By Michael McMullan
BENNY Heron was one of the most valued members of Derry’s back-to-back winning team, was “massively respected” within the group and has the potential to have a successful career as a coach.
That’s the opinion of Ciarán Meenagh, who coached and managed Derry on their rise from Division Four to Ulster glory over the last five seasons.
In an interview with The Irish News, Heron has called time on an 11-year career that spanned all four divisions of the NFL.
The Ballinascreen man, who began his time with Derry as a county minor in 2008, played 108 times for the county at senior level after making his debut under Brian McIver in a 1-17 to 2-12 NFL win over Laois at Celtic Park in 2013.
Heron made his championship debut against Down later in the year and played his last game in this summer’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry on a Sunday when a place in the showpiece decider was within their grasp.
His goals packed a valuable punch as Derry ended their championship famine in the summer of 2022 and, off the field, Heron became a “King Benny” cult figure with Oakleaf fans.
The news will come as a blow to new manager Mickey Harte who has begun putting the wheels in motion for next season, but former skipper Chrissy McKaigue is again back on board.
“Benny grew to become one of the most important and respected members of the Derry team,” Meenagh told Gaelic Life.
Meenagh spoke about Heron’s chemistry and ability to bring others into the play and highlighted his work off the ball, often missed by many fans at games.
“Benny was one of the top two or three players on the Derry team in terms of his aerobic capacity and fitness,” Meenagh added.
“His ability with the ball and what he did in training would’ve been something he wouldn’t have been appreciated for in the wider public.
“He was a key part of our success over the past two or three years and the more successful we became the more valued Benny’s contribution was.”
Meenagh and Heron are teaching colleagues in St Colm’s Draperstown, sitting over tea and lunch on a daily basis.
Chat and football chat in particular was always plentiful but Meenagh stressed how the Derry senior camp would never come up in conversation over his five years involved. Heron valued their friendship and the importance of the team always came first.
“Benny is a very close friend of mine,” he said. “In a footballing capacity, that would be something where the lines were never crossed.
“He was the ultimate professional and the ultimate gentleman where we talked about almost everything every day except from Derry football.
“That made life easier for me in the role I was in as assistant manager and in becoming manager. That is a mark of the man.
In the final part of the 2023 season, when Meenagh stepped up to become manager, the friendship line was never crossed.
“When there were games when Benny didn’t play, for him, the team came first,” he said.
“If it was one of your friends, people could say that would’ve been a difficult decision to make but it was never a difficult decision to make because, with Benny and myself, the team always came first. Everything was easy with Benny. He was the ultimate team player.”
The duo would been involved in taking teams in the school, but Meenagh feels that Heron has the understanding and “football brain” to go on and be an excellent coach.
“In any changing room, you will have players who know the game and Benny Heron would’ve been one of a very small core of players in that changing room that knew the game like no other,” he said.
“He is an exceptionally bright football man and he gets things, he understands things and you can see that in how he coached other players on the field.
“Benny Heron, if he wanted, could have an amazing career in coaching, such is his understanding of the game of Gaelic football.”
Sad news to hear of @bennyheron11 calling it a day but he owes nothing
McKenna Cup: 16 2014 v Monaghan
NFL: 64 debut 2013 Laois
SFC: 28 – debut 2013 Down
— Michael McMullan (@malmcmullan) November 2, 2023