GAME OF MY LIFE: Former Derry star Brian McGilligan looks back on the game that changed his career

BRIAN McGilligan is an icon of Derry’s All-Ireland winning team of 1993.

Alongside Anthony Tohill, he forged one of the game’s greatest ever partnerships.

Stuck in traffic, on the way to collecting his All-Star in 1993, a random Dublin taxi driver told McGilligan he was a cert. A summer dominating the middle third of pitches across Ireland made him an instantly recognisable figure.

When he picked up his first All-Star six years earlier, McGilligan was an unknown. His Derry team were comfortably beaten by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final, but a Man of the Match award elevated him in the selectors’ thoughts.

McGilligan is one of 25 former Derry stars telling their story in a new book Derry: Game of my Life, written by Gaelic Life writer Michael McMullan

The players featured are: Gerry O’Loughlin, Mickey Niblock, Laurence Diamond, Mickey Lynch, Gerry McElhinney, Brendan Kelly, Anthony McGurk, Dermot McNicholl, Brian McGilligan, Tony Scullion, Plunkett Murphy, Gary Coleman, Damian Cassidy, Anthony Tohill, Damian Barton, Henry Downey, Enda Gormley, Enda Muldoon, Kieran McKeever, Sean Marty Lockhart, Paul McFlynn, Paddy Bradley, Kevin McCloy, Kevin McGuckin and Chrissy McKaigue.

Here is an extract from McGilligan’s chapter, giving an insight into why his 1987 clash with Meath was the game of his life.

Brian takes up the story…..

Playing Meath in Croke Park that year was a big, big deal for us. You were lucky to get to Croke Park to watch a match never mind anything else. There were no cars about. It was massive and you only dreamt of these things.

I remember being up at my granny’s to watch big games on the telly. They had no electricity in the country, but they had an engine for power. For the All-Ireland finals, all the neighbours would be over and the engine wasn’t put on until 30 seconds before the game was to start… and it was turned off as soon as it was over, but you were glued to it.

You’d have heard Michael O’Hehir commentating on games over the radio. Then you see it for yourself on the TV, but when you are down there playing in the games yourself, it is some step up.

Dermot McNicholl injured his hamstring on the week of that All-Ireland semi-final with Meath and it was the toss of a coin whether he’d start or not. He was injury prone with the big thighs. He was a phenomenon; he was a freak with legs on him like tree trunks, and he could run like a bullet.

The rest of the team was a bit down and I would say it swayed the management to play McNicholl, so the fact he was able to play was great. However, it didn’t last and he had to come off. Perhaps it would’ve been better for him to come on as a sub, but it’s easy looking back now.

It was my first game in Croke Park, but I wasn’t really that nervous. Everybody has their own way of dealing with things. On the Derry team of the 90s, some players were bouncing off walls, some were doing sit-ups and press-ups, and some were beating each other. I just liked to sit in the corner with my eyes closed… and relax. I don’t got too het-up about a game.

The best way of getting rid of nerves is to get into the game quick and get in the first slap or get a good slap… the nerves are gone and you are in the game. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to get into the game. That day against Meath, I remember hitting Martin O’Connell a real humdinger and every bone in my body shook. I don’t know how he felt, but he did about six somersaults and I thought he was dead. He was a wiry boy. He was down for a few minutes, then got up, gave himself a shake and hit the free.

I didn’t think too much of how I was playing but I felt I was getting into the game and was pretty sharp. I was farming every day, running after sheep, so I was active and working hard as a joiner.

When you are out training with a team, you got honed a bit more and you were sharper. As it went into the 90s, I was getting progressively faster. Joe Brolly, over 10 or 15 yards would be fast, but after that they’re gone. Over 100 metres, nobody would touch me. Tony Scullion would’ve been close… a couple of them were close, but they couldn’t beat me. It was the same in the 80s and it stood to me.

Meath were four points up at half-time, but we were still in the game and we had chances. We knew we could win that game, but it was Meath who made the final.

I was named as Man of the Match that night on the television, but it never really crossed my mind during the game. I knew I was doing alright because I was winning ball, was moving well and causing bother. I was putting a big shift in with tackles and blocks. I remember being down in the dumps about it after.

Whenever we went for food after the game in Dublin, word came out that I had got Man of the Match from the losing team and it was unheard of. The fact that I got an All Star out of it was an even bigger shock. If you look from 1993, Derry had never been back in a final, so you have to make hay when the sun shines.

That was our year to do something and we were on a level playing field with Meath. Cork and Galway were on the other side, so it was there for the taking, but we didn’t believe in ourselves. We weren’t used to winning and you can only get belief from winning, and if you look at the present Derry team, they have cockiness because they’ve knocked on the door for the last two years.

The arrogance is starting to come in Derry football and they are doing well at underage. Back then, we won minor titles, but never won Ulster senior titles which is a big thing.

Leaving Croke Park in 1987, after that defeat to Meath, I was drowning my sorrows on the bus. I was sick and depressed and ate no dinner. I think I must’ve slept nearly the whole way. I was gutted.

The boys were enjoying themselves, but I was a deep thinker and wondering why we couldn’t rise ourselves? If every man had given one more percent, as the saying goes, that’s 15 percent. Then it’s the difference in getting the ball or getting a block in… then it is the difference in winning and losing.

GAMECHANGER…Liam Hayes up against Derry’s Damian Barton and Joe Irwin in te 1987 All-Ireland semi-final, the day Brian McGilligan’s career changed

I never, ever, thought we’d be back again. I remember going down to Dublin in 1993 to the All-Stars. We were late and stuck in the traffic. A Dublin taxi man shouted across at me ‘Congratulations’… and that I was a cert to get an All Star.

When I was going into the hotel, different ones were telling me I had got it but in ’87 I didn’t know at all, not until my name was called out. I was surprised. Even though I had played a bit of decent football, I was on the losing semi-final team, it was unheard of.

When my name was called out, it was mad. Myself and Scullion were there, the two of us got All Stars… and we played together for the first time that day against Kerry in Ballylongford.

Tony Scullion was told he was too small at minor level. With me, when changes were being made, they put on every Tom, Dick and Harry before me on the minor team. But, then, if you didn’t go to Maghera school and have the name for being an early riser, you didn’t get a look in.

If you go to one of these colleges, it doesn’t matter if you can kick back doors or not. That’s why that Meath game was significant for me. I was only starting to play on the Derry team in 1985, then in ’86 I had one championship match against Tyrone and it was over. I was lucky enough to get to Australia off the back of that without really being known.

Then in ’87, we got to the All-Ireland semi-final and people were asking who the big ginger boy was. It was the game that brought me to the attention of everybody, that this boy can play a bit of football. To me, it was the game that brought me to the forefront of people’s minds. There were people down south who didn’t know who I was, but then in ’93… even that taxi man in the traffic recognised me from being midfield on that successful Derry team.

In 1987, there were a crowd of boys coming to the end of their careers and there was a transformation after that. A lot of younger boys came in… the Downeys, the McGurks… and Tohill came back from Australia. Everything seemed to fall into place and there was a nice blend of players, young and old. There were boys like myself and Scullion, who were hungry for success, thinking we’d never get back to Croke Park… and there we were again in 1993.

  • Brian McGilligan is one of 25 former Derry players who tell the story of  an important game from their career, in a new book Derry – Game of my Life. The book can be purchased in stops across County Derry. Any queries DM @malmcmullan on Twitter or email:
  • Can be purchased via Siopa An Carn – Purchase here…

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