Barry Gillis’ position sense was evident in his early years when he played on the same team as future soccer star Aaron Hughes. Then, former Derry manager Mickey Moran spotted how Gillis could add to his defensive plans and made a phone call that would change his career. Michael McMullan writes…
IT COULD’VE ended up very different for Barry Gillis. The versatile Magherafelt man was Derry’s goalkeeper in a career that spanned nine seasons, but the early shoots of promise came as a midfield general – in soccer.
His late father Eddie would’ve been looking after the pitches at Rossa Park and Barry would’ve been down kicking around from the age of five or six.
He was no different than any young sporting fanatic.
A bit of soccer at primary school developed into an outfield spot on the new defunct Maghera Colts team.
When the Colts entered the Reebok Fives, Gillis ended up in goals and they won the competition with the reward of a trip to England.
That was where the soccer goalkeeping ended.
“I was probably a lot better at the soccer to be honest,” states Gillis. ”During the course of primary school, we ended up two or three of us selected from our school team for Lisburn and District Boys.”
Gillis was captain, with Northern Ireland international Aaron Hughes as his partner in midfield.
But Gaelic football was always going to pull hardest for Gillis’ talents.
On one of the Saturdays, at just 10 years of age, he opted for the red and white of Rossa u-12s at a blitz ahead of playing soccer. Gillis was left to watch on as Hughes would carve out a stellar career in the Premier League. The Cookstown man would amass over 450 top flight games for Newcastle, Aston Villa and Fulham, while picking up 112 international caps.
“You never know how I would’ve got on,” laughs Gillis of a potential soccer career that ‘petered out’.
GAA came first. By the time an 18-year-old Hughes was making his Newcastle debut in the Champions League at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, Gillis was preparing for a second season with Derry minors.
A few outfield appearances in his first season – when Conleith Gilligan was their penalty scoring goalkeeper – were followed by a full year in the number one jersey for 1998.
It was an Oakleafers’ side that included Fergal Doherty, Kevin McGuckin and Paddy Bradley.
At club level, Gillis was breaking into the senior team as an outfield player when Eamonn Coleman made the call asking him to join the county panel.
“It was 1999 or 2000 when some of the games were played before Christmas, so I made my league debut at wing half-forward in Newbridge against Kildare. Paddy Bradley made his debut the same day,” said Gillis of a game when 2-1 from Stephen McLarnon wasn’t enough for Derry to earn anything more than a draw, with Karl O’Dwyer nailing a late equaliser.
Derry would go on to win the league that year, beating Meath after a replay in Clones, but when work took Gillis to Dublin he stepped away from the county panel for a few seasons.
One phone call changed everything. When Mickey Moran began to circle the wagons for the 2004 season, Barry Gillis was in his plans.
“He asked me if I would come up and join the senior panel…but as a goalkeeper,” Gillis recalls of their early conversations.
As the call continues, Barry insisted he had still something to offer as an outfield player.
But that was the appeal Moran wanted, a goalkeeper to double up as ‘an extra full-back’.
“Now look what everybody is doing 20 years later,” recalls Gillis, who was the goalkeeper coach under manager Damian McErlain with Derry minors and seniors.
Adrian Cush added Gillis to his management team in Magherafelt ahead of their 2019 county final win over Glen.
Odhrán Lynch put in a top drawer performance of assured handling and came off his line to narrow the angle as he smothered a goal chance from Ethan Doherty.
Gillis also spent eight weeks last summer coaching the goalkeepers in Dungannon Clarkes. An hour with the underage teams was followed by a session with the senior ‘keepers. Damian Cassidy enlisted him to help convert Michael Magill into an emergency goalkeeper, someone comfortable on the ball that could bring something to the table.
“Mickey had that thought back in 2003 and now look what a goalkeeper has evolved into now…his thinking was ahead its time.”
Moran’s theory was simple. In the days when defenders were trusted with a man-on-man marking arrangement, a goalkeeper with the prowess to come off his line was the only safety net required. Gillis’ input would be invaluable.
“Kevin McCloy could go at full flight with the full-forward with no pressure of having to stand off a man because he knew I was in behind to sweep up the ball,” Gillis outlines.
“Having defenders marking in front was the rule of thumb, albeit we had quality defenders.”
It was the era of McCloy, Niall McCusker, Kevin McGuckin, Sean Marty Lockhart and Michael McGoldrick as the out and out man-markers.
Even Liam Hinphey, who won a Hogan Cup as a midfielder, did a man-marking job on Sean Cavanagh when Derry overturned Tyrone in 2006.
“We had some side,” said Gillis.
From chatting with him, he radiates a genuine enthusiasm of this career. The togetherness in the camp was something fostered by bus journeys around Ireland pitting themselves against all the top teams.
That special bond still between from remains from the core of Derry 2006, 2007 and 2008 squads.
“We have a WhatsApp group that is buzzing with messages. We usually meet up every Christmas for pints, about 10 or 15 of us.
“One thing that playing for your county does, you make connections with fellas that you generally wouldn’t meet, other than after a club game when you might have a couple of minutes chatting and that’s it.
“You go up there to Owenbeg, you train with them and you become friends with them and there are you friends for life.”
Gillis explains how their team-building exercises came with minimal effort.
His 2004 championship debut was a 1-17 to 1-6 defeat to Tyrone, but the journey through the back door began to build a spirit that took them to the cusp of an All-Ireland final, only losing out to eventual champions Kerry.
“We a few (pints) after every game and that’s what created that,” said Gillis of a season that began with a win in Wicklow.
After a win over Cavan after extra-time at Celtic Park, Derry were back on the road with victories over Wexford, Limerick and Leinster champions Westmeath in a Croke Park quarter-final.
“Everybody would’ve have stuck together,” Gillis continues. “You’d have played your game on a Saturday went out and we’d have a good night’s craic. Then, you were at the pool on a Monday and everybody was at Owenbeg on the Tuesday, then Thursday and Saturday again.
“That run of games helps to build the momentum. I enjoyed it and it creates bonds which are hard to do in a short pace of time, but if you are going to do it you are better doing it when you are winning.”
The following season, Derry were once again forced down the back door route after a semi-final defeat to Armagh in Ulster when John Toal notched the only goal of the game after Gillis had saved the initial shot from Aaron Kernan.
Wins over Down in Newry – thanks to a wonder goal from Eoin Bradley – and Limerick had Derry back at headquarters and a quarter-final showdown with Laois.
The Oakleafers led by four points at half time, but within seven minutes Laois were level and Billy Sheehan bagged the all-important goal in a 1-11 to 0-11 win.
Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland, thanks to their amazing 10-game odyssey, but it was Derry who took the win out of their sails in the first game of the 2006 championship, holding the champions scoreless for the first 35 minutes of a 1-8 to 0-5 win.
Gillis remembers the tension in the air during game week. The match-ups were complete. Hinphey was on Cavanagh, with Mark Lynch helping him prepare for the Moy man by mimicking his trademark dummy for a ‘solid month’. Joe O’Kane used his running power to shadow Brian Dooher. Even from the moment they met at the Elk restaurant for breakfast there was steeliness in the Derry eyes.
Kevin McGuckin and Owen Mulligan were both booked before some fans were properly nestled in their seats.
Gillis recalls throwing his cap in the goalmouth, at the start of the game, before turning and seeing players, literally, at each other’s throats.
“Derry’s intensity that day, especially in the first half, is as good as I have ever played under,” he admits.
“Keeping the All-Ireland champions scoreless, that was a strange feeling. Tyrone and Armagh were the teams battling it out in the early noughties and we were in the mix and could never get over the line and we got over the line that day.”
Enda Muldoon (1-3) and Paddy Bradley (0-3) shot Derry to a memorable win, but they couldn’t handle Rory Kavanagh and Michael Doherty in a semi-final defeat to Donegal, forcing them once again down the Qualifier route.
And after a win over Kildare, Derry headed to the graveyard that was Longford’s Pearse Park where the home side had the Indian sign over them. A Paddy Bradley brace of 2-7 wasn’t enough as Derry went down by a point in a shootout.
In later years Barry McGoldrick and Mark Lynch would often remark that once Derry went into the Qualifiers, it was alike a new -season almost. Game plans went out the window. Some games they won, some they lost as a lack of consistency would invariably come back to bit them.
Gillis will never forget 2007. When Derry embarked on their Ulster campaign, it was another year of promise as they again failed to end their championship famine since they last won the title in 1998.
A Mark Lynch goal set them on their way to victory against Antrim at Casement Park where they’d return to take on Monaghan in Derry’s first game since the passing of Oakleaf legend Eamonn Coleman.
Derry were again beaten, but they turned defeat into another run in the Qualifiers that would take them to a clash with the Dubs in Croke Park.
When asked of the greatest team he played on, Gillis points to that 2007 season. They had more quality than three years earlier when they were beaten in the semi-final by Kerry.
There was a lack of enthusiasm in the county ahead of the first Qualifier game against Armagh. There were reports of only 500 Derry fans travelling to Clones, but Coilín Devlin’s late winner kick-started their season that would include a win over Mayo at Celtic Park and victory over Laois on a memorable Saturday night in Kingspan Breffni.
Fourteen years on and seated in his club’s gym, there is a glint in his eye as Gillis recalls taking on Dublin in a packed Croke Park. The minors had beaten Cork earlier in the day and the atmosphere was cracking up by the time the senior game came around.
This was his career highlight.
“We were there in 2004 against Westmeath and Kerry, but the Dubs are the Dubs,” Gillis beams.
He recalls a photo he has at home with both teams walking behind Artane Boys’ Band on the pre-match the parade towards Hill 16.
“I remember thinking ‘holy shit’ with the noise coming from the Hill,” he adds.
“During the game, it is very difficult to get your message across,” added Gillis about trying to organise his defence.
“The full-back line can hear you because they are nearly beside you, but (getting your message to) half-backs and midfielders, it is really difficult. The roar that comes off the Hill whenever there is a Dublin score is something to behold.”
But the afternoon didn’t intimidate him, he thrived on it and enjoyed the banter.
He was helped by making a full-length save to deny Bernard Brogan after five minutes.
As the game went on, Gillis was thriving on the energy and banter from the Dublin fans.
Derry went toe to toe with their opponents but came up short.
“In hindsight if we had a bit more belief, we could’ve gone a fit further, if not even lift it (Sam), on the sheer quality of footballers that we had,” Gillis points out.
“To say, at any level, in any sport, to have played in front of 75 or 80 thousand people, it had to be right up there with the biggest memories. Other than a trophy being on offer at the end of it, it is the next best thing in my opinion.”
Thinking back to that year, Gillis feels they may just have lacked the belief in 2007, an era when they were never far away from eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry.
“We were sitting there at the top table and mixing with the top two or three teams in Ireland, the likes of Tyrone, Dublin and Kerry,” he adds.
“That was the one that got away. Not to say we could’ve won it, but it got away with our greatest chance of winning it.
“We had played Kerry in 2004 and there were only four or five points in it and we probably had a better squad in 2007.”
Kevin McCloy and Paddy Bradley both picked up All-Stars in 2007 and the following year Derry put down another marker by winning the NFL Division One title.
“We came from behind against Kerry in the final at Parnell Park,” Gillis recalls. “It just shows you the calibre of player that Derry had. That was as good an era in terms of competing for All-Irelands.”
Goals from Donncha Walsh and Darren O’Sullivan had Kerry in a great position, helping them into a seven-point lead, but Paddy Crozier’s side got themselves back into contention with a goal from Fergal Doherty. Conleith Gilligan palmed home a second goal from close range before a Paddy Bradley free sealed a four-point win.
Derry backed it up in the championship on a scorching day in Ballybofey when Paddy Bradley kicked 0-10 in an Oakleafers’ win over 2007 league champions Donegal.
Going into a semi-final with Fermanagh, Derry were hot favourites and an Eoin Bradley goal had Derry 1-4 to 0-1 ahead, but Ronan Gallagher saved a Gilligan penalty to keep the Erne side in the game.
Then, with 16 minutes to go, substitute Barry Owens punched a Fermanagh goal that put them on their way to a first Ulster final in 26 years.
“When the ball came across, he had the momentum and I didn’t,” Gillis looks back.
“If I don’t come out, he puts that into my hands, but I came out and he tapped it into the net. That’s the fine lines and sometimes that’s the way football pans out for you.”
That sticks out as the biggest disappointment, as Derry were well-placed to challenge for an Ulster title that season and could only look on as Armagh lifted the Anglo Celt Cup after a replay in the final.
Does the goal eat Gillis up?
“No, at the end of the day you just shake it off,” came his reply. “As I say, nobody is going to shot on Monday morning over a game of football. You are disappointed at the time, but what can be done about it, life goes on.”
Gillis soldiered on for another few seasons. Ballinascreen man Danny Devlin was between the posts when Derry lost the 2011 Ulster final to Donegal. The following season, Gillis played his last game for county in their 2012 defeat in Ballybofey, with Devlin again back in the number one jersey by the time Longford pushed them out the back door with another defeat.
He looks fondly back at a career that saw Derry at the upper echelons of the All-Ireland series, with many championship Sunday’s against the best the rest of the country had to offer.
“I remember lining out one day and the full-forward line was the Gooch (Colm Cooper), (Kieran) Donaghy and Tommy Walsh. I looked around and thought this is going to be a high ball day,” he said of the 2009 NFL defeat to Derry.
“There is a photograph of me catching a ball between Walsh and Donaghy. I just put my hands up and came down with it.
“When you see that full-forward line…Walsh and Gooch’s pace, Donaghy’s aerial threat and Walsh was very good in the air too, they were all round serious footballers.”
Gillis also rates Donncha Walsh as one of the trickiest players he encountered.
“He was nearly like a magician that could slide a hand, the way he could shift the ball,” said Gillis, who also points to Galway’s Michael Meehan and the power of his kicks.
The memories came flooding back of Meehan’s second-half penalty in a league game at Glen.
“I got a bit of my hand to it, but if I had got my whole hand to it, it would’ve ended up at the (Castledawson) roundabout,” laughs Gillis.
“No joke, it was drilled with precision, right to the bottom corner. If I had got full hand, I would have broken every bone. The power he generated was fierce.”
In terms of his own teammate, on the Derry team Gillis was blessed with kick-out options in the midfield department in the days before strategic short balls came into
“We had Fergal (Doherty), Patsy (Bradley), big (Joe) Diver and (James) Conway. They were all big men, were talented footballers and then you had big Enda (Muldoon) floating in around.
“When you looked up, you knew all you had to do was put it in that general direction; if they didn’t get it, their men certainly didn’t get hands on it. It was made a lot easier having that calibre of midfielder.”
For the last six seasons, Gillis has been passing on his experience to other budding goalkeepers in a coaching role, something that didn’t cross his mind during his playing career.
“If I am truthful, my desire is to get into management,” he said with conviction. “I really enjoy the goalkeeping coaching and it is good to see fellas progressing, like Odhrán Lynch who I have taken from minor level and is now Derry’s number one.
“From playing under a lot of different managers over the years, in a management role I could offer a lot,” he adds.
“Mickey Moran, Paddy Crosier, Damian Cassidy and John Brennan, you don’t play under those managers and not pick up some stuff.”
Looking back at the goalkeeper’s role, it has changed even more than when Moran brought him in as a sweeper-keeper.
The kick-out is one of the most important aspects of the game and he coaches his goalkeepers to kick the ball short.
“People in the crowd think surely everybody could kick it 20 yards,” Gillis points out. “…but it is harder than you think and people don’t understand that.
“It is so important to coach that short kick-out. There is a serious skill in it and more that kicking it out 60 yards.”
Perfecting the kick with the side of the foot is so different that picking out a general area with the longer kick-out.
“I work on the fact that a short kick-out is going to be on inside seven seconds,” Gillis states. “I have the ‘keepers on a stopwatch getting their ball from the post out to the 21.”
Failing that, the ball is thumped out long or the possibility of a short if a forward is caught sleeping and not picking up his man.
Then there is the movement aspect and a calculated tactic. For Gillis, the goalkeeper is only one part, it’s the outfield players that dictate much of what happens.
“Half the guys moving for a kick-out are doing so with a token gesture run. To retain your kick out, everyone that is involved in that move has to move like they are going to get it. They have to run with a real intent,” he said.
“All it takes is for a defender to win one kick out to keep the forwards honest. I think ideally there has to be a good mix, it’s like horses for courses.
“If I was playing Glen I want the ball won as high up the field as possible, so you want them kicking it long.”
Gillis points to Glen’s systematic approach that sees them get a shot away with ‘eight out of ten’ attacks coming from a short kick-out. He compares that with the 50:50 nature of the ball being pumped out long.
And in two short sentences, Gillis sums up the two different tactical extremes in the modern world of goalkeeping.
From Moran’s inkling all those years ago, Gillis went on to have a distinguished playing career.
If he dons the ‘bainisteoir’ bib at some point in the future, his goalkeepers will have a benefit of a man who views the game from a different angle.