Derry senior footballers are plying their trade in Division Four of the National Football League this year. You probably have to read that opening sentence twice, in order for the enormity of that fact to sink in.
How could it have come to this? In 2014, Derry contested the Division One league final against Dublin. The county were All-Ireland champions in 1993 and remained strong contenders in the Ulster jungle for some time afterwards.
Did they dine out on their historic ’93 success for too long?
Some pundits were disappointed that the Oak Leaf County did not win more than one All-Ireland title. This, after all, was a team that contained players of the calibre of Henry Downey, Gary Coleman and Dermot McNicholl. Not to mention the greatest midfielder of his generation in Ulster, Anthony Tohill. Tohill was a totemic figure for a decade, taking games by the scruff of the neck, as only legendary midfielders can.
In the 2000’s, Derry still had plenty of top class players. Paddy Bradley terrorised defences for years. Fergal Doherty bossed midfields across the country. Sean Marty Lockhart was one of the best corner-backs of his generation.
The only current Derry player who would vie for household name status is Chrissy McKaigue, and that’s thanks to his exploits with his club Slaughtneil. They have dominated the club scene in Derry and Ulster in the past few years, in both hurling and football.
However, look through the Derry team and you will see quality in names such as Enda Lynn and Sean Leo McGoldrick. Manager Damian McErlain will be expected to get his side out of Division Four this spring, anything less would be a major disappointment. They have won all three of their games so far putting them well on course to escape.
Derry are meeting Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster championship, who are struggling in Division 1 with just one point from their opening three games. Since Tyrone won their first All-Ireland in 2003, Derry has sprung a few ambushes on their fierce rivals. However, it would rank as a major shock if Derry were to defeat Mickey Harte’s men this summer.
Derry has flattered to deceive more than once in the past, with good league form not being backed up in the championship.
Their inconsistency can probably be summed up by their poor record against Longford. Derry would always have been fancied to beat the Blue and Gold.
However, Longford beat Derry in the All-Ireland Qualifiers in 2006, 2012 and 2014. The last defeat was a particular surprise, given that Derry had been in the Division One final just a few months earlier.
Resources are not a problem in the county. In the past decade, Derry has been in receipt of €1.3million in coaching and games development funding from Croke Park. That places them third in that particular funding table, behind only Dublin and Cork. There does appear to be young talent in the county, with four successive appearances in the Ulster minor final from 2015 to 2018.
It’s been an astonishing plummet down the tables, but the long climb back to football respectability starts here.