No minor matter: Derry and Kerry’s underage story

Sunday is a first meeting of Kerry and Derry at senior level since 2015. Since that, both counties laid strong foundations at underage level. Michael McMullan takes a look…

“The transition talk…I think Joe Brolly…Joe Brolly told us the production line was finished in Kerry. Well, Joe Brolly….what d’ya think about that?” – Kieran Donaghy

SEEING these words written doesn’t come close to telling the story. The yell that followed it, down Joanne Cantwell’s microphone, said it all. The bear had been poked.

It’s 2014, the third Sunday of September to be precise. Kerry have just been crowned minor and senior champions. Kieran Donaghy is colourful. The smile is wider than normal and he’s telling the world they’ve no intention of limping into the wilderness.

His pounce on a fluffed Paul Durcan kick-out led to the goal that ended a five-year wait to bring Sam back to the Kingdom.

In the minor final before it – also against Donegal – Jack O’Connor masterminded the first of five All-Ireland titles in a row. A golden generation of cubs.

Kerry’s production line was only starting, but it would take until last September for the latest of their 38 titles. Another senior famine as the Dubs dined lavishly at the banquet of champions.

From 2014, David Moran, Paul Murphy, Paul Geaney and Stephen O’Brien were still on-board last summer. Since that, Moran has called time on his career.

Before that Kerry’s underage landscape was fallow. Senior titles came, but it was 1994 since they sat proudly at the top of the minor tree. Barry O’Shea was at full-back. Éamonn Fitzmaurice and Mike Frank Russell were on the bench.

The Galway team they beat had seven future senior winners in their ranks. Joyce. Donnellan. Divilly. Savage. Clancy. Tomás and Declan Meehan. All from the St Jarlath’s winning Hogan Cup crop.

Two decades is far too long for a footballing epicentre. Four u-21 titles were dotted in, but it was time to get the spade out.

Kerry schools began to flourish and they’d men with county stock prepared to do their share of the digging. Jack O’Connor in Coláiste na Sceilge. Gavin White is now in with St Brendan’s, Killarney. Marc Ó Sé with Tralee CBS. Liam Hassett as principal in St Michael’s of Listowel.

Fitzmaurice enticed local publican Tommy Griffin to lend a hand with a Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne team littered with his Dingle clubmates that would win back-to-back Hogan Cups.

It gave players an avenue to complete against the best other counties had to offer. The next step was fusing it all into something that would serve the number one master.

In Kerry, youngsters strive for one thing and one thing only. To run out at Croke Park with the green and gold on their backs. Everything else, well, it’s a means to an end.

The new centre at Currans has a state-of-the-art gym, but the players were left along with their school teams. They’d be given programmes to follow and it was up to the minor management team to pull the parts together when county season crept along.

First it was Jack O’Connor as manager with Peter Keane coming on board to complete the five-in-a-row.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN…Lorcan Connor is denied by Shane Ryan in the 2014 All-Ireland minor final

Kerry’s first minor winning team of the bonanza brought Shane Ryan into the scene and when the senior ‘keeper jersey was rotated last year, O’Connor went with his minor custodian.

Current senior stars Tom O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich were in the full-back line. Dan O’Donoghue was there too and looked like breaking into the scene last year until injury.

Mark O’Connor stood at midfield but is now in Geelong’s Irish contingent in the AFL.

Their attack in 2014 had Micheál Burns and Killian Spillane – the championship’s top scorer that year.

Jason Foley was on the bench but didn’t make the cut until the next year and by that stage, it was one giant conveyor belt.


The Donegal team who lost the All-Ireland final had beaten Derry in the first round of Ulster.

With zero time to unite a team after another St Patrick’s, Maghera Hogan Cup crusade, they went down to Donegal by five points after going 1-4 to 0-1 behind early on.

At that stage, Derry minors had zero momentum. From the moment Damien Reddington’s late, late goal pulled the Tom Markham Cup from Derry hands in the dying embers of the 2007 All-Ireland final, Derry won just two championship games in the next seven years.

There wasn’t much to cheer about in the four years after the 2002 title.

Damian McErlain came on board as minor manager in the heel of 2014. Eight of the team that started against Donegal were still underage.

He made Conor Glass captain and an attacking plan was built around Shane McGuigan. The group hung out of the Owenbeg gym over the winter and links with all the school teams were put in place.

It was balancing act, but Donegal handed out a hammering in the league. A proper hammering. The league final was a tamer version of a drubbing.

Their season got a run of the green with a fortunate goal against Down and it was time for a crunch semi-final with Donegal.

The focus on Donegal was insane. That’s what hammerings do and when Derry’s hurt manifested into sheer hunger, there was only one winner. There was a slice of luck when Conor Doherty got under a late Donegal penalty that would’ve derailed it all.

An Ulster title followed. A first in 13 seasons. It was like Kerry’s All-Ireland famine on Derry’s scale.

By the time the teams met at Croke Park, Derry had no answer to Kerry’s growing minor monster. Niall Keenan kept a lid on Conor Geaney and Sean O’Shea was held scoreless, but 1-3 from Michael Foley did the damage.

O’Shea (1-6) and David Clifford (0-5) put Derry’s light out the following year in the All-Ireland quarter-final on a day all but an O’Shea pointed free of Kerry’s 1-24 came from play.

Derry had no All-Ireland honours, but having a minor team in Croke Park and competing for silver made it an attractive proposition.

Shea Downey was back for 2016 and was joined by Paudi McGrogan, Conor Doherty and Conor McCluskey. In the Kerry corner were Graham O’Sullivan and Mike Breen who have been battling it out for a starting senior jersey this year.

Derry returned to the All-Ireland series the following year as Ulster champions. Current goalkeeper Odhrán Lynch was the backup ‘keeper to Oran Hartin with current senior backup ‘keeper Ryan Scullion then the third choice.

Oisin McWilliams, Declan Cassidy and Ben McCarron were part of that Derry group, but it ended in the most painful ending imaginable.

It was Kerry in the final on the day David Clifford hit 4-4 in a 6-17 to 1-8 victory. The hammering of hammerings. Clifford had the ball in the net in the first attack. Diarmuid O’Connor was at midfield picking up his second medal.

The Kingdom were back to make it a fifth All-Ireland 12 months later with Dylan Geaney the star of the show. He saw game time in the McGrath Cup this year, but he’ll have to patiently join the back of the attacking pecking order.

ENDING THE FAMINE…Conor Glass lifts the Fr Murray Cup after Derry ended their 13-year wait for an Ulster minor title in 2015

Derry weren’t back on the All-Ireland march over the next two seasons, but the 2018 group produced Ethan Doherty. There was a late bolter in the shape of Paul Cassidy who didn’t come to the fore until u-20 level.

The 2020 All-Ireland winning minor team had Eoin McEvoy at the heart of it’s defence. He is now a regular.

Lachlan Murray has the makings of being a long-term wing man for Shane McGuigan in Derry’s attack. Mark Doherty, Niall O’Donnell and Conleth McGuckian have yet to make their senior debuts. Donnacha Gilmore looks like a player who could settle into an attacking player from wing back.

Derry were back in an All-Ireland semi-final last year and Ruairi Forbes fits the bill of someone who could cut it at the top level and there are still prying eyes on the progress of Callum Brown’s AFL journey with GWS Giants.

Sunday’s minor win over Monaghan – and the manner of it – have Derry tongues wagging with more potential. That’s for another day.

First comes Sunday. Derry have not beaten Kerry at senior level since the 2008 League final. There have been five senior defeats since. The last one in 2015 as Derry waved goodbye to Division One on their demise all the way to Division Four.

They’ve met four times at minor level with Derry winning in 2021 when the previous year’s final spilled over after Covid. Add in the two Hogan Cup finals, Kerry hands left Croke Park with the silver.

Kieran Donaghy’s jeering was right and Joe Brolly got it all wrong. Kerry were stirring the pot on a recipe that would end the hunger.

Brolly’s Derry aren’t far behind them. Seven Ulster Minor finals in nine years, winning four of them. Sunday was a recent second coming of the Tom Markham Cup. That’s progress. Not the jaw-dropping feat of Kerry, but important none the less.

Sunday is the real world. That’s where it all happens. A first championship clash of the counties in 19 years. The underage groundwork suggests it won’t be 19 years until they cross paths again. Joe Brolly, what d’ya think about that?

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