Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan.
Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. 

The story behind Derry football's resurgence

By John Harrington

Few predicted the Derry footballers would be capable of reaching an All-Ireland SFC semi-final this year, but it’s no happy accident.

The county has done huge work in recent years to make sure their coaching and games development structures are best in class, and they were reaping the rewards even before Rory Gallagher’s team won the county’s first Ulster SFC title since 1998.

Prior to that earthquake, tremors were felt in the minor grade. Derry have appeared in six of the last eight Ulster Finals, winning three, and won their first All-Ireland minor title for 18 years in 2020.

There was also a first Ulster U-20 title for 21 years in 2018, so this year’s senior success isn’t a complete bolt from the blue.

How have Derry transformed themselves from being serial underachievers at underage level to one of the most consistent in the province? The answer is a combination of vision and hard work.

No-one has done more to raise standards that Derry GAA’s Coaching and Games Manager, Chris Collins, who has been in the position since 2008.

An Ulster Minor Championship winner himself in 2000, when his own playing career was ended prematurely at a young age by a knee injury he threw himself into coaching and has committed himself to the cause of Derry GAA every since.

We spoke with him to get a sense of how far the county has come in recent years and Derry GAA’s ambitious plans for further growth of the game into the future. Derry’s senior success this year comes on the back of consistent achievement at underage level in recent years. A huge amount of effort has gone into coaching and games development in the county to make that possible. Can you give us a general insight into what has been happening in the county?

Chris Collins: I think a lot of what has come to fruition now has been along a linear pathway. Just to put in context where we're 2007 I started my role as Football Development Officer in the county and in 2008 that became Coaching and Games Manager. So I've been there now coming 16 years this February.

I remember coming in in 2007 and we had no U-12 League in Derry so we were very much playing catch-up at that stage. We started Go Games in 2007 and the likes of Paudie McGrogan and Shea Downey would have come through that programme. They would have been involved at the very start.

The development of Owenbeg (Derry GAA Centre) was huge for the county. When we talk about Derry footballers now, those lads have grown up in Owenbeg and that has made a huge difference from Go Games right through the development squads and minor panels. By building a high performance environment we created a culture of high performance.

Derry GAA's Centre of Excellence at Owenbeg.
Derry GAA's Centre of Excellence at Owenbeg.

The first five years we spent a lot of time looking at participation, regenerating our clubs, and just getting as many children playing as we could and I think we achieved that over a four or five year period.

We then did a review of our Development Squads in 2013 which up to that point were sub-standard. When you compared them to other counties in Ulster, our development squads weren't great. I went down to Limerick in 2014 to look at their hurling development squad structure. I went to UL where they were bringing their U-14, U-15, and U-16 squads and exposing them to games-based coaching on the pitch and then moving into the gym. I knew that this was exactly what we needed to do in Owenbeg.

Damien McErlaine was involved in the Development Squad structures in 2013 and 2014 and then in 2015 he went in as the Derry minor manager. Up to that stage our minor record had been poor. We hadn't won a game in seven years up until 2015 at minor level. That was a result of not investing in development squads, not investing at minor level. There was a lot of spend on facilities which was fine, Owenbeg was built at this stage, but we found ourselves in a situation where there was a lot of apathy in the county. Owenbeg was built but our teams weren't performing to the level that people in Derry would have expected.

So, the focus then was to really improve performance and put structures in place and Damien McErlaine was really a catalyst for that change in 2015. We had a star-studded minor team that year with players like Shane McGuigan and Conor Glass but we had no recent history of winning at that level and there was that apathy around the county.

Winning an Ulster title at that stage in 2015, bearing in mind we had only been in three Ulster Finals in the 20 year period before that, was huge. There was a 13-year gap where we hadn't won an ulster minor title which was crazy. So when we won it in 2015 that was a big breakthrough.

Conor Glass lifts the Fr. Larry Murray Cup for Derry after victory over Cavan in the 2015 Ulster Minor Football Final.
Conor Glass lifts the Fr. Larry Murray Cup for Derry after victory over Cavan in the 2015 Ulster Minor Football Final.

We pulled those players through from there and that really accelerated what it was we were doing. People wanted to get back involved with the development squads because they saw the benefit of what was going on. Since 2015 we've gone on a run where we've been in six of the last eight Ulster minor finals so you can see how we've accelerated our growth.

We had a really, really strong minor group then with the likes of Aidan McCluskey, Conor Doherty, Shea Downey, Odhran Lynch and Paul Cassidy and we knew we'd have a really strong U-20 team in 2018. Damien McErlain had been appointed senior manager so we went outside the county and appointed Mickey Donnelly U-20 manager. He had been involved with Tyrone minors in the past and we felt he'd be a really good fit for that squad to get as many of them through. Mickey won an Ulster U-20 title in 2018 and we were beaten by Tyrone in the Final in 2019. That period was key to getting as many of those players through into the senior panel as we could.

We had good young players coming through but a lot of people in the county felt that Derry wouldn't be competing for Ulster titles until next year, 2023, purely because we had very strong All-Ireland winning minor team in 2020. Marty Boyle and his team of coaches had been through the development squad system and been appointed as minor management. You had Marty Boyle with the minors and Mickey Donnelly and myeslf with the U-20s in 2018 and Damien McErlain as senior manager so we had developed a core group of coaches who were working together in Owenbeg and really supporting each other.

Things probably didn't work out the way Damien McErlain would have hoped but then the appointment of Rory Gallagher as Derry senior manager really accelerated everything.

There's three different age-groups in that Derry panel and through lockdown Rory really gelled that group together. We had earmarked seven players from the 2020 minor team we felt would definitely play senior football for Derry and those fellas are still a bit young and need a big winter, but, looking at next year, Derry's squad should be much beefier than it is now.

The feeling among people who have been involved is that a successful Derry senior team was coming, but the appointment of Rory Gallagher has accelerated that development. I feel, having been involved with these players - 90 per cent of them have come through the pathway at Owenbeg - that this is only the start for this Derry team regardless of what happens on Saturday or beyond that.

They've tasted success now and you hear the likes of Shane McGuigan talking about how committed they are to each other. Rory Gallagher is very keen on that, that there's no reason why this team can't do what Monaghan, Donegal, and Tyrone have done and be consistently competing for Ulsters over the next 10 years and beyond.

I suppose that's a synopsis of our player pathway. We've had numerous strategies going back to 2015 which was a watershed moment in terms of breaking that duck at minor level and really getting people to buy in.

In 2019 we had a strategy for Derry City. All of this stuff, it hasn't been put on the back-burner, but we maybe haven't achieved all we have achieved in the current strategies because of Covid. We're waiting on Games Deveopment Money coming in October when the new funding stream is released from Croke Park. So we'll be able to continue what we started in 2019 in regards to Derry City. Derry GAA’s latest five-year Coaching and Development strategy was published last year. How much of that has been implemented?

Chris Collins: We've implemented 40 to 50 per cent of it but we are waiting until this new tranche of funding comes in Croke Park this year to implement the rest of it.

We've continued to work on our player pathway programme. Our work with our clubs is something that we pride ourselves on, we have very strong clubs in Derry and they constantly need support. There are a few items in the strategy in terms of Games Promotion Officers and whether Derry will have the money to implement that in the economic situation we're currently in might be difficult, but in the urban areas that is definitely going to happen where there will be GPOs in the large urban areas accelerating participation in those areas.

In the rural areas we'd have around 90 per cent participation in our clubs and putting GPOs in there probably isn't something that's going to bear fruit. However we are looking at coach developers there and recruiting five or six high profile coach developers to help those clubs and really support their coaches and influence change across the county will be the strategy there. When you see Steelstown win the All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship does it validate the work that has been done in Derry City and the huge potential for further growth?

Chris Collins: People in the south of the county don't understand the amount of people that are living in Derry City, and it's a young population. Neil Forester has been a GPO in Steelstown for the last eight or nine years. He has been doing really good practice up there supporting coaches and linking with schools. Steelstown are now the hub of their community. It's not about just participating in games, it’s a cultural hub.

The other clubs in the city have just developed their base over the last two or three years. We had a situation where four or five clubs didn't have a base but all of that in terms of facilities has now been developed. The likes of Derrytrasna, which is on the waterside, have a brand new facility and as a club are absolutely thriving because they have a community now and numbers are big.

Steelstown winning the Intermediate Championship was obviously a huge plus for them and gave them a huge lift, but it also meant that every other club in the city could see what was possible. I think now that the clubs have their bases sorted out and all have a home, they'll also go from strength to strength. Participation has been quite good in some clubs and others have more to do, but I think there's no reason why the likes of Derrytrasna, Sean Dolans, and these clubs can't aspire to do what Steelstown have done.

And now that Steelstown have won the Intermediate Championship, there's no reason why they can't become a high-performing senior club and a big feeder to our county squads which is already starting to happen. It's important to invest in the other clubs in Derry City and increase the coaching standards because there is potential there. We had an U-15 and U-16 Development Squad camp that finished yesterday and there was a handful of city players there from other clubs who have serious ability. These lads are playing maybe soccer in the street and technically have a lot of ability, but they just haven't had that level of coaching that the likes of Steelstown have had. There's a few plans in the strategy to improve the coaching standards within our clubs as participation levels are on the rise.

I've no doubt that if we chat in 10 years time there will be more representation from Derry City on our county squads. That has to be our aim. Derry City is the most obvious large urban area, but we don't get enough out of Coleraine and Limavady either. They're areas that we definitely need to be targeting through the new pool of money we'll receive in October.

Steelstown captain Neil Forester, 11, celebrates after his side's victory in the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship Final match between Trim, Meath, and Steelstown Brian Óg's, Derry, at Croke Park in Dublin.
Steelstown captain Neil Forester, 11, celebrates after his side's victory in the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship Final match between Trim, Meath, and Steelstown Brian Óg's, Derry, at Croke Park in Dublin. There was a big consultative process behind this latest five-year strategy. You consulted with both Dublin and Kerry to see what best practice was in those counties so you really had a good look around to see how to improve further even though things were already going well?

Chris Collins: I think we saw lockdown as an opportunity to really hone in on what it was that we were doing. If you look at the priority areas, priority one is coaching in clubs which has to happen and we do it anyway. We did look at what Dublin was doing their and their Blue Wave strategy and looked at coach developers and that's something that came out really, really strongly.

Priority number two around junior and intermediate player development is an area that we feel Tyrone in particular have done really, really well in terms of getting players from junior and intermediate teams playing at the highest level. So there is a body of work to be done there.

Priority number three in terms of our development squads, when we looked at what Dublin and Kerry were doing, it probably reinforced what we were already doing at development squad level and showed us that our pathway was correct. In fact, we found that what we were doing at that level was maybe better than some of the counties that we looked at. Even that in itself was reassuring that we're doing this really well.

I was confident in what we were doing in that space, but for the rest of the group it was good to see, right, this is going really, really well. Not just from a player pathway, development squad, and minor perspective, but also from a coaching pathway point of view. It's been key for us to get like-minded people in Owenbeg. We've been very selective about the development squad coaches we get involved because ultimately we want those people who work with players at u-15 and u-16 to put their hand up to take a minor team. That has happened in Derry over the last 10 years.

We invest a lot of time in those coaches. We meet a lot, we try to share best practice with each other, and that has been key in terms of utilising Owenbeg for that.

Priority number four in that strategy was our schools which have always been strong. The primary school programme is really, really strong and that was started back in 2007 and 2008. Our secondary schools have obviously been really successful. Go Games participation using Owenbeg as a hub has been massive for that. I think our Go Games programme is probably the best in the country, both football and hurling in terms of the numbers we have and how regular the games are. When we looked at what Dublin were doing in that space we came away thinking that what we're doing as a county in terms of participation in Go Games is up there with the best of them.

We did identify we have a problem with overzealous spectators putting too much pressure on young players, so we introduced the silent sideline and still have work to do on that. That was as much about encouraging players to talk on the pitch and develop leadership as much as it was to keep parents quiet.

Priority five was high performance structures, and the appointment of Stephen Barker as the Operations manager last year was a great step forward. That has been key in terms of having an ongoing review of what it is we're doing in High Performance.

We appointed Ben McGuckin as a full-time Performance Analyst six years ago and he's working across all of our pathways in Owenbeg. I think it's absolutely crucial now for myself and Stephen Barker to ensure our resources are not top-heavy.

So, that if the seniors fail on Saturday, that we don't decide we're going to throw the kitchen sink at that and chase glory at senior level and forget about the rest. From a Coaching and Games point of view it's key that there's a fair distribution of resources. We do have limited resources as a county, not just in terms of players but our financial resources, and we need to spread that across the entire player pathway.

Derry GAA Football Development Squad members doing gym-work at Owenbeg.
Derry GAA Football Development Squad members doing gym-work at Owenbeg. Was the most challenging part of this journey when you were putting in hard work that hadn't yet bore fruit? Now that it is really bearing fruit, I'd imagine it's a lot easier to get people to support what you're trying to do in terms of coaching and games development? Most kids in Derry will be out kicking a football coming up to the All-Ireland semi-final. This is a sweet spot that the county really needs to maximise, isn't it?

Chris Collins: You've nailed it there. It hasn't been plain sailing. In 2019 we had a lot of people who were disgruntled with how the senior team was doing. I was called to a meeting with clubs that was a hot and fiery meeting about what I was doing specifically in my role and how we were investing in terms of coaching and games. In 2018 there were articles in national papers about how the failings of Derry football were down to coaching and trying to draw a link between coaching and games money and the level the senior team were performing at.

So it's been a really rocky road and things were very difficult in 2018 and 2019 for me as an individual. Once people started to write about it in the papers people started to think that this was the way of it and you come under even more pressure in your county. So that was really, really hard.

I have been consistent in terms of what I was saying in so far as that, by 2023, I felt we would have a senior team that would consistently challenge for Ulster Finals over a 10 year period and people just needed to be patient. Those who were working in coaching and games development could see the quality of players and knew it was coming. We could see from gps data and strength data, we keep records of all of that stuff, and we could see that what we were producing was getting better and better.

The players were also getting on better as a collective. Friendships were being developed in Owenbeg, trust and camaraderie was being developed. Lads like Ben McCarron from Steelstown down to Paudie McGrogan from Newbridge who are best mates and that all happened from those boys being in Owenbeg in each other's pockets.

Fast forward now to this senior campaign, through the National League people still didn't believe this Derry team was the finished article. We had low attendances at our national league away games. Galway gave us an absolutely trimming in Owenbeg.

Fast forward then to beating Tyrone in Healy Park where you had a gathering of around 500 people on the pitch afterwards, and then people just started to believe and they started to come out again. Flags started to go up and the likes of the work that Club Derry and the Derry Business Network was generating more and more support.

You now cannot go down any road in Derry where there isn't a Derry flag up. People are mad looking to get the (Anglo Celt) Cup. I had the Cup at Ballinascreen U-7s last night and there was complete euphoria with the young lads and their parents.

There's a real wave of good will and it's absolutely key that we use it to bounce now for the next five years. Having a strategy that was produced last year and having a road-map, the success wasn't down to that strategy, but our future success will be. We know where we're going and what we need to achieve with this next block of Coaching and Games money. We're very clear how we spend it and what our objectives are over the next five years.

We've gotten to this point in 2022 and if we fall backwards to where we were over the course of the next 10 years it will be an absolutely failure. I for one would be absolutely devastated if that happened. There's no reason with the work that's going on in Owenbeg, with the work that's going on in our clubs and schools that we can't use this as a bounce.

We can maybe go even further than what some people thought might be possible. At the start of the year if you had asked 100 per cent of the population in Derry could Derry win an All-Ireland I'd say 95 per cent would have laughed at you. But people are starting to believe again and I suppose that is something we need to capitalise on and harness moving forward beyond this season.

Derry supporters celebrate a score during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Clare and Derry at Croke Park, Dublin.
Derry supporters celebrate a score during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Clare and Derry at Croke Park, Dublin. It sounds like you're in a good place to capitalise. You’re building on a solid foundation now after years of hard work. Gaelic games should grow in Derry City and the other urban areas in the coming years and with all the enthusiasm in the county now there should be no shortage of volunteers to be part of this. As long as there's no complacency at the top level, then you'd hope the only way is up?

Chris Collins: Absolutely. Just to reiterate, we have Stephen Barker as Operations Manager and John Keenan back as the County Chairperson having done five years previous to that. He's back now for the first year of another five hopefully. I'm there now 15 years so there’s good consistency there. We're obviously enjoying the journey now but nobody is getting carried away. We want this for the next 10 years and beyond.

It's up to us to really capitalise on it and drive it home. We have a coaching structure and we have coaches that are progressing through the system nicely. We just need to make sure that we keep our standards up.

When you hear the players talking about tasting success, there's no complacency within that playing group. Shane McGuigan and Matthew Downey were both chatting to our Development Squad players during the week and both reiterated the point that if you want to get in, we talk about the yellow bus going to Clones, if you want to get on the yellow bus you're going to have to work really hard to get a seat on it.

Everybody at the minute is moving in the right direction. From a players’ point of view, from an administrative point of view and from a supporters point of view. It's just about capitalising on that now.

Derry GAA Coaching and Games Manager, Chris Collins, pictured playing for Derry in the 2000 All-Ireland Minor Football Final against Cork.
Derry GAA Coaching and Games Manager, Chris Collins, pictured playing for Derry in the 2000 All-Ireland Minor Football Final against Cork. You've invested a considerable amount of your life into this. Your own promising playing career was ended prematurely by injury so you went down the coaching route and have thrown yourself at this job for a long time now. To see Derry walk out in Croke Park for an All-Ireland SFC semi-final this weekend and hopefully be able to look ahead to some really good years ahead, I'm sure it's really rewarding for you on a personal level?

Chris Collins: I suppose I always thought that I should have been a Derry player and at the age of 23 or 24 I realised that wasn't going to happen. I made a real conscious decision that I was going to throw myself at coaching. My passion was always for Derry. My father was a huge Derry supporter and would have been at every match. He passed away in 2020. My lad now, Ollie, is seven and he's been at all the games this year and I suppose there's a sense of satisfaction that you've played a small part in that. I'm now going to games with him similar how my father would have taken me to every game. Seeing his enjoyment and his wee friends, how much of a buzz that they have, I've been enormously proud and satisfied.

It hasn't re-lit my fire because my fire never went out, but it has definitely given me a serious boost and I want to make sure now that we're going to keep consistently delivering. It has definitely made things easier, we're just buzzing. Seeing the satisfaction that everyone is getting from this is great.

In the north the way it is you'd be walking past people and you'd wonder if they're interested in football or don't follow it at all. Now you've people everywhere walking about in Derry shirts. A local restaurant owner made a jibe at my brother who was in the restaurant on Sunday, he said I haven't seen a Derry shirt for 20 years and now they're everywhere!

It's just brilliant. The satisfaction that I have felt from this run has been just unbelievable. We've had plenty of good days with the minors and 2020 was obviously an extremely proud day winning the All-Ireland off the back of getting so close for a few years. But this has been special and I think this Derry team over the course of the next four or five years are capable of winning All-Irelands.

If we do I might retire and put the feet up!