For three years, nobody got injured and nobody got sent off: Where Derry are suddenly struggling

All the depth that they’d spent the spring trying to build seemed to have evaporated almost overnight.

Gareth McKinless of Derry reacts to being shown a red card by referee Brendan Cawley during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Galway and Derry at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Gareth McKinless of Derry reacts to being shown a red card by referee Brendan Cawley during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Galway and Derry at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile (Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

WHEN he wants to be, Ciarán Whelan can be the most incisive pundit in the RTÉ stable.

Back in February, after watching Derry rip Monaghan to shreds in Celtic Park, he had this to say about the Oak Leafers: “They’re definitely operating in fourth or fifth gear, whereas some other counties are maybe back in second or third gear.”

His analysis has aged well.

Three months ago, Derry were beating everything around them. Galway leaked 3-10 in an eight-point loss to them at home.

Padraig Joyce had no Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Paul Conroy, Liam Silke, Jack Glynn or Cillian McDaid. Sean Kelly was only introduced at half-time.

Derry had been operating with as close to a championship team as they had available every week.

Last Saturday, the whole thing flipped. Six of the seven Galway players above started and McDaid made his long-awaited return off the bench.

On top of Padraig McGrogan’s torn cruciate, it was common knowledge locally for close to a fortnight that Eoin McEvoy had hurt the hamstring.

The word that Conor Doherty was struggling emerged early last week, and then Niall Loughlin went in for groin surgery at that time too. He’s facing six weeks on the sidelines. Cormac Murphy has been out since their training camp in Portugal.

There have also been the defections of Matthew Downey and Conleth McGuckian from the panel after the league. Niall O’Donnell didn’t return after the U20 campaign. Ryan Scullion played one club league game for Ballinascreen but rowed back and returned, though choice ‘keeper Jack Cassidy did not.

All the depth that they’d spent the spring trying to build seemed to have evaporated almost overnight.

In having to promote Emmett Bradley to the starting line-up, Derry were left with possibly the most inexperienced subs bench any Derry team has ever had for a championship game.

Aside from the out-of-favour Shea Downey’s ten appearances, you’re down to literally just minutes.

Declan Cassidy’s four previous appearances amounted to a little over 15 minutes in total.

Eunan Mulholland and Donncha Gilmore made their debuts a month ago against Donegal as subs in the 58th and 65th minutes respectively.

None of Ryan Scullion, Marty Bradley, Mark Doherty, Ruairi Forbes, Danny McDermott or Cahir McMonagle had ever played a minute of championship football.

Rory Gallagher had moulded this Derry team the same way he and Jim McGuinness had moulded Donegal a bit over a decade ago, relying on a very small and consistent group of 18 or 19 players.

How’s this for consistency?

Across their 13 championship games under Gallagher and then Ciaran Meenagh, eleven different players started all 13 games.

They were, for the record, Odhran Lynch, Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Conor McCluskey, Conor Doherty, Padraig McGrogan, Conor Glass, Gareth McKinless, Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty and Shane McGuigan.

Another three – Niall Toner, Niall Loughlin and Benny Heron - either started or came on in every game.

Shea Downey started the first five and Eoin McEvoy took his spot for the other eight.

After missing the 2022 campaign, Ciaran McFaul made two substitute appearances before starting the next five that took Derry up to last year’s heart-breaking All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry.

In Gallagher and Meenagh’s four-year, 15-game championship term, nobody got sent off or suspended and nobody got injured.

Whatever niggles existed were either worked through or ignored.

The physio room was left empty during training. Everyone was there every night and if you weren’t training, you watched and took in the information, and then did rehab after.

How big a factor is the loss of Peter Hughes in all of this? The Eskra man’s work as Derry’s strength and conditioning coach was lauded by the players. It spoke for itself in terms of that injury record.

Then New Zealand rugby came calling and he was gone.

Matt Godfrey came in from Ulster rugby to replace him having worked with Gavin Devlin and Chrissy McKaigue in Ardboe last year.

Whatever the reasons for it are, which we do not know, the bodies are showing the strain for the first time.

Losing Padraig McGrogan, Eoin McEvoy, Conor Doherty and Niall Loughlin on top of that, with Brendan Rogers reportedly carrying a strain as well, it’s all mounted up very quickly on them.

Once Gallagher settled on a squad after his first two Covid-hit seasons, one of the other great strengths was his ability to somehow retain a back-up cast that was getting virtually no football.

Minutes were earned, not offered, and yet with the exception of Emmett Bradley who grew frustrated with his role as an impact sub in 2022, almost everyone else that was on matchday panels stayed about.

Harte had found that occasionally troublesome in Tyrone and his successors, Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan, have struggled even moreso with defections since their 2021 All-Ireland win.

Gallagher’s consistency of selection was both strength and weakness of his time in charge.

Everyone knew that Derry had to add depth when Harte took over. It looked, initially, that he was succeeding on that front.

Diarmuid Baker has quickly established himself. Cormac Murphy started well. Emmett Bradley came back in.

Injuries have dented that. Come the preliminary quarter-finals, Mickey Harte might have McEvoy, Conor Doherty and Gareth McKinless to call on again, completely changing the complexion of the team and pushing a bit more strength back on to his bench.

But should the back-up cast be as light as it is?

The cavalry sent by their run of minor successes has been slow to arrive.

For the fifth time in his five seasons in charge across two reigns, Damian McErlain will lead Derry into an Ulster minor final this Sunday against Armagh.

It will be the county’s eighth provincial final at the grade in ten years.

They’ve won four of them so far, and two All-Irelands.

Yet in the same timeframe, they’ve won just one Ulster U20 title.

Derry’s approach in terms of promoting players straight to senior if Gallagher or Harte wanted them has been different from that of Tyrone, who have given all of their best U20s to Paul Devlin until their year is done.

That has resulted in two All-Irelands in three years for the Red Hands, on top of back-to-back Hogan Cups for Omagh CBS.

You cannot be definitive about the right way and the wrong way at this stage but what’s clear is that despite producing an endless run of good minors, Derry are struggling to create the depth they’d like at senior.

There’s the valid argument that their youngsters are pushing against a stronger senior team than Tyrone’s right now.

But of the minor teams since 2020, which includes two All-Ireland winning teams, only Eoin McEvoy and Lachlan Murray have made real headway.

More worryingly, the same two are the only starters to have played U20 since the 2019 team.

It lent five faces that have gone on to become regulars. Those players are all coming 25 now.

With Derry carrying small squads at senior level – typically around the 30-mark for most of the recent past – very few younger than that have made any dent at all.

That transition of players out of minor and U20 has just slowed to a crawl.

Wondering aloud to The Football Pod a few weeks back, David Clifford pondered whether the highs are as high as the lows are low.

Derry were at the highest of highs after beating Dublin in the league final.

This low is nowhere near as low as that. For a county that was in Division Four not that long ago, it’s not even close.

But they’re talked about in very different terms now and judged in very different ways.

The mountain won’t move, but in order to scale it, Derry will have to find ways to bridge that gap.