By Michael McMullan
JOHNNY McGuckian talks about football the same way he plays it. Glint in the eye. Smirk on his face. If a reverse gear exists, it’s not obvious. There is energy you can’t hide.
If Derry minors were a hit single, McGuckian would be the chorus. That piece you always remember. Sunday proved it.
Twelve months after Sean Laverty flashed a second yellow card under his nose as Galway pulled an All-Ireland final place from Derry’s grasp, McGuckian owned Sunday’s final.
“Words can’t describe the feeling,” came his dancing response when asked to put winning an All-Ireland into context.
When would stop smiling…Tuesday…Wednesday?
“Never,” he blurted out.
“We set out at the start of the year that we wanted to be here,” he said of their 2023 ambitions.
“I we knew we were good enough to be there and definitely win it and thank God we did it.”
Derry’s dominance took them around most corners, but there where times to get the spade out and start digging. Donegal had a told of their throat in their Ulster semi-final.
The Ulster final had enough drama for a season on it’s own, a game that saw McGuckian celebrate his slotted home penalty in front of the Farney army. A day when his smile was at it’s widest.
After a facile win over Galway, they had to content with having goalkeeper Jack McCloy sent off at half time and a reshuffle of the deck. On Sunday, they lost Cahir Spiers to a red card that McGuckian takes the blame for.
“I gave ‘Spiersy’ a bad ball and he ended up getting sent off. It was probably my fault and nothing to do with him,” McGuckian laughed.
By that time, McGuckian’s fingerprints were over everything Derry did, including their two missed goal chances. At one point, he was the smallest man in a Monaghan triangle when Karl Campbell floated him a kick-out. Up he went and Derry were on the match again.
Derry always seemed to have an answer and McGuckian puts it down to the management.
“The bond they have brought in between all the players,” he said.
“We are like brothers and we just knew every man would have each other’s back no matter what would happen.
“I just knew we had to do it for him (Spiers), the same as the last game for big Jack (McCloy) when he was tussled into making a bad decision which can happen at this age group.”
So, what’s it like to play the same team for a fourth time? What’s it really like? For McGuckian, it was just another game. A day to express himself, but he once again laid a huge potion of credit at the management’s door.
“The managers definitely had us well prepared for it,” he said. “We knew Ulster final day was probably one of the worst performances we had all year.
“We let Monaghan control the game and we set out our stall from the start, against the strong breeze, we were going to be controlling and not letting them dictate.
“We knew they were going to bring a big crowd. They were probably expecting the win, but we knew the crowd doesn’t get you over the line in these games.
“It’s all about inside the four white lines and we knew we had to deliver and thank God we did.”
What was it like playing in that first half and being that magnet for the ball, taking on whatever Monaghan defender standing in the straightest line for goal?
McGuckian sidesteps the question somewhat. He was only doing his job. There was a thought for McCloy missing the biggest day of the season. It was about doing whatever was needed to place an All-Ireland medal in palms of the other 33 players.
“We knew everybody was like a brother to us. We couldn’t let them down and I think it brings the best out of us,” McGuckian said.
In the end, James Sargent’s goal was the winning of the game and McGuckian even had time for a tongue in cheek tactical talk with manager Damian McErlain after the game.
“I was joking with Damian there,” he said with a smile. “We could’ve played like that all year, sitting back and counter-attacking.
“It was one of our best performances in the second half against Dublin and again.
“’Sargie’, I don’t know how to describe him. The man has another year of minor…there are about 10 of those boys here next year.”
Minor teams across Ireland will be happy Johnny McGuckian is not in the ten.