Sunday 15 December 2019

Potent coalition of bold and new

Brian McIver has got the Derry footballers playing like a united force once again

Tony Scullion: 'Yes, there is a new-look team but if you asked me to target one player who epitomises what this year is about so far, without question it is Mark Lynch'
Tony Scullion: 'Yes, there is a new-look team but if you asked me to target one player who epitomises what this year is about so far, without question it is Mark Lynch'

Damian Lawlor

FOR Derry people, there's a reason to believe again thanks to a splendid resurgence that is becoming more defined with every passing week.

Perhaps Derry's progress can be traced to a pre-season regime that began last July. Maybe it's down to the fact that they've changed style. Or that a number of new players have flooded the squad, bringing energy and gusto with them.

For Tony Scullion, Derry's four-time All Star, it's a mix of factors that finally looks to have a team moving in the one direction.

"What's happening is a collective effort," he says. "Yes, there is a new-look team but if you asked me to target one player who epitomises what this year is about so far, without question it is Mark Lynch. Mark Lynch is symbolic of where this team has come from."

With his skill-set and artistry, Lynch was a boy wonder. At 16, he steered the Derry minors to an All-Ireland title in 2002 and shone like a beacon on the St Patrick's Maghera side that won the 2003 Hogan Cup. Fast-forward 12 years and Lynch, now 28, remains this Derry team's greatest source of invention, but there have been some wasted years in between. Save for some Sigerson Cup success in the mid-noughties, Lynch has never fulfilled the potential that lay in front of him. Until now, that is.

The great news for Derry's manager Brian McIver is that other senior players have also been rejuvenated, Fergal Doherty for example. To add to this, three new faces have burst onto the team while the likes of Seán Leo McGoldrick and Enda Lynn have maintained their high standards. It's that mix of something old, something new, allied to a born-again creativity that sees Derry in today's league final.

"That would be about the best summary of where we're at," Scullion says. "It's not a new team, but it's a new-look team playing with a different style. Some players are enjoying their first season, others enjoying a return to form and there are quite a few hungry to catch up with the big boys.

"I hope Mark won't mind me saying this, but for a few years there I felt his fitness was a bother. He would always make one or two surging and penetrating runs in games but didn't look like he could make many more. Now he's at full pelt from start to finish in a game, up and down. His gifts were never in doubt, but his fitness was. That has clearly been addressed and look at the effect it's had on the team."

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Apart from Lynch, Brian McIver can take huge credit for that transformation. After last year's extra-time qualifier exit to Cavan, McIver didn't wallow for long. And while the defeat was still raw he went back to work. Within two weeks of that home defeat to Cavan, he had sounded the horns for a return to training. Eyebrows were raised locally, with the club championship in full flow, but the manager didn't care. He was his own man through all the fuss. Derry were a mile off the big boys and unless he acted immediately McIver realised they would not close the gap.

He had enough of the freewheeling. Since 2008, when they lost to Fermanagh, Derry had been coasting. Damien Cassidy, Paddy Crozier and John Brennan all took charge and tried their best. They reached an Ulster final in 2011, but that was about it. They became the forgotten men of Ulster football. They continued to confound and bewilder. There were more excuses than solutions.

Still, for all this talk of the 'new team' McIver has built, Lynch, Chrissy McCaigue, Gerard O'Kane, Seán Leo McGoldrick, Enda Lynn and Fergal Doherty are all survivors from the 2009 league final team.

That's remarkable when you consider that just three years later they had regressed to such an extent to be on the brink of relegation to Division 3.

This left McIver with a pretty straightforward decision to build a different structure when he took charge of the side in late 2012. He kept some of the foundations in place, but dropped 11 players from the panel. Ten rookies were introduced including players like (then) 18-year-old Ciarán McFaul, who had excelled in the Ulster minor club championship. McFaul is now a key member of their attack and one of nine under 21s in the squad. Thomas Mallon, Oisín Duffy and Kevin Johnston have come out of nowhere to nail down championship places. Along the way they have sealed a leaky defence.

Such an injection of youth has recharged the team, but perhaps persuading 32-year-old midfielder Fergal Doherty to return was just as important. Doherty had not played for the county since the 2010 All-Ireland qualifiers but McIver got him back. Right now, there are 37 other players learning from Doherty and benefiting from his know-how.

Nothing has been won, but there are no signs of a team losing their manic drive either, nor does it look like they will lag from the staleness of having resumed training eight months ago, following that defeat to Cavan.

"We had just a week and a half," McFaul recalls. "Then we were back into it doing the gym, and then one night a week up in Owenbeg for about a month and a half and then straight into training. We were going to come up against the likes of Dublin. Those teams would embarrass you if you weren't as fit as them."

With burnout being such a problem these days, McIver was taking a risk but Scullion says there was no chance of them being flogged.

"No, look at the level of expertise you are dealing with in the backroom," he says. "A lot of it was proper weight training, not running laps or lifting huge weights. It's been core stuff, light weights and plenty of reps. Keeping the players strong and lean. Burnout would never have been an issue. The players would have been carefully monitored and individual schedules looked at. The bottom line is that while we are going down to play Dublin in a league final, we are nowhere near Dublin's level. We are way off them. They have four to five years of hard conditioning done so that's why Brian had to act so swiftly after last year, especially as the first target was to maintain our Division 1 status. He's exceeded everyone's expectations, but as I say this work was necessary."

Scullion, one of the most respected coaches in the game, also welcomes the change in tack under McIver. For a team that started the season as 5/4 second favourites behind Westmeath for relegation, they had a semi-final slot secured after six rounds. McIver had successfully forged a balance between survival and experimentation. And surpassed his targets along the way.

It's the first time since the Eamon Coleman era that Derry look so united, with a fiery flame burning brightly. It's far too premature to herald the birth of a new football force, but they have a very measured and constructive side on view today, one that is capable of grinding teams into submission, or switching tack at very short notice. One that will keep running at Dublin today.

In years gone by, Derry would loft it quick and long to one of the Bradley brothers and while the returns were often handsome, they ran into dead ends too. Now that luxury is no longer there – unless McIver can see fit to integrate Eoin into the panel for the championship when his soccer commitments are over; but that looks unlikely.

"Yes, it's different now," Scullion elaborates. "They run with the ball a lot more and if a long kick is on, and the chances are good, they will employ that tactic. But more and more they are looking to Lynch and Enda Lynn, one of the best ball-carriers around. He is up and down, making turnovers. They attack on the flanks with speed. We don't have big 6' 5" men to throw in at full-forward but one thing I have noticed is that we have the ability to change our style in games. That's a great sign of the coach."

McIver has always gone about his business with a minimum degree of fuss, leading Ballinderry to an All-Ireland club title, doing well with Donegal and also helping Down reach an All-Ireland final. He is one of the most under-rated coaches around.

If they win today, which could be a step too far, his reputation will soar to altogether new heights, but, as Scullion points out, the key date in Derry's calendar is that rendezvous with Donegal in the Ulster championship. Only then will they know where they really stand.

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