Oak County, Oak City -The GAA is making real inroads in Derry City
It could have been Dungiven, Bellaghy, Lavey or Magherafelt - but Creggan?
As captain Chrissy McKaigue led the Derry senior county squad through scores of kids out on to the immaculate playing surface at Sean Dolan’s impressive Piggery Ridge base for Tuesday’s open training session, his slightly bemused expression betrayed his thoughts.
‘What’s going on?’ or perhaps, ‘This isn’t normal!’
And it isn’t. Or rather, it wasn’t.
Things are changing within the traditional soccer hotbed of Derry City and nowhere moreso than in Creggan.
Where as recently as 2011 a clubhouse lay in ashes and the club fielded only a nomadic senior team drifting from council pitch to council pitch, now stands state of the art playing facilities with a club house to match, all accommodating a vibrant underage section that holds the club’s future in their collective hands.
And Dolan’s aren’t alone.
Steelstown Brian Ogs have long been flying the city flag having competed in Division One and with players like Eoghan Concannon and Ben McCarron now graduating to the Derry senior panel. They remain the blueprint.
Doire Colmcille’s new Lowry’s Lane home is another superb facility and surrounded by a vast number of ‘chimney pots’ as it is, it can supply the reinvigorated club for years to come.
Doire Trasna’s new Corrody Road base is nearly completion but the Pearses haven’t let the wait hold them back. An ever increasing underage section boasts growing numbers and teams like their under 12s who are competing at ‘A’ grade.
Ardmore and Culmore Cú Chulainns, Derry’s youngest club, are both doing sterling work while Na Magha’s growth toward competitive senior hurling club has been remarkable and shows no signs of slowing with increased representation on the county squad at various age levels including senior
Not bad for a soccer city!
It wasn’t so long ago that Gaelic Games were something that happened ‘down the county’ but the senior team’s appearance in the heart of the Creggan estate is reflective of a changing mood, one the county board are embracing and the work of the city’s four Games Promotion Officers - Brian O’Donnell, Eoghan Carlin. Neil Forester and Matthew Maguire - cannot be over stated. Nor can the work done by City Development Officer, Paul Simpson. Those countless hours put in away from the limelight appear to be bearing fruit with participation levels soaring.
According to the 2011 census, the population of the Oak Leaf county is 247,132. Of that 107,877 live in Derry City. It doesn’t take Pythagoras to do the math.
And in an age when analysis is a key buzz GAA word, senior manager Damian McErlain isn’t about to ignore the glaring figures.
“That’s what the GAA is doing as a whole, looking at the urban areas where they can invest in the population,” explained McErlain, “Derry City is an area that certainly can do with that investment and you can see already that facilities are starting to sprout up all over the city – Doire Trasna are building their pitch, Steelstown are well-established, Doire Colmcille have a new one – so the infrastructure is all happening.
“Now the big challenge is to get the coaching to match that. There’s one hundred odd thousand people in the area and 22% of them are under 16. The numbers just stack up in terms of needing to develop it and if you tap into a small percentage of that it’s still a huge resource and something that Derry GAA will be looking to strengthen.”
The disconnect of recent years between city and county has narrowed but it’s something the Derry County Board are working hard to eradicate as they seek to maximise the potential of city areas like Creggan.
“The first thing for any area is to get the facility right,” adds McErlain, “Something the people in the area that they can call their own. Sean Dolan’s have theirs now and that’s what they connect with.
“Whenever they go to play any other teams in the city or in Derry all over, this is their ground and their sense of place.
“Then it’s about getting the coaching to match that. In the background there’s some fabulous work going on up here. At Dolan’s, Brian (O’Donnell) is a big player in terms of driving it and creating the structure. You have the facility and you can provide something for the lads and the girls to play on. That’s what they’ve done at Dolan’s and in the city in general now but that’s just the starting point.”
With the city’s primary schools now producing more players than ever before, the secondary school system is the next area to target and McErlain stressed the need for positive role models like the Steelstown duo he has worked with at underage and senior level.
“It’s massive for young ones in the city to see people from their area playing for Derry. I’ve been involved with the inter-county scene for five years and we’ve had Steelstown lads in particular in the panel every year.
“They’re the most established club in that sense. Eoghan (Concannon) is already in the senior panel and Ben (McCarron) will hopefully join next year. They are role models in every single sense, as men and as footballers. It’s vital the young kids in the city see that and the potential pathway that’s there.”
That pathway wasn’t always clear for city kids but on the evidence of Tuesday night, plenty are finding their way now.