Last week, Derry's Fergal Doherty - he of one of the hardest shoulders of all time - retired from intercounty football. Here, Derryman Chris McCann celebrates his career.
Sitting in the 12 Pins in watching Derry lose to Galway had been a deflating experience.
For 25 years I’ve attended pretty much every Derry Championship game in person – during the second half it occurred to me that the last time I’d watched a game on television, a patched up Dermot McNicholl was wearing a bandage on his tree trunk right thigh as we lost the 1987 All-Ireland semi-final to Meath. But I’d spent more money and annual leave than I could afford getting home for the Down and Donegal matches so a trip to Salthill was out of the question and the high stool in a Finsbury Park Paddy bar it was.
Most of the exiles in the bar were natives of Cork and Kerry, more interested in skulling pints ahead of the Munster final replay than they were in events on the field in Salthill. Indeed, my regular expletive laden outbursts in the direction of the television were actually attracting more of an interest than the game itself.
The only plus point I could grasp was that at least I was watching the game amid 25 degrees of glorious North London sunshine while animals appeared to be lining up two by two outside Pearse Stadium. By the time Cailean O’Boyle’s penalty claim was turned down and Danny Cummins’ goal killed off Derry’s hopes, my mood had progressed from an incandescent sense of injustice to morose gallows humour.
I do not react well to Derry football championship defeats. A quick phonecall with my niece Aoibhin, who’s even more fanatical about Derry than I am (I once made her cry when she was seven by telling her that her favourite pasta dish was from Tyrone) really set me fretting. After a mutually cathartic shredding of Conor Lane’s refereeing credentials she hit me with the bombshell; “The players were gutted, you should have seen Fergal. He was just sitting on the pitch, he looked distraught; he looked like he was close to tears.”
I was already contemplating enhancing my next pint of stout with a Crested 10 when it hit me. I might never see Fergal Doherty in a Derry shirt again. Fergal Doherty is not given to overt displays of emotion and I could only surmise one likely reason that he would be so visibly distraught.
Now, anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m pretty much Taliban when it comes to Derry. During my reporting days I got many a disapproving look from colleagues for my partisan approach in the supposedly neutral territory of the press box. My most prized possession is a match-worn Anthony Tohill jersey from a qualifier win over Wexford in 2003. To top it all my right shoulder is adorned with a tattoo of our county’s Oak Leaf crest.
The prevailing narrative might be that intercounty football is in crisis, that the game currently sits on the edge of a precipice to oblivion and that the hurling championship is where the real spectacle takes place. But I love watching my county football team. It’s my favourite past-time. And since 2001 my favourite element of my favourite past-time has been watching Fergal Doherty play for my county football team.
I should really be beyond hero worship. It’s okay for my niece and nephew to view Paddy Bradley as a footballing God but at 42 I should be past the stage of having a favourite player. I should be, but I’m not.
Fergal is a phenomenon who emerged onto the gaelic gootball stage as a fully formed Championship footballer. Living in Belfast I’d kind of lost touch with the Derry club scene and hadn’t really heard of the 19 year old who made his debut at Celtic Park against Antrim in the county’s Championship opener in 2001. He certainly hadn’t had the gilded underage career of a Dermot McNicholl, Enda Muldoon or Anthony Tohill but it was instantly apparent that here was a kid who was made for county football. A teenager making his debut in a championship at midfield was always going to have his mettle tested. Antrim duly obliged, but even an attempted decapitation by Aidan Morris didn’t ruffle the callow Tones teenager.
From that day on Doherty was a totem in the Derry midfield, an immediate fan favourite. His robust playing style ensured he maintained and enhanced that status, the bone-shuddering shoulders on Barry Dunnion and Aidan O’Shea, the skyscraping catches and the occasional howitzer of a point. If you’ve seen the trailers for the new Michael Fassbender version of Macbeth, they have him cast as a Celtic warrior – the imagery pretty much sums up Doc on a football field – a Ferdia or a Cuchulainn who’s born for combat.
As someone who reported on Derry matches for over a decade, Doc shouldn’t really figure in my list of favourites – journalists like players who talk to them and make their job easy. In the 15 years he’s played for the county I’ve managed one interview with Fergal, after he’d won man of the match in the 2008 National League final, and that lasted a grand total of about a minute and a half.
But even when he’s turning you down for an interview, Fergal does it in a typically modest ‘aw shucks’ kind of fashion and that’s part of his appeal. When he’s produced an Olympian performance of the sort he did in Parnell Park against Kerry that day, Doc doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. He’s simply done what he’s expected to do. Roy Keane famously opined players shouldn’t be lauded for doing their job – it’s their job “you don’t see the postman celebrating when he’s delivered your letters.” – that’s Doherty’s attitude.
There’s nothing showy about Fergal, he’s redolent of a dying breed of Irishman – the kind who shuns being the centre of attention, says little and the harder the task the happier they are. We all have a da or an uncle of this type – men of few words but tough as teak – physiques hewn roughly from grafting on sites rather than honed in a gym. As a star Doherty is old school – a Robert Mitchum or a Clint Eastwood not a Tom Cruise. That’s probably one of the reasons that he hasn’t got an All/star to his name despite the fact that he produced campaigns worthy on one in 2001, 2004 and 2007 – unfortunately playing the media game has an impact on these kind of decisions.
We now know that we won’t see Fergal in a Derry shirt again and on the day of that Galway defeat, in my half-cut haze in North London with the mental image of Fergal sitting disconsolately on the Salthill turf I started pondering how poorly the GAA community marks the departure of stars from the playing scene.
By the nature of the Championship 95 per cent of intercounty footballers will end their careers on a losing note. In recent years the likes of Enda Muldoon, Sean Martin Lockhart, Johnny McBride, Paul McFlynn, Kevin McCloy and Kevin McGuckin have all stepped away after years of dedicated service with little fanfare.
Can anyone remember the final games of Tony Scullion, Henry Downey or Anthony Tohill. It seems remiss that dedicated county servants don’t have their efforts recognised once they come to the end of their careers. Now I’m not proposing a Brian O’Driscoll style farewell tour with 100 foot floating banners or testimonial matches, but a small presentation at the first home league game of the following year would at least give the hardcore Derry fans the opportunity to say thanks.
I imagine Fergal would probably try and get out of it but wouldn’t it be good to have the opportunity to say thanks at Owenbeg or Celtic Park.
Of course it’s a little academic for me, as come the opening of the league next year I’ll be sitting I’ll be propping up the counter of the 12 Pins or the Quays on Holloway Road watching a Division One game on TG4 and following the Derry match on Twitter; maybe in a Fergal Doherty jersey if I can mooch one off him.
Anyway, thanks Fergal, it’s been a privilege to watch you in action.
Chris McCann is a Derryman living London. This blog post originally appeared on his website.