Achieving promotion from Division 2 this year would have completed Derry's rise from the footballing nadir.
A draw against Roscommon and then a heavy defeat at home to Galway derailed the Ulster side's momentum, however. No jump then from Division 4 to Division 1 in successive seasons.
Still, you sensed that Rory Gallagher's side were on a mission of sorts.
The Ulster draw was tough, but they were more than just 'dark horses' in the mix for the Anglo Celt.
Their dismissal of Tyrone was brilliantly executed, a rigid defensive set-up that the Red Hand could not break. When midfielder Brian Kennedy was red-carded shortly before half-time, Derry sensed blood.
A goal shortly after half-time put distance between the sides. Tyrone's implosion was in marked contrast to how efficient Derry were in carrying out their plan. It was no ambush. Gallagher's side were now genuine provincial contenders.
Monaghan were next up.
Talk ahead of the game centred on the Monaghan 'challenge' - Derry no longer had that element of surprise, yet their plan to counter the Farney worked a treat. Derry's suffocation of their opponents' attacking strategy was planned in detail and precision, and carried out to the letter by a group of players who worked relentlessly, frustrating 'Banty's' men throughout the first half.
With 15 men behind the ball, they closed down the space, turned over possession and broke at pace to pick off the scores that saw them build up a sizeable lead, stunning Monaghan with two first-half goals from Gareth McKinless and Benny Heron. Monaghan rallied, but to no avail.
And so to Ulster final day in Clones. Gallagher reacquainted with Donegal, a decade on from helping Jim McGuinness win matches, including an All-Ireland. The pair would subsequently fall out, "irreconcilable differences over player selection", being the reason.
Still Gallagher would get a shot at managing Donegal. His time there yielded no provincial titles and little to shout about in the All-Ireland series. He then took over his native county Fermanagh, and against the odds brought them to an Ulster final, where they lost to Donegal.
Silverware was within reach again at the end of May
'Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width' was the title of a UK sitcom from the late 1960. You could replace Width with the words 'Tension', 'Strangulation' or 'Turgidity' to describe what we witnessed in Clones. Both Derry and Donegal often retreated deep into their own half to establish impenetrable barricades. Not pretty, but fascinating to watch as these neighbours turned over possession with tireless energy.
All square after 70 minutes. In the added period, points were traded, before man of the match Brendan Rogers and Conor Glass swung over points that yielded Derry's first Ulster crown in 24 years.
Cue wild celebrations on the St Tiernach's Park pitch.
In fairness, the whole county were in celebratory mood. Derry City FC were quick to offer their congratulations on Twitter. And while the south of the county would be identified as the GAA heartland, there is now a drive to ensure that Gaelic games will also thrive in the city of Derry. A Derry GAA business network has been set up with a clear aim to see participation grow by 100% in the city.
Earlier this year, the Steelstown Brian Ógs club, located in the Maiden City, won the All-Ireland intermediate title. With such a passionate figure like Rory Gallagher at the helm of the senior team and an Ulster title now in the locker, it's no surprise that interest is growing.
A sizeable crowd was in attendance at Croke Park for the facile All-Ireland quarter-final win over Clare. Expect that number to swell for Saturday's semi-final with Galway.
All a far cry from the number that turned up at Jones' Road for a Division 4 league final against Leitrim in March 2019. More noise came from the fans of the Connacht side that day.
That was all before the Derry squad got to know about 'Rory-ball'. Gallagher's insistence that his team attack with 15 players, but also defend with 15 players, is the clear mantra from the manager. Failure to do that and you'll be deemed surplus to requirements.
Lifting the siege as Donegal aimed for a late goal in the Ulster final was Derry key forward Shane McGuigan. The final act of defiance on a landmark day for the team.
After the win over Clare, where McGuigan chalked up 1-08, Gallagher, not for the first time this year, heaped praise on the player by saying: "The one quality Shane has is that on every occasion, he puts the team first. Sometimes, by putting the team first means he has to come up with the shots. But he does have an awful lot of other qualities."
Gallagher's Derry encapsulated.
After starting out the year as fourth favourites to win Ulster, Derry are now 70 minutes away from contesting the Sam Maguire decider. They are not without a chance of winning the whole thing, no long can we preface them with the 'gritty underdog' tag.
In Rory Gallagher, they have a manager who often talks about the "great bunch of lads" he has at his disposal. The Enniskillen native hopes to be driving back up the road at 8.30 on Saturday evening preparing for an All-Ireland final, before going down the same road on Sunday to watch Dublin-Kerry.
Gallagher clearly sees the potential in his side. On what it would be like to reach an All-Ireland final, he told RTÉ Sport: "It would be massive; it's the ultimate honour in our game to play in an All-Ireland final. We are evolving into a top level team. If we can fulfil our potential we can enjoy a lot of good days."
On facing the Tribes this weekend, he added: "They have real quality in their team, real quality in their forwards. I also think that Pádraic (Joyce) has revitalised their full-back line; they now have better quality defenders and better ball players.
"He now has a settled midfield - Cillian McDaid and Paul Conroy - which he didn't have for a number of years. Kevin Walsh had them at a good level and then they slipped back a little back but Pádraic and his management team has energised them. They are now a really forceful outfit."
Those who look for chinks in the Derry armour will point to the fact that they always don't clock up big scores. Against Monaghan and Clare, they hit 12 and 13 points respectively. A bit below the average of other sides in the top rank.
That said they have found the net ten times in their five games so far. After watching Galway concede three green flags to Armagh in a haphazard manner, they will feel they can add to their goal tally.
The Derry squad expects; the whole county expects.
They don't want the journey to end just yet.
Follow the All-Ireland Football Championship semi-finals this weekend, Galway v Derry (5.30pm on Saturday) and Dublin v Kerry (3.30pm on Sunday), via our live blogs on rte.ie/sport or on the RTÉ News app. Watch live coverage on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player with live radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1
Watch the Tailteann Cup final on Saturday at 3pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, with live blog on RTÉ News app and on rte.ie/sport and live radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1.