Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Recovery plan

DERRY only know now that Dublin are not superhuman. Brian Mullins was giving us one of his intense team talks in the changing room after training one night and said: “Every sportsperson is only human. They only have two arms and two legs like you.” I said, “What about Maradona?” “F**k off Joe” he said.

The most important experience Derry have had was the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry last year. We were in a winning position with five minutes to go and choked. We got distracted by the enormity of the possibility of an All-Ireland final, of beating David Clifford and his boys, and we stopped playing the game.

Kerry gratefully accepted the choke. They know how to win, having won the All-Ireland the previous season. They proceeded to ruthlessly close the game out.

This type of defeat is the bitterest pill, but also the greatest learning experience. Our boys saw that final five minutes. That abyss. That impossibly high wall. Instead of revelling in it, they panicked. Stray passes, turnovers, out of control emotions.

Michael Darragh MacAulay told me once that he loved those last five minutes of a massive contest more than anything. “When Mayo went two points up with five minutes to go, I nudged Aido (Aidan O’Shea) and said, ‘You know what’s coming now Aido.’ We scored a point. I nudged him again. Then another point. I said, What did I tell you Aido?’”

This is because while Mayo panicked, Dublin were ruthless, certain in the knowledge that only the strong survive. Mayo never learned the lesson of 2012 or 2013. And as those players discovered to their lifelong sorrow, it is a lesson that must be learned quickly.

After two or three defeats in those intense situations, the players are fighting a losing battle against the mind. Mayo footballers. Ireland’s rugby footballers.

The 2024 league final was a wonderful adventure. In spite of the extreme pressure applied by Dublin, Derry did not wilt. More than that, we played with adventure, taking risks and attacking Dublin at every opportunity.

This is the legacy of Rory Gallagher: an ingenious game-plan that disguises individual weakness and accentuates individual strength. If a ball was on over the top, then it was given. If a defender saw a chance to go for goal, he went for it.

Our young centre back Eoin McEvoy exemplified this, with two superb goals. His effortless athleticism, reading of the game, and all round skills remind me of Trevor Giles, and there can be no higher compliment.

The team also has serious pace everywhere (normally the Dubs run the legs off their opponents) and an excellent, steady education over the last four years which keeps them humble.

The journey from Division Four to Division One makes you appreciate everything you are doing. It makes you understand deep down the privilege of being serious All-Ireland contenders, and the importance of not squandering that privilege.

The game was vastly entertaining and the win was important, but it was only the first step in the recovery from that semi-final collapse last year. The most important thing was the way the group battled so fiercely to the end of normal time, then extra-time. Then, the absolute ruthlessness of the Derry penalties, Comerford not getting a sniff.

After all that epic excitement came the thing that tells us this team is deeply serious. The thing that tells us they are humble and focused only on the bigger prize. There were no big celebrations. No outpouring of joy. No “aren’t we great?” stuff. In the after match interviews, it was all about Donegal in the first round and the bigger challenges ahead.

There are only three teams that can win Sam Maguire. Dublin, Kerry and us.

I rank them in this order: Dublin no.1, Kerry no.2 and Derry no.3. This is because both Dublin and Kerry have won an All-Ireland, proving that they have the stuff to thrive in that ‘winning time’ that Michael Darragh cherished.

In the 1992 Ulster final (it was knockout in my day), we were hotly fancied to beat Donegal and to go on and win the All-Ireland. But in the last quarter, we flunked it. Panicked. The football machine we had built over the previous three years, that had just destroyed the reigning All-Ireland champions (Down), fell apart due to driver error. It was the defining moment for us, the look deep into your soul moment. What are you made of? What use are you as a man?

That humiliating, cowardly surrender drove us on insanely throughout 1993. The training sessions were unbelievably intense. Good players dropped off and were spat out the back. There were fist fights. Henry Downey made Roy Keane look like Marcus Rashford. We had let ourselves and each other down and it was not going to happen again.

A flooded pitch in the Ulster final against Donegal? Is that all you’ve got? Five points down against Dublin at half time in the semi-final? Is that all you’ve got? Two hammer blows of goals against us in the final against Cork? Is that all you’ve got? We won it and that’s all there is to say.

In last year’s semi-final, Derry had their Mayo moment. The only question now is whether we go on to make a habit of it and are remembered only (if we are remembered at all) as a team of heroic failures. Or whether we convert that experience into a Dublin moment. A moment that will be remembered until the end of the GAA world.

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