By Michael McMullan
DERRY minor manager Damian McErlain insists the county senior footballers’ upward curve has morphed interest in football across the county into “a different animal”.
Speaking ahead of his side’s final week of preparation for Sunday week’s All-Ireland minor final showdown with Monaghan, McErlain – a former senior manager – has noticed first-hand players joining underage purely on the back of the county’s success.
“With the (Derry) seniors now in the shop window producing week on week with the support back with them again, it is just class,” McErlain said. “(it’s) A different animal now in terms of lads looking to play for Derry.
“In our own club (Magherafelt) we have big numbers at underage, but we had four or five latecomers, in terms of joining up because they had watched Derry.
“At this stage, they are u-9s and at that age they are saying to their mothers and fathers that they want to go and play.
“It is a real good example and we saw it with our own eyes that it was happening…that shows you the impact.”
McErlain, who first managed the minors from 2015 to 2017, points out now how much of an easier sell it is to entice the top players to commit to county football after the “full cycle” of those players from his first time as minor boss now at the heart of the senior team.
At the start of 2015, the focus was on getting the right setup at minor level. Medical support. Nutrition. Gear. All the extras on top of the other essentials for a team to progress.
“You set the environment up,” McErlain said. “Then, we won the (2015) Ulster title and that was the first cog in the whole thing.
“Then, all the young lads around Derry are thinking “I want to play for Derry minors.” Clubs, at the same time, were doing the work…you can’t just do that in isolation.”
McErlain takes pride in his three captains from that minor spell – Conor Glass, Shea Downey and Paudi McGrogan – being on the pitch when Derry won the 2022 Ulster senior title.
Of the 11 players from his first minor tenure on the bus to Croke Park for Derry senior assignment with Cork on Sunday, he is not surprised by their commitment to push towards inter-county senior level.
And it has all been progress. Sunday week is a second All-Ireland final monor appearance in three seasons. Away from that, there has been seven Ulster final appearances in nine seasons, with players dripping into the senior ranks.
“There were a lot of things that have happened in Derry over the last 10 years, the foundations of recognising where we were and a recognition of the work that needed done,” McErlain sums up of the progress.
“Recognition that the top clubs were doing the work and other clubs saying “jeez, we need to get our act together” and now there are more clubs producing more (county) players.
“Even the skillset of our own (Derry minor) squad now, the lads on the pitch can play anywhere because they have the skills on both sides and all of that.
“There are the foundations of that and the clubs send them up here (Owenbeg) on a Saturday morning if they are good enough to be in a development squad and to progress further again.”
Check out this week’s Gaelic Life for more All-Ireland minor final build-up.