On February 10th, 2019, Derry went to Dungarvan to play Waterford in the league. Most Derry supporters did not go. Why would they? It was the best part of a 900km round trip. It was Division Four. The result was a foregone conclusion. What sort of sicko would you need to be to even think about it?
Meet Dermot McPeake. Dermot wouldn’t be the sickest of the sickos but he’d get you a number for him if you needed it. He’s been Derry PRO on and off for years and though he wasn’t in the gig in 2019, he went to the game in Dungarvan anyway. On the way home, he had an idea for a piece for the match programme for the game a fortnight later at home to Wicklow. He’d count up the Derry supporters who were there in Waterford and give them all a shout-out.
“Joe Clarke is a fanatical Derry man who always just arrives with a camera to the games. So on the following Monday and Tuesday, I got him to send me all the photos he had and between that and going through everyone I saw there myself, I drew up a list. It came to 29. So I went through them all for the programme for the next game.
“I always loved an old Con Houlihan piece about the Dubs when they were going badly and getting beaten out the gate in Croke Park. He called the band of supporters they had, the die-hard ones up on the Hill, he called them undefeated. That’s what was in my mind. The last line of the piece called those supporters The Undefeated.”
To allow for the Derry team’s long drive home afterwards, the game was fixed for 12.30pm. The team would be staying overnight in Waterford on the Saturday – as, presumably, would whatever support they brought. So the half-12 throw-in was a perfectly sensible concession, as long as you were of a perfectly sensible mind. But that’s not always a given, as we know.
Simon Doherty’s alarm clock went off at 4.30am. People who get up at half four in the morning either do it for work or for an early flight or for an emergency of some sort. This was none of those things. This was a Division Four league game a six-hour drive away. Except he and his brother Steven don’t count these things by time.
“We gauge distances to matches not in miles or hours but in Applegreens,” Doherty says. “Waterford was a five Applegreens day. We picked up our mate Paul McIntyre in Belfast and headed down through Dublin. We made good enough time – it was a Sunday morning so there was nobody on the road. We were actually early for the game in the end.”
So early, in fact, that the only people there ahead of them were the Fraher Field stewards. Who were, not unreasonably, caught a little off-guard by the early arrivals.
“We were probably there about 90 minutes before throw-in,” Doherty says. “We parked just beside the water. We went up to the gate and there was a couple of older stewards there and they said, ‘Are ye players?’ I don’t know what they were expecting! Maybe it doesn’t say much of what they thought of Derry football at the time.
“Like, we’re all mid-40s. We’re not exactly built like modern footballers. We’d been up since half-four in the morning – and we looked every bit of it. But we took one look at each other and said, ‘Yep, absolutely.’ And he brought us in and pointed over to where the changing rooms were.”
If things hadn’t quite got to the point of having to drag in middle-aged supporters that spring, they clearly weren’t great either. Derry had been in a Division One league final as recently as 2014 but had slid all the way down the snake in the meantime. It was a confluence of events, really. Managers came and went, the likes of Mark Lynch and Gerard O’Kane retired.
The spectacular rise of Slaughtneil on the national stage in football and hurling meant Derry’s league squads were always light back then. Twice they were relegated despite winning their final game – the damage done in the early rounds leaving them too much to do once Chrissy McKaigue and the boys came back.
One bad year borrowed another and suddenly they were driving back from Sligo on a March Sunday in 2018 wondering what the hell had happened. Of all the relegations, none tested the patience, sanity or grá for the road more than this one. Despite finishing the campaign as top scorers in the division – and third highest scorers in the whole country – they lost five games out of seven and dropped to Division Four.
On a Saturday night the following February, Eamon Lynch and his young lad went into a bar in Waterford city to grab a bite and catch a bit of the Six Nations. The barman caught his northern accent and asked where it was from. Eamon said they were from Derry and they were down for a football match the following day.
“Who are ye playing, lads?” said the barman.
“Waterford,” replied Eamon.
“In football?” said the barman. “Are you sure?”
Eamon is laughing telling the story now. “He shouted over his shoulder to one of the other barmen. ‘Here, do Waterford have a football team?’ He was genuinely surprised to hear about it.”
The Lynches have been stitched into Derry football for generations. Eamon’s brother Mickey was a stalwart of the good teams in the 1970s. Eamon himself played for a few years, Mark Lynch is his nephew. The young lad he had with him in the bar that night is Odhran – within a year he would join the senior panel and tomorrow he’ll line out as goalkeeper against the Dubs.
In a crowd as small as that, everyone has their connection. Brian McIver managed Derry in that 2014 final and was at the helm when they were relegated the next season. He melted back into society after that and went back to doing what he’d always done, following Derry teams around the country. He reckons Dungarvan was probably the last box to tick on county grounds visited nationwide.
“I remember they were doing road works on the Naas dual carriageway at the time,” he says. “We went down on the Saturday and that was the thing we made sure to tell the people that were coming the next day – that the road works were slowing everything down. Because you’d know everyone who’d be going to a match like that.”
They all knew. The Scullions and McWilliamses from Ballinascreen, the McLaughlins from Owenbeg, the Loughreys from Roe Valley, the Quinns from the Loughshore. Husbands and wives, friends and brothers, wrapping their weekend around the thing that mattered most to them.
McIver did it for the same reason they all did. Derry is who they are. If they weren’t away with the seniors, they’d be at a minor match somewhere. When the players need support – in the literal sense of the word – they’d nearly feel a duty to provide it.
“At the time, the players knew it was a matter of hanging in there for a few years,” McIver says. “You look at some of them now who were putting in the hard yards then – they could have walked away or said they were too good to be playing Division Four football. But I don’t think it even ever occurred to them. They deserve everything that’s coming to them now on the way back up.”
On the pitch, Derry wasted no time showing that they had no business being in Division Four. They beat Waterford 2-12 to 1-8 and continued to lay waste to the division the rest of the way. In the final reckoning, they were the only team in the country to go through that spring with a 100 per cent record. They took two seasons to get out of Division Three and now, after another two, they’re heading back to the top flight.
A few weeks back, they welcomed Dublin to Celtic Park. However slim the away crowds were in 2019, the home ones weren’t hectic either. They took the games around the county – to Ballinascreen, Glen and Bellaghy – and rarely scraped together much more than 500 at any of them. But in 2023, Derry football is ablaze. The stand was full 40 minutes before throw-in against the Dubs.
“It’s an emotional affair,” says Simon Doherty. “We drove back from Sligo in 2018 after getting relegated. And me and Steven phoned my da on the way back up. We were reared going to matches with him but he couldn’t go to that one. And he was gutted. He was going, ‘Aw boys, I’ll be pushing up daisies by the time we’re back in Division One.’
“So it was great there at the Dublin game, he was sitting next to me. He had turned 76 just the week before. And it’s the difference between Derry now and Derry a few years ago – even at half-time, my da was saying, ‘This isn’t over.’ And it wasn’t.”
They’ll go to Croke Park tomorrow of course, the same as they went to Cork last weekend. Yes, even six Applegreen Cork, even for a dead rubber with them already promoted. Of course they went. What else would they be at?
“It’s great,” Doherty says. “You’re away with your best buddies, you’re seeing the country and you’re having a bag of chips on the way home. I can’t believe thousands don’t do it.”