When it comes to Derry football and All-Ireland semi-finals, few men enter the psyche of GAA fans more than All-Ireland winning defender Johnny McGurk.
Eighteen years before Donegal’s famous half-back Kevin Cassidy kicked that memorable last second score against Kildare to send the Tír Conaill men into the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, McGurk (coincidentally another famous half-back) was doing the same for his native Derry – an infamous last-minute point off his left boot to send the Oak Leaf County into only their second All-Ireland final.
“That semi-final was probably the greatest feeling I had in my footballing career, not just because I scored the winning point in such a close game but because the atmosphere was amazing. We weren’t really expected to win that day.
"It was the only game I ever played in my life where you couldn’t ignore the presence of the crowd. You could feel the passion. It was spine-tingling. I hope the current panel can have those same feelings after the final whistle today,” said McGurk.
In drawing comparisons to the preparations that the current Derry team are undergoing to the ones that the All-Ireland winning team of 1993 went through, the Lavey man says it’s like ‘night and day’.
“There’s a great build-up around the county obviously, but there’s not a lot of excitement around the team itself. Rory has done a fantastic job at shielding the players and separating them from the spectators and fanfare,” he said.
"Whereas in ’93 after we won the Ulster title, we were very much a part of the fan’s celebrations and probably a little less focused on the task in hand.
“But that excitement perhaps carried us a bit into the semi-final in that we knew how much it meant to the people of Derry. We didn’t want to let them down. Whether it’s Rory or the players themselves, they’ve taken a very professional attitude towards this game. To them it’s just about getting the job done, which is great to see.”
During an era of Ulster dominance when Sam Maguire travelled to the Northern province an astonishing four years in-a-row (between ’91 and ’94), McGurk recalls the ability to create history is what drove the Derry team to greatness in ’93 and can see similar parallels in the current Oak Leaf squad to build their own legacy.
“I think that famous year in ’93, there was a bit of naivety in us. I feel we just took it game by game,” he said.
"There was no real expectation in the team itself, and we just played into that. Which is funny because we won the National league in ’92 and lost the Ulster final that year, so it’s not like we were nobodies. We just went under the radar for some reason. That’s not something I can say about the present team, there’s a greater expectation about them.
“For us, we were greatly inspired by the likes of Donegal and Down who did it the two years previously. We had to work really hard to compete with them. Believe me, there is a lot of work to do if you want to win an All-Ireland,” the Lavey man recalls.
McGurk finished that year as a cult hero in Derry, not only capturing the Sam Maguire, but also receiving an All-Star, as well as the Man of the Match award for his performance in the final. Yet the Derry defender can still look back at that time in feeling that more could’ve been achieved.
“If I take any sadness from that time, I would say it was most unfortunate that we didn’t win another All-Ireland, and I would say the same for Donegal.
"If the backdoor was there in our time, I’m sure that us and Donegal could’ve won another All-Ireland. But listen that’s life and I still have a medal that so many people in Derry could only dream of having.
“To me, this is the best chance that Derry are ever going to get to get into an All-Ireland final and win it. Look at the history books, we don’t get there that easily. And there’s no chance that they could be around next season, so, when the opportunity comes, you take it. Tyrone did it last year, Derry have to do it this year.”
Between ’93 and this current season, the Oak leaf county have gone through the doldrums of only capturing one Ulster title in 1998 and only reaching one Ulster final in an 11-year period between 2011 and 2022.
While there has been debate on club rivalry in the county playing a large factor in the inter-county teams strained success, McGurk feels it has simply come down to the teams of the past not being good enough.
“There are two things you would look at when accessing success in Derry. People say we would underachieve because of the club rivalry in the county, but there was always club rivalry in Derry, long before I was playing. So, I don’t buy into that.
"The second thing is Derry are not like a Kerry or a Dublin. We rarely win All-Irelands. Maybe we get ahead of ourselves as supporters and put ourselves in that bracket, but I think you have to be realistic and say we just weren’t good enough in the past and it’s just taken someone like Rory to come along and gel the players together.
“We know there was probably a lot of doubters around the county to Rory’s appointment in 2019, but aside from that, if you told me two years ago that Derry would be playing in an All-Ireland semi-final I would’ve laughed in your face. I didn’t think anyone could’ve fixed this team.”
So, what can we expect from the match in Croke Park on Saturday afternoon?
“I think Galway might play on the fact that they’ve beat Derry in the league. But the main thing Galway need to do is stay with Derry in terms of fitness because in terms of football this Derry team don’t build up massive leads.
"I can’t see Derry playing any differently than they did in the Ulster final where they play the game on their own terms and stay controlled. As many say, it’s like a game of chess. It has got them over the line in the past, but it can be a dangerous way to play when the going gets tough.
It may have 29 long years since McGurk kicked that heroic point to create history for his county that August afternoon in ’93, but it is something that has never left him, and no doubt will bring a smile to his face as he watches from the stands this afternoon in GAA Headquarters.
“It’s just a time I look back at in great fondness. These lads need to embrace tomorrow because as I said it doesn’t come around that often. I’ll be sitting next to Joe (Brolly) tomorrow so I’ll be having a different type of fun but no doubt that point from ‘93 will be there somewhere in the back of my mind.
“In terms of how that semi-final point has affected me? I still have Derry fans coming up and buying me a pint and as long as that continues the memories of that day will never leave me,” said McGurk.