Derry need to make a championship mark says Gillis
January 02, 2009
Not many footballers have won NFL medals in the role of goalkeeper and outfield player but veteran Derry 'keeper Barry Gillis is one such player.
Sporting cliches are very often the comfort blanket of hacks but in detailing Barry Gillis's intercounty career, is there any original way to describe his versatility?
Simply said, the Derryman is the archetypal Mr. Versatile; an outfield player with his club while manning the goal for the Oak Leafers' seniors.
Last April, the Magherafelt clubman added to the NFL medal he won in 2000 as an outfield player by collecting another league honour as the team's custodian.
The seasoned O'Donovan Rossa stalwart has seen all the highs and lows since coming into the panel at the end of the nineties.
In 2008, his Derry side won the NFL title but failed to frank that form with further glory in the championship.
However despite tumbling out of the All-Ireland qualifiers at the first round stage, Gillis says that winning the NFL title in 2008 ensured that the good outweighed the bad.
"We didn't come up trumps in the championship but nobody can take the league title away from us," the ace netminder insists.
"We set out to win a major trophy and while the championship was our number one goal, going the distance in the league has to be looked at as a good achievement.
"Losing out in the Ulster championship was a big disappointment but to win any national competition must be seen as progress.
"There's no doubt that the supporters would have been looking towards winning the Anglo-Celt Cup because it's so long since we won it."
There's little doubt also that the manner of Derry's triumph in the National League final last spring has helped provide championship solace to the reliable Derry 'keeper.
Achieving an 11-point turnaround en route to beating (2-13 to 2-9) aristocrats Kerry in the division one decider at Parnell Park was an achievement of serious note by Derry.
"I think the history books will record our win over Kerry as being one of the most outstanding and commendable league final victories of all time.
"We showed a lot of character and determination to hang in there and then come good in the second half so there was a lot we can take from that display.
"Hopefully we can use the league as a stepping stone to do a lot better in the championship next year because I'm sure that after the Donegal game, the fans were expecting more."
After some tortuous years, the league final victory seemed set to mark a watershed in Derry's fortunes and a 1-14 to 1-12 win over Donegal heightened expectations among fans.
But as the late Eamonn Coleman warned in the wake of Derry's NFL title win in 2000 (with Gillis on board), league success has proven the hex of many a championship-wannabe.
"We can't get carried away with this," said the Ballymaguigan native at the time.
"How many teams have won a National League and then got beaten in the first round of the Ulster championship?"
"It was always about the Ulster championship, that's what we trained for. If we get beaten by Down or Antrim, no one will remember Clones on June 20th."
Pointedly, Coleman, Gillis et al saw their championship aspirations blown apart by Armagh in the subsequent Ulster SFC final.
"I know it's said every year that you can't place too much weight on doing well in the league before the championship kicks-off but winning it was a very good morale-booster.
"We genuinely thought that if we could take on Kerry and beat them the way we did, we had a lot going for us for the championship. It's just hard to put your finger on what happened.
"We collected a few injuries and some fellas dropped out close to the championship but it's hard to find an explanation and we've really no excuses."
Derry's sorry conversion rate from league to championship last spring/summer has still failed to convert Barry's half-full analysis into a half-empty conclusion.
He accepts though that the team had a long fall from the high of Parnell Park on April 27th to the low of Omagh on June 21st when Fermanagh triumphed by 1-11 to 1-9 in the provincial semi-final.
Derry went down to the Ernesiders despite an heroic performance by our man Gillis with a great save from Eamon Maguire keeping Derry in the hunt for the spoils at a critical time.
Derry's fall from grace in Ulster was later compounded in Clones on July 19th when Monaghan were victorious, 1-13 to 1-12, in round one of the Qualifiers.
Within the county there was much disquiet that Paddy Crozier's side had to face the Oriel County without three of their best man-markers.
Sean Marty Lockhart, Kevin McGuckin and Michael McGoldrick all missed out against Monaghan after picking up knocks while playing for their clubs in the county championship.
Was there any suspicion that the NFL title success induced an air of complacency into the Derry camp ahead of their more rigourous championship outings?
"I don't think so. We knew the championship was the big on and, in all honesty, we only worked as hard as we needed to to make sure we stayed in the top division.
"There's no doubt though that we took our eye off the ball after the league and the only real thing we could have taken from the championship was our win over Donegal.
"Fermanagh and Monaghan were the better teams against us and all credit to them. It wasn't a question of us underestimating them - we knew what was coming.
"I felt we were mentally tuned into those games but maybe, individually, we thought the championship games were going to be easier than what they actually turned out to be.
"I think no matter how many quality players you have on your side, you have to put in the work. All successful teams have a high work rate and that's something we have to look at."
Derry's surprise defeats in the championship left a really sour taste in Gillis's mouth and the agony of overseeing things from the sideline because of injury rubbed salt into his wounds.
"I tore ligaments in my ankle a week before the Monaghan game which was a huge disappointment and very hard to deal with but that's football, that's life.
"As a player you just have to put those sort of injuries behind you and it's the same for a team that has to pick itself up and get ready for the next challenge."
But surely the intensity of togging out as an outfield player for club and then adapting for intercounty fare must take its toll surely?
"In the modern game now once you become 28 or 29 people say that you've past your best.
"There's not a lot of players at county level who are still involved past thirty because of the serious commitment that's needed.
"The benefit of playing with Derry and then going back to the club is that you get the best of both worlds.
"I would train with Magherafelt and then get the goalkeeping coaching at the Derry sessions.
"It's very hard to juggle the commitments from the two. But playing in goals for the county and outfield for the club is something that has never really bothered me.
"Most modern goalkeepers are all very comfortable on the ball. A lot of inter-county keepers do play outfield for their clubs and maybe it's something that managers look for because you nearly have an extra full-back as a result."
Ahead of the commencement of a new season and with the installation of a new management team certain to put the spotlight on the Oak Leafers once more, how does Gillis feel things will pan out for his county in 2009?
"We have to believe that we can beat every team in Ulster, if not Ireland. As for the new manager, well he's bound to have his own ideas on who he wants playing for him.
"He may want to freshen things up and I'm sure he'll want to work with a clean slate and have players fighting for the various positions.
"Tyrone showed the value this year of having good cover for every position and we have to aim for that as well."
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