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Friday, January 18 2019 @ 12:36 pm ACDT

Derry Legend Recalls Early AFL Days

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The following article by Kevin O’Brien from the Irish sporting website, The 42, looks closely at the journey of Derry’s Gaelic star of the 80’s and 90’s, Dermot McNicholl. His time at the St Kilda football club in the VFL gives great insight to the early days of the movement to recruit Irish talent to the VFL/AFL system. 

Following is an excerpt from the original story. 

'Our pre-seasons were brutal. I’ve never gone through anything like it in my life'

Derry legend Dermot McNicholl discusses his stint in the AFL, the Oak Leafers’ All-Ireland victory 25 years ago and the rise in GAA stars heading Down Under. 

“And St Kilda joined the international recruiting race, taking a punt on Dermot McNicholl, who has been brought to Australia by VFA club Prahran…St Kilda will bide its time with McNicholl, recognised as the best player in Gaelic football…St Kilda targeted McNicholl because of his pace and toughness and believes he could become a highly skilled player.”

-The Age, 10 November 1988

 The 1988 AFL draft featured three Irishmen – Brian Stynes (83rd – Melbourne), Tom Grehan (97th - Melbourne) and the 99th pick Dermot McNicholl who was selected by St Kilda. 

Derryman McNicholl was the fifth Irishman to be drafted in the AFL and became just the fourth to play in the league, behind Paul Earley, Sean Wight and Jim Stynes. He was 23 by the time he made the move Down Under, but McNicholl was on the radar of AFL clubs long before then. 

An underage prodigy, the Glenullin native played minor football for Derry for four years, making his debut as a 14-year-old in 1980. He won three Ulster titles during that golden period and captained the Oak Leafers to All-Ireland minor glory in 1983. 

With his potent mix of power, pace and balance, McNicholl made his senior debut for Derry in October of that year. 12 months later, he was awarded an All-Star while still at school and remains the youngest ever recipient of the honour.

The first approach for McNicholl from Australia came while he was 18 from and the next when he was 20. Both were turned down and in the meantime he helped his county to three provincial crowns at the U21 grade 

“Looking back on it, I should have possibly gone whenever I was 18,” McNicholl tells The42. ”Hawthorn were pushing at the particular time and Melbourne were pushing too.

“I was 23 or 24 when I went over. As the old saying goes, habits are hard to change. It takes you that year or two to make that transition.” 

McNicholl finally took the plunge after starring for Ireland in the 1987 International Rules series. When he signed with St Kilda, he had two familiar faces to help him settle into Melbourne – Stynes and Wight, who had forged impressive careers for themselves with Melbourne Football Club at that stage. 

At that stage it was a big move,” he says. “Jim, God save us. It’s shocking whenever you think about it – Sean Wight and Jim Stynes are both dead. Whenever I first went out there they were absolutely brilliant.

“They were out kicking and practising with me to try and bring my skills on. They were really super and helped me out when I was there. They helped me make the transition that wee bit easier.” 

But McNicholl was on his own when it came to pre-season at St Kilda. AFL players endure notoriously tough pre-seasons these days, particularly for GAA players who make the move, but back in the 1980s they were even more tortuous and bordered on inhumane. 

“Our pre-seasons were brutal. They were brutal. I’ve never gone through anything like it in my life.

“I remember going to a place at the time for a training camp. It was this big safari park. In that camp we were put in groups of three and you had to carry this big log for a run around a course for about 10km. It was madness looking back on it now. 

You’re up and down hills, through rivers, through streams and you were working with a team. Then the other task they gave you was a sandbag and you were paired off. You had about a 6km run that time.

“It was madness at the time but basically what they were doing was trying to break you to see if you would break. Pre-seasons were serious. You had those 10km runs and then 4km time trials. Although I think they’ve moved away from that now it’s more scientific training they do now. It’s more sprinting and conditioning and that type of work.” 

A year later, Tohill joined McNicholl in Melbourne. He left Ireland as an All-Ireland minor champion and Hogan Cup winner. Just like that, two of the finest Gaelic football talents to emerge in Derry in a decade had left the sport entirely to pursue a professional career.

McNicholl spent the 1989 campaign lining out St Kilda’s Victoria Football Association (VFA) affiliate Prahan. By the pre-season of 1990, he was part of the St Kilda’s starting line-up and looking ready to make the step-up. 

“I was in St Kilda’s team in the pre-season. We travelled to Tasmania, we travelled up to Darwin. I was playing in those games and flying with the first team. The week before we started the very first game against Footscray (now Western Bulldogs) I tore my groin and I was out for ten weeks. 

Ten bloody weeks! I didn’t get playing until Week 10 or 11, I played a reserve game and I did very well. I was put onto the seniors again but once you lose the ten weeks you’re out and you’re only able to do bicycle work and swimming, you use that aerobic endurance you’d worked on over the pre-season.” 

McNicholl played in three senior games for the club that season. His debut against Essendon was particularly impressive. He made 11 disposals, collected five marks and scored a goal – the only one of his AFL career. His future looked bright. 

To read the rest of this article, go to the original article at the following link: https://www.the42.ie/dermot-mcnicholl-derry-st-kildare-afl-4404917-Dec2018/ωutm_source=shortlink

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