Barton and Derry focused on continuing their education through the qualifiers
Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30
A few weeks back, Derry found themselves stuck for numbers in an A versus B training game.
In went 54-year-old manager Damian Barton, All-Ireland winner in 1993, onto the edge of the square. When they finished up, he had 1-4 to his name.
When it's mentioned to him, he laughs and tries to palm it off as harmless rumour. He knows it might look like a Glenn Hoddle embarrassing David Beckham on the training ground by demonstrating a skill. What it is, though, is a manager growing into a role he always wanted.
And maybe he wanted it a little too much. At the start of the year, Barton (right) was handed an eight-week touchline ban after getting tangled in a spat during Derry's defeat to Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup final. The Derry league campaign stuttered from early wins to a series of defeats, Barton caged in his seat in the stands. Now, nine weeks on from that ugly defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster Championship, he and Derry are 70 minutes from being in the last eight in the All-Ireland race, should they take care of Tipperary in Cavan this evening.
"At the end of the day, it is 24/7," he says of his duties as an inter-county manager. Last Monday, he and his management team met at 3pm. They emerged three hours later, all assigned various tasks relating to Tipperary.
"Then, there are the other uncontrollable issues such as the stuff in the media and, Jesus Christ, these people need to stand on the sideline, go to training two or three times a week, taking calls at two in the morning!
"Maybe all of that is not enticing. But that is the level of commitment that Gaelic football demands and requires now."
He is a three-dimensional character outside of this narrow prism of Gaelic football. A technology teacher in St Patrick's Dungannon, his wife Róisín volunteers for Marie Curie and the pair have hosted numerous charity fundraisers such as 'Strictly Come Dancing' at his club, Sean O'Leary's Newbridge.
Róisín can't get enough of charity cycles, having turned pedals in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Yosemite National Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Great Wall of China. A few years back, Damian joined her for a trip through the Rocky Mountains.
He's tried other things, but they just didn't work the way football does. On Tuesday during the hottest day of the year, he remarked, 'It would be a sin to be playing golf,' before going back to pulling weeds on his daughter's lawn. He would hate the term, but in his managerial beliefs, he is new-age.
"Flexibility, yoga and Pilates and so on is so underestimated and underrated. Things I would like to explore. I think some teams are showing more of an appreciation of that now," he mentions.
In a recent match-day programme, Derry player Ger O'Kane was asked his worst training drill and replied; 'Damian Barton's array of stretches on the Terra Firma.'
And yet, this rounded individual attracted mockery in the wake of their championship loss to Tyrone. The week after, his former team-mate Joe Brolly even attached a mock-up death notice mourning the loss of Derry football in his column. He won't be drawn to comment on Brolly, instead preferring to talk about another team-mate, current selector Tony Scullion, and their roll around the Breffni Park sideline celebrating last weekend's win over Cavan.
"I sort of jumped into him and my assumption was that Tony would be strong enough to hold me up!" he laughs. "Tony is a very passionate fella. GAA in the truest sense. There are no agendas with Tony, certainly not one of self-promotion."
The Cavan win (four points down at half-time) followed the Meath win (seven down at half-time), building on from the Louth win. The Tyrone loss has been purged from their systems, with Barton feeling they focused too much on strategy in that game.
Derry were one of the first counties to grasp the opportunity of the back door in the early years, blindsiding Tyrone in the 2001 quarter-final and avenging their earlier defeat in Ulster.
The chaos of hastily-arranged match-ups, "has been good for us," insists Barton. "If you draw comparison for how teams should prepare for the provincial championship, you are preparing, preparing, preparing.
"(It's) an awful lot of emotional stress, emotional pressure. If things don't work out, it capitulates in a game scenario. The recovery through the qualifiers is very good."
Talk of being relaxed prompts a discussion on his sideline demeanour and that ban.
"At the end of the day, this is my first year managing the county team. On reflection, I have a lot to learn as well," he admits.
"The person I am, I am a hands-on person. I play the game on the sideline and sometimes that can blind you. You are too involved in the game and you don't maybe see things that you should with a colder look… This game of ours' lives and breathes and it takes on a life of its own. You have to go with it."