FEATURE: Diarmuid Scullion – a foot in either county

Derry man Diarmuid Scullion has coached in his own county and is in his fourth year with Scotstown seniors where he now lives. Michael McMullan asked him about both counties and their development.

BORN in Bellaghy, Diarmuid Scullion has a different blue jersey on this radar. Married to Bernie, he has lived in her native Monaghan, in Scotstown, for the last seven years.

It’s his fourth season as coach to the club senior team who boast Rory Beggan, Kieran and Darren Hughes among eight players in the Farney squad preparing for Saturday’s showdown with his native Derry.

Bar a year here and there, Scullion has been involved in coaching with Derry underage teams since 2009. The Derry u-16 Buncrana Cup team he was involved with the following year had Ciaran McFaul and Gareth McKinless on board.

When Derry won the 2020 minor All-Ireland, he was part of Martin Boyle’s backroom team. There is a photo on the sideboard of his son Emmett kitted in out in a full Derry kit. There was also a snap of him in Monaghan blue and white – complete with a Scotstown hat – when Tyrone came to play Monaghan in Clones back in March.

This week, Diarmuid will bounce the odd text in the direction of the Scotstown lads plotting Saturday’s downfall of Derry.

There will be banter taken and given. He wants them to play well, but accepts they know he is Derry and that’s the way it is. Saturday’s result will be irrelevant to their relationship when they plot to get their hands on the Mick Duffy Cup when the club season thickens around Scotstown.

Weeks after Monaghan’s 2010 Ulster final defeat to Tyrone, Diarmuid and Bernie met. He’s been up and down to Bellaghy since. If he wasn’t watching Derry club action, he was engrossed in the Farney scene.

So, it’s now for the burning question. Aside from their epic win over Tyrone, what are the key ingredients to Monaghan’s 10-year love affair with Division One? Only Kerry have had a longer unbroken visit at the top table.

“My thoughts are, and from looking in, they are an incredibly resourceful county,” begins Scullion, a teacher in Corracrin National School.

Karl Gallagher is a past pupil and the school community was bursting with pride after his debut performance that saw Monaghan beat Tyrone after Ryan O’Toole’s winning goal.

“Some people don’t realise that Monaghan only have 29 clubs,” Scullion continues. “In terms of population of teams in the championship, they are one of the lowest.”

As a county, they maximise everything open to them and there is a consistency in the squad. Five of the players used by Malachy O’Rourke’s on the Farney’s 2013 Ulster final win over Donegal will be running out at Omagh on Sunday.

Add in Vinny Corey now taking his place in the dugout as manager. Dermot Malone is now the county’s minor manager.

“Those players have shown to not only be exceptional footballers, but exceptional leaders,” Scullion said, with the benefit of three and a bit seasons coaching at the top level of club football in the county.

“The likes of Conor McManus, Darren Hughes and Rory Beggan, those boys were key men in 2013 and they are still key men in the current team.”

So, in Scullion’s book, what does that leadership look like? It’s a couple of things.

The obvious one is how they perform on the big days. Hughes was the man mountain in the face of their latest battle to avoid the drop from Division One. McManus kicked nine points from nine kicks in their win over Tyrone with Rory Beggan immense as their conductor in chief from the number one jersey when they faced down a five-point interval deficit.

“Also, I think they showed exceptional leadership in the time-frame they have been in Division One. It hasn’t always been straightforward,” Scullion added, referring to their insatiable ability to bounce back.

The wins are never too high, with the defeats also taken in the context of playing against the best teams the game has to offer.

When they’ve gone down to the last day of the league season, with their status in doubt, the Farney men have never reached for the panic button.

Scullion uses the process word. Not in the context of a cliché, but just as a matter of fact. It’s Monaghan’s ability to focus on the ‘now’ and ensuring the ‘then’ will take care of itself.

“In those big games they have performed,” he adds. “I remember even two years ago, Darren (Hughes) kicked a goal against Galway in the play-off game to send the game to extra-time and Jack McCarron stepped up to get the winner.

“The performances of Conor McManus, who keeps defying his age and comes out to keep performing to the level he is at,” Scullion said, pointing to McManus kicking nine points to help set up Saturday’s semi-final with Derry.

“That is exceptional leading by example on the biggest of stages, an Ulster Championship game against one of their fiercest rivals Tyrone.”

Another reason for their stay at the upper echelons is their production line being in a good place. Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe stepped away this season, but players like Thomas McPhillips, Karl Gallagher and Ryan O’Toole were trusted by Vinny Corey to taste championship for the first time.

Add in the scoring input of newcomers Sean Jones (1-10) and Stephen O’Hanlon (1-13) to their 2023 season, all from play.

“You saw Ryan’s goal at the end and the role Karl (O’Connell) did for the team, they are very good players coming into the side,” Scullion added before looking into another reason for Monaghan’s consistency levels.

It’s about standards and keeping them high. Monaghan pride themselves on staying at the top. Many on the outside see the county as punching above their weight. In terms of numbers they are, but otherwise they are a case study other counties could do a lot worse than mimic.

Vinny Corey was a driving force under Malachy O’Rourke and he is passing on the standards.

“Another person who I thought was instrumental on those teams was Dermot Malone, who was a really good leader and exceptional footballer and he is now over the minors,” Scullion added.

“There is good continuity there from past players coming in and contributing to the current teams in Monaghan, whether that is minor or senior level.”

So, what else keeps Monaghan at the top end? Scullion points to the versatility. Monaghan are level with Armagh on nine scores from advanced marks this season, suggesting they are well able to look for McManus and McCarron inside.

“There is great versatility among the squad,” he adds. “Darren lined out at midfield, or is back as the sweeper or you see him getting ahead of the play.

“There is Micheál Bannigan and Conor McCarthy, who can play in a variety of roles. That is something that is a real strength to Monaghan’s way of playing, the way the players in their squad can fulfil a variety of different roles within the game.

“That was evident against Tyrone, when they were under the cosh in the first half. Vinny made two or three good tactical switches within the game that changed the way Monaghan were playing. It got them back into it and onto the front foot.”

And Corey should know about mixing it up. Seamus McEnaney threw him up to full-forward as they chased Tyrone in the 2007 Ulster final and he fitted like a glove.

It comes back to not having a squad bulging with the impact scorers from the bench Dublin and Kerry have boasted in their pomp

“The (Monaghan) players have a really good understanding of the game, good basic skills and are able to perform those skills under pressure, they have to have the mentality to do that,” Scullion adds of being able to slot players in anywhere.

Ryan O’Toole had the same answer to every media outlet after their win over Tyrone when asked about the impact of this new manager.

“Vinny gets it,” he said, referring to how his boss understands the life of an inter-county football manager.

“Vinny was an experienced player, he was there (as a selector) under Seamus McEnaney and now he has taken on the job himself,” Scullion explains of Corey’s imprint.

“I know from chatting with the players that he does have a really good vision of what he wants from his Monaghan team and the players are buying into that.

“That comes down to Vinny. He was a great player for Monaghan, it is more than that. He has learned that from his role as selector and so far as the manager.”

Another element in Monaghan’s ability to stay in the top flight is the support from their fans. Even on the last day with relegation coming down to one performance, Scullion never felt there was any pressure from those outside the camp.

“The supporters understand that the players and the team are going out there to perform at the absolute maximum level they can,” he said.

“They understand the boys are going out to do the job that needs to be done. People have faith…these players have gone now for 10-plus years of performing and always doing the job on the big day.”

Another important ingredient is the work being put in at school and underage level across the county. Scullion places much of that credit at the door of the Farney Games Development Manager Paul O’Connor and the coach education put in place.

“Even organising coaching days for development squad coaches and secondary school teachers,” he said. “They appreciate they are working with a lower number of clubs, so they are trying to maximise that by integrating club coaching, school coaching and county underage, there is a real close link there.

“When I was involved with Derry minors and development Squads, Monaghan were always in the mix.”

Monaghan were minor champions in 2018 and 2019 before pushing Derry very close in the 2020 decider.

Derry’s progress to last year’s Ulster title and a return to Division One is a testament to the work in the Oakleaf County, especially after the senior team plummeted to the Division Four before getting back on track.

“Damian McErlain came in with the minors in 2015 and there seems to be a real change in mind-set in what we wanted to be doing as a county at minor level,” Scullion said of the starting block.

Derry have been in six Ulster finals in the last eight seasons, winning three and one All-Ireland. Scullion can see the similarities with Monaghan’s progress.

“We are starting to maximise our potential,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we always have to be winning. In a county like Derry, with a proud footballing tradition, the clubs and schools we have backing up our county teams, we should always be aiming to be in the mix at the top end of championship football.”

Derry were the inaugural winners of the Ulster U-20 Championship in 2018 and were in Wednesday’s final.

“It’s not one thing in isolation,” he adds of the progress. “The difference now is everybody recognising that we can have a strong school culture, a strong club structure, a strong county structure and work together we are getting the best of what we have.”

He noticed a trend with the three seasons he was involved at minor level. There were younger brothers and clubmates of those winning teams under Damian McErlain’s watch. Success and being in finals was a target, but Scullion felt it wasn’t the be all and end all.

It was about the progress and the pathway. The Derry senior team is littered with examples of players who have benefited from the recent upturn in the minor grade.

“You need the expectation that you are going to go out and perform to the best of your ability, that you have the support behind you from clubs and the county board,” he said.

“I found that players want to be on that yellow bus now and be heading off to Healy Park, Clones or the Athletic Grounds to represent Derry in a big game.

“I am now back working with u-15s and u-16s in Derry and we have players coming through with that same ambition, they want to be on the bus when it is heading out to the big games.

“It is really refreshing to see after seeing Damian (McErlain) and his teams going through that change in mind-set.”

There is still a realism. The 13-year famine without an Ulster minor title and winning just two minor championship games in the eight years after the 2007 All-Ireland final are still fresh enough in the memory to keep the mind sharp.

“It’s about making sure we keep things on an even keel, performing to the best we can, not getting carried away with victories and not too down in the dumps with defeats which will inevitably happen at a high level,” Scullion said of Derry current footing.

There will be defeats. Playing at the top level brings that and it’s about getting on the horse again, much like the Monaghan senior example of believing the middle ground between the joy of victory and disappointment of defeat.

The path of progress is somewhere in the middle, but the packed St Tiernach’s Park last summer after Derry ended their 24-year wait for an Ulster senior title has done wonders.

“It was huge for the buzz it brought all around the county,” Scullion said to qualify what it can do in the short and long-term.

“When I see the amount of young boys kicking football with a Derry top on and have started to follow the teams.

“When see how that has rolled into this year with the crowds going to our home games in the National League. All that creates a buzz and it is brilliant for the players themselves.”

“We have players in our Derry team who have soldiered from Division Four and have now got back to Division One.

“They deserve these big days, those boys have worked their way back to the top and you can only be proud of them.”

With all the talk of the new All-Ireland structures and the chatter of how it will dilute the provincial series, Scullion backs Ulster to stay as it is.

”Tyrone really disappointed at being knocked out and I can see how Monaghan got a huge bounce from it. You only have to look at the levels of anticipation ahead of Saturday’s game.

“I am teaching here in Monaghan and see the excitement among the pupils and the staff coming up to this game I think it is great for the GAA that an Ulster Championship can mean so much.”

Diarmuid Scullion’s wish list for Saturday will be performances from the Scotstown players that are high, but not good enough to beat Derry.

Since he met Bernie, Monaghan have two Ulster titles, with Derry getting their hands on the Anglo Celt just once.

Who will be the happiest on Saturday? We’ll see.

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