Diarmuid Baker: The ultimate underdog

Diarmuid Baker hurdled over every obstacle to fulfil his lifeline ambition of pulling on a Derry shirt. Shaun Casey writes…

DIARMUID Baker didn’t get one minute of action last year as Derry captured the McKenna Cup, secured promotion to Division One, retained their Ulster title and were a kick of the ball away from the All-Ireland final.

In fact, he wasn’t really on anybody’s radar outside of his own club. He was only added to the county squad after starring for Queen’s University, Belfast in a Sigerson Cup game against rivals Ulster University having never played county minor or u-20s.

Now, 14 weeks on from making his inter-county debut, the Steelstown defender already has a McKenna Cup medal and a Division One title to his name as is one of the first names on Mickey Harte’s team-sheet.

Of Derry’s 12 games so far in 2024, between the McKenna Cup and National League, Baker has missed out on just six minutes. He’s been an ever present on the Derry team and is shaping up to make his championship debut against Donegal on Saturday.

“We played Jordanstown last year in the Dub and he was outstanding in that match,” recalls QUB manager and Down’s two-time All-Ireland winner Conor Deegan.

“He kicked two points from corner-back and shortly after that he was drafted into the Derry squad, so he’s had a good full year of training and working with a very good group of players.

“That will bring him on as well. If you’re training and marking top class forwards, your game improves. It’s testament to him because he’s been pulled from relative obscurity as he hasn’t come through the ranks. For a boy to do that, it takes something a wee bit special.”

Steelstown always knew they had a star on their hands. As an u-16, Baker was called into the senior team for training purposes and while he couldn’t play at such a young age, his talent was clear to see.

Club chairman Paul O’Hea adds: “I remember taking our own club minors in 2016 and Diarmuid would have still been u-16. He came in at the tail end of the campaign and he was immediately one of our best players, we couldn’t wait to have him.

“The following year when our own club seniors got to the championship final, Baker was in training. He was too young to play but if he could have played, he would have been in there because straight away you could see the quality.

“In training, you want the standard to be as high as you can, so you want competition and people pushing each other on, especially if you’re in the tail end of the championship.

“It was myself and Eamon Gibson who were taking the seniors at that stage. We wanted him in there to help his development and to get him exposed to the senior setup but he was helping us too.

“He was contributing to raising the standards. He fitted right in there and he wasn’t out of place at all even though he was too young to actually play. Straight away, he was helping up by contributing.”

While the lifestyle of an inter-county footballer is a fairly hectic one, especially with the condensed season, Baker always finds time to give something back to the club. When he gets a free evening, the rampaging corner-back will help out with the club minors.

“He’s your typical sound fella,” continued O’Hea, an All-Ireland winning minor himself with Derry in 2002. “I don’t think we’ve had any drama ever with Diarmuid.

“Outside of football, he’s a popular, hardworking lad, he’s always been a hard worker and he’s always been popular around the club.

“He’s helping out a bit with the minors this year and he’s glad to help out even though he’s busy with Derry. I know our own minor group have been delighted any time the likes of Diarmuid and Ben (McCarron) are in helping them so he’s putting stuff back in.

“Diarmuid’s father has been the treasurer the last few years and I suppose like any club, you need those people that are invested in the club and help out.

“Lads look up to him because they see someone who has put in the hard work. Obviously the talent’s there but perseverance and hard work doesn’t always go along with it.”

In the modern game, Baker slots into the Derry full-back line seamlessly. A defender who can man-mark the opposition’s best player, break at pace and score are exactly what is required nowadays.

“You have Conor McCluskey there,” continued Deegan. “He’s scoring freely as a corner-back so the evolution and development of defenders moving forward was very much to the fore (of Baker’s Derry call up) and in him there’s a willingness to do it.

“He has a great work ethic too. As a manager or coach, to have him around the squad, he’s a dream player in that regard. He does everything that’s asked of him, there’s no fuss, no messing about and he just gets on with it.

“The evolution of footballers and particularly defenders, it is evolving and will obviously continue to do so, he’s done exceptionally well. The difference with former corner-backs, that was your area, and you didn’t go up the pitch too often.

“Now it’s expected and needed and it’s part of your attacking force. He’s done it brilliantly and to put that alongside marking the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny, from that point of view, he’s developing brilliantly.

“Diarmuid’s very strong physically, he’s well put together. He tackles aggressively and he has pace and intelligence and movement so when you put all those things together, it’s a very good combination.

“The biggest thing is discipline; I think that’s the key component of everything is his discipline and has allowed him to be the player that he’s turning into and has developed into.”

During Steelstown’s golden run to Intermediate All-Ireland glory in 202122 Baker was outstanding and deservinglu earned a Gaelic Life All-Star by the end of the campaign.

Right through the Derry Championship, the Ulster series, until they climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand, the youngster’s light shone the brightest.

There were challenging times too. In the Derry quarter-final against Castledawson, Baker withdrew in the first half due to injury but re-appeared when the game was in the melting pot and fisted over the final point to secure a 1-14 to 1-12 win.

In the All-Ireland semi-final, Baker received his marching orders for a “harsh” red card but made amends in the decider with another customary standout performance.

“That run, he was probably man of the match, through the Derry Championship and then through Ulster and the All-Ireland series, if there were eight championship matches, he was probably man of the match in six of them,” explained O’Hea.

“In the All-Ireland semi-final, he was very unlucky to get a very harsh red card at the start of the second half.

“I know he was gutted but a week later in the All-Ireland final, he was outstanding again, so he didn’t dwell on it.

“If you’re in a tight championship match there’ll be spells when the other team are on top but having someone like Diarmuid that can maybe win a big turnover and then go the length of the pitch, it can really lift the team.

“He’s been a really important player for us ever since he broke into the senior team. Personally, I know there’s so many people that are delighted for him because he’s such a good lad and he deserved his chance.”

The ultimate underdog. The path certainly hasn’t been straight for Baker, but he’s hurdled over every obstacle to fulfil his lifeline ambition of pulling on a Derry shirt. Now, he has the chance to go one further and help Harte’s men push for the big prize.

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