By Michael McMullan
SUNDAY was a fitting end to Damian McErlain’s first year back in the driver’s seat of Derry’s minor rollercoaster.
With Derry staggering around in the darkness of a 13-year minor famine, he took the reins in the autumn of 2014 to pull together an Ulster winning team that forged a change in culture.
Being a county minor footballer was trendy again. Silverware was no longer a pipedream.
The buzz of being on the bus, snaking through Clones on Ulster final day, was a bandwagon young boys wanted to be on.
“It is top class,” beamed McErlain after Sunday’s win.
“It’s unbelievable to win an All-Ireland Minor title at the fourth go to get over the line with different teams,” he said, referring to losing three times to Kerry in the All-Ireland series in his previous tenure.
Among those shaking his hand were three men who walked in his shoes. John Joe Kearney who managed the 1989 winners and 2020 winning boss Martin Boyle.
There was also a hug and a photo request from Chris Brown, the 2002 winning manager who was in charge in 1995 when McErlain lost out to Westmeath as a player.
“This team showed a maturity and a quality that I would say was fairly evident to everybody as to why they have delivered it,” McErlain said of the group, echoing the maturity word he tagged on his team in virtually every post-game interview during a 15-game season.
It was a fourth meeting with Monaghan, but the manner of the win was a polar opposite of the chaotic Ulster final Derry wrestled back before winning on penalties.
When Derry downed a fancied Donegal side in their defining 2015 Ulster semi-final, preparation and homework were key facets of a victory that changed the direction of minor football in the county.
After dusting themselves down from the Ulster final shave with Monaghan, Sunday was totally different.
Derry hammered Monaghan’s strengths. Seán Óg McElwain was held to a point. Finbar Murray tracked Max McGinnity. Rory Small followed Tommy Mallen everywhere.
After Matthew Finn kicked a point off each foot, Tommy Rogers sat deeper to silence the onaghan danger.
Shipping three goals in the Ulster final hurt Derry on the day and festered in their post-game thoughts.
“It was a bit of an anomaly in our game,” McErlain said. “Fair play to Monaghan, they disrupted the thing that day, they want the game havoc and that’s their style, breaking the ball around the middle and coming in droves off it.
“We didn’t allow that to happen today and we should’ve won more breaks.
“We had a hand on it and didn’t get them, but we had bodies in position so we got away with it.”
Sunday brought down the curtain on a season that can be filed away in the history books. Of the group, 10 will return to defend their Ulster and All-Ireland titles.
“That was the whole thing the other night, leaving Owenbeg, it was nearly emotional enough leaving it, a group you have been with all year,” McErlain said.
“At minor, you only have one bite at it as a group and thankfully we have taken a big bite.”