Sport Joe Brolly

Monday 23 April 2018

Joe Brolly: Abandoning our principles has left Derry in tatters

If things don’t change soon for Derry football, selling Celtic Park for social housing will be the only humane thing to do. Photo: Sportsfile
If things don’t change soon for Derry football, selling Celtic Park for social housing will be the only humane thing to do. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Horse goes into a pub and falls into conversation with a donkey. Says to the donkey, "What do you do for a living?" Donkey says, "I take kids on my back at the beach. What about yourself?" Horse says, "I'm retired now, just taking it handy." "What did you do?" asks the donkey. Horse says, "I don't want to blow my own trumpet but I used to be a champion racehorse." "No way," says the donkey. "I ran on the flat and over the jumps. Won the Derby, the St Leger and, in the twilight of my career, I won the Grand National." "Wow," says the donkey.

The two hit it off, share a half-dozen pints, and before they part, the horse agrees to come to the donkey's for dinner the following Friday. The donkey, desperate to impress his new friend, goes out next morning, buys a photograph of a zebra and hangs it over his mantelpiece. When the horse arrives for dinner on the Friday evening, he says, "Who is that in the photo?" Donkey says, "That's me when I played for Juventus."

After last Sunday, what will Derry people hang over their mantelpieces?

There may be no London in Derry, but Derry will soon be in London. Five years ago, Tyrone's Paddy Tally came in as the coach to our manager, Tyrone's Brian McIvor, and turned us from a footballing county with a glorious tradition of inconsistency and classy, maverick players, into an automated blanket defensive system where self-expression was banned.

It was the beginning of a self-defeating cycle. The players hated it and became disenchanted. Those who stayed became programmed to play rigidly and with fear. The ball was no longer kicked. Defenders no longer man-marked. Tyrone's McIvor, in the meantime, was made Derry's first director of football, a full-time, paid position.

Under his direction, we have been directed from Division 1 to Division 4 in the space of four years. As of this moment, we have a Tyrone minor manager and a Donegal under 20 manager. We have a coaching strategy that is a mess, notwithstanding the fact that we also have a full-time, very well-paid, director of coaching.

In the last ten years, we have received €1.2m in coaching and games development grants from Croke Park, third behind Dublin and Cork. Yet we have not created a team of top-quality coaches. The clubs and linked schools in the lower divisions have no coaches, unlike Dublin there is no quality assurance, and there is no accountability. The money may as well have been pissed down the drain.

The Board has no strategy, save for a short-sighted obsession with the county team. Since 2008, Derry have used 98 players in senior championship, second only to Leitrim on 99. We might as well have a revolving door at Owenbeg, such is the turnover of players and senior managers (five since 2010).

Celtic Park in Derry city was grand as a venue when we were in our pomp, but it is too far away from the football heartlands and we need to suspend its use. As fellow Derry sufferer Cahair O'Kane put it last week in his outstanding Irish News column, we need to bring the county game back to the people.

The chairman is unable to lead and cannot understand why things are collapsing around our ears. Finances are out of control (we spent £500,000 on our county teams last year) and we cannot beat Sligo. I have nothing against Tyrone Gaels, in truth they are the salt of the earth. But Tyrone would never appoint a Derry man as director of football, nor entrust their prized minor and under 20 duties to managers from Derry and Donegal.

The one light for Derry was in the appointment last year of Fergal 'Rooster' McCusker and the inimitable Enda Muldoon to run the then under 21 team. Fergal had been part of the management (with his All-Ireland winning team-mate Enda Gormley) of the Watty Graham's Maghera minor team that won an incredible four Ulster club minor titles in a row, playing Corofin-style football and bringing honour on the county.

Fergal struggled to convince the Derry squad to play a system that was better balanced towards attacking, long kicking from the defence and with a minimum of four forwards ahead of the ball. Yet it was soon bearing fruit. Two excellent performances in Ulster brought them to the final where they lost against an ultra-defensive Donegal after a red card and two blacks deprived the team of their star players with half an hour to go.

He was expecting a second term, but wasn't even contacted and eventually found himself ringing and leaving messages on the director of football's voicemail as the new season approached. Eventually, he found out from a third party that he was no longer required and a Donegal man was getting the job. Is it any wonder the clubs and the general GAA community in the county are disenchanted?

The board is in chaos. We only have one Derry man in a management position in the county. There is zero joined-up thinking. The result? We are haemorrhaging senior county players and while a crowd of almost 6,000 turned up to watch the recent MacRory Cup derby between St Patrick's Maghera and St Mary's Magherafelt, the county's two premier GAA colleges, not even 500 people are going to Celtic Park and fewer than 50 went to Sligo at the weekend.

Yet Derry teams have won the following: four of the last five Ulster minor club titles; four of the last six Ulster senior club titles; two of the last three Ulster minor championships, and three of the last five MacRory Cups, including a Maghera team that almost won back-to-back Hogan Cups.

Our clubs and schools are champion horses, yet the county senior team is a donkey. It is, of course, correct that we had a once-in-a-lifetime group in the 1990s, and a manager with the charisma and footballing know-how to create a team and the emotional intelligence to gel it all together. For such a small county (the main nationalist population is in Derry city which is solidly soccer), four National leagues, two Ulster championships and an All-Ireland in the space of eight years was not the norm.

It is also correct that clubs come first in Derry and that has always been the case. During that great era of Derry senior football, Derry clubs won six Ulster club titles, the point being that club and county success can co-exist, and in Derry, it must. Perhaps, as my dear brother texted on Sunday night, "We should follow Kilkenny's example, stop playing county senior football and sell Celtic Park for social housing."

I am not so gloomy. We need to create a five-year plan which revamps our approach to coaching, and integrates the schools with their local clubs. We need to handpick talented coaches who can then be held to high standards under the supervision of some of our high-end football people. We need to abolish the county development squads (minor is time enough) which are promoting elitism at far too young an age, stigmatising the lads who aren't picked and damaging the clubs, and are a complete waste of money.

The clubs and schools in the county are providing an excellent foundation and all of our recent successes are down to those coaches. Instead of throwing money away on development squads with coaches who are not at the requisite level, we need to concentrate on supporting the coaching in the schools and clubs.

We need a chairman of substance who gets it and will inspire and command the respect of the clubs and the community. Someone larger than life with a clear vision and strong work ethic, like Kieran McKeever or Anthony Tohill. A man who can bring the clubs and county together.

To give an idea of the unhealthy bubble that county football and the county board inhabit, there is not a single member of the 1993 squad involved at any level with the county. All of them are driving their clubs on. The Downeys and McGurks in Lavey, Kieran McKeever in Dungiven, the McCuskers and Enda Gormley in Maghera, Danny Quinn and Damian Cassidy at Bellaghy, Anthony Tohill at Swatragh, etc, etc.

We need to remove the Tyrone director of football, not just because he isn't a Derry man, but because if it is OK to remain in your post having overseen a collapse from Division 1 to Division 4, then the message is that failure is not just the norm, but is something to be rewarded. It also sticks the middle finger up at Derry folk.

I joked once that this Tyrone invasion was a plot to destroy Derry hatched by Mickey Harte. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so funny. We also need to remove the director of coaching, who on any objective analysis, has failed to achieve anything in the last decade.

We need to ensure that this is the last year when outside managers are brought in to look after our prized underage teams. In short, we need to go back to being Derry. Say what you like about the Tyrone men, and I have said plenty, but they bleed Tyrone.

Alternatively, we can leave things as they are, in which case we will soon be hanging zebras over the mantelpiece. And selling Celtic Park for social housing will be the only humane thing to do.

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