Culmore Cú Chulainns though it remains a fledgling project.
“I was away working for a few years and fell out of it for a while but from 2016 I have been back in the schools and, as I said, they are the key.
“When I started you were looking at maybe only six schools that were playing Gaelic football regularly in blitzes and stuff but we have that figure up to 26 or 27 now.
“Someone has put the figure at a 500% rise in participation levels in five years which is crazy and we still think it is only a start. You can see it, more so this year.
“And yes, the numbers have gone up but now the standards are starting to go up too. You could see it in the primary school finals and things like that. The football has gone up a notch or two and we are hoping all the city teams can now go out and play in the county and compete with the traditional big guns. That’s the aim for us.”