Derry ease to Division Four title but plenty to ponder ahead of Championship opener with Tyrone

Derry's Chrissy McKaigue lifts the Division Four title in Croke Park Picture: Philip Walsh.
From Brendan Crossan at Croke Park

Allianz Football League Division Four final: Derry 0-20 Leitrim 0-16

YOU could tell Chrissy McKaigue was glad to get his hands on silverware in Croke Park on Saturday afternoon but it was never going to be raised above his head in adrenaline-pumped fashion.

The Division Four Cup was put back down after their comfortable four-point win before the Derry captain paid a handsome tribute to the Gaelic footballers of Leitrim.

Another minnow is on the rise under the wily leadership of former Cavan manager Terry Hyland.

Leitrim played with admirable spirit and pace in the opening 20 minutes and led 0-7 to 0-4, but once Derry shook themselves from their early final slumber the result was never in doubt.

The Ulstermen hit six unanswered points between the 24th minute and half-time to lead by 0-10 to 0-7.

Leitrim hung gallantly to Derry’s coat tails in the second half but never looked like going up to Division Three as champions.

Even though they jabbed their way to victory, Derry’s performance needed a fair bit of airbrushing to be convincing.

The amount of ball they gave away in the opening 20 minutes was staggering.

Leitrim hit four points in a row between the 11th and 17th minute, all of which were gift-wrapped by some terrible passing by Derry in the final third.

In the 11th minute, Conor Doherty gave away cheap possession that directly led to a converted ‘mark’ at the other end of the field by Evan Sweeney.

Leitrim’s next two counter-attacking scores came from two poor passes from Enda Lynn, while Conor McAtamney’s loose hand pass allowed the impressive Ryan O’Rourke to land a fine score in the 17th minute.

And if Leitrim had been a bit more patient in some of their counter-attacks they could have been further ahead.

But in the Division Four a lot of mistakes are never punished with a score.

If Derry play like they did in the opening 20 minutes of Saturday’s Division Four decider against Tyrone in the Ulster preliminary round game on May 12, the Red Hands will be out of sight.

“Well, I suppose it’s better happening today than against Tyrone,” acknowledged Derry manager Damian McErlain.

“If we give ball away against Tyrone there’ll just be a score at the other end. We’ve got to step it up another gear. We’ve loads to take out of today and we are by no means the finished article. We’ve Tyrone now to sharpen the focus.”

It was in the latter period of the first half where Leitrim completely lost their way, with Lynn compensating with two points and Emmett Bradley grabbing to stoppage-time scores to nudge Derry into a good position at the interval.

“We were giving the ball away to them and we were trying to force it going forward and they were breaking all the time so we were putting our defenders under pressure,” McErlain added.

“Once we showed a bit more patience we started taking control of the game and the pleasing part was we then kicked seven points to go three up at half-time. That was the key part of the game.”

Leitrim’s race was run at that stage.

“We probably lost four or five of our kick-outs before half-time and we handed them possession,” said Hyland.

“We got a little bit lazy on the field, we didn’t make the runs… Cathal [McCrann, Leitrim goalkeeper] can only hit something that’s moving and we stopped moving, and we gave them a foothold by not doing that.”

Derry have a generous sprinkling of quality footballers throughout their team and appear to have the tools for a decent running game, with Thomas Mallon’s re-starts really impressive.

Sweeper Chrissy McKaigue had some exceptional moments going forward.

Midfielder Padraig Cassidy can break a tackle and has good attacking sense while Emmett Bradley, posted at wing-forward, may have made a few unforced errors in Saturday’s final but is unstoppable when he gets a gallop up.

And nobody minds the house better than Brendan Rogers.

McErlain summed up his full-back's performance best.

“Every time the ball came into the area you felt that was it sorted,” said the Oak Leaf boss.

Karl McKaigue, Paul McNeill and Niall Keenan have good defensive nous while Slaughtneil’s Shane McGuigan was voted man-of-the-match after some excellent scores in the second half.

Emlyn Mulligan opened the scoring for Leitrim at the start of the second half with O’Rourke (free) and Paddy Maguire adding further scores.

But Derry were able to breach Leitrim’s defensive lines with ease and Shane McGuigan took full advantage, hitting three consecutive scores between the 44th and 49th minutes to put Derry 0-16 to 0-10 ahead.

In what was Leitrim’s first appearance at Croke Park since their 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup final loss to Louth, their supporters kept rallying them.

The Connacht minnows reduced Derry’s lead to four points four times in the final 10 minutes but that’s as good as it got for Hyland’s brave charges.

“Leitrim are a good side,” said McErlain. “They are really, really passionate about their county but we’re passionate about our county too no matter what anybody else says.

“We’d won seven out of seven and we didn’t want to come to Croke Park and fall at the last hurdle. You want to keep that momentum going and give the boys a bit of belief. They’ve won a trophy in Croke Park by kicking 20 points.”

With the dreaded club-only month of April looming and Derry out so early in the Ulster Championship, McErlain and his backroom team have a job on their hands getting ready for Tyrone on May 12.

Despite the rough edges, Derry left Division Four unbeaten, they have the feel-good factor and momentum on their side.

Derry: T Mallon; K McKaigue, B Rogers, P McNeill; M McEvoy, C McKaigue (0-2), N Keenan; P Cassidy (0-1), C McAtamney; E Bradley (0-2), E Lynn (0-3), C Doherty; S McGuigan (0-6, 0-1 free, 0-1 mark), R Bell (0-3, 0-1 free), C Bradley (0-2 frees) Subs: B Heron for E Lynn (50), N Toner (0-1) for R Bell (50), J Rocks for C Doherty (59), E McGill for K McKaigue (64), R Dougan for C Bradley (71)

Yellow cards: C McAtamney (55), P Cassidy (74)

Leitrim: C McCrann; A Flynn (0-1), M McWeeney (0-1), P Maguire (0-1); S McWeeney, S Quinn, R Mulvey; M Plunkett (0-1), S Moran (0-1); D McGovern, (0-1) E Mulligan (0-1), D Flynn (0-1 free); C McGloin, E Sweeney (0-1 mark), R O’Rourke (0-7, 0-4 frees) Subs: P Dolan for C McGloin (33), D Rooney for E Mulligan (45), D Moran for S Moran (50), C Reynolds for A Flynn (61), J Heslin for D Flynn (64)

Referee: B Cawley (Kildare)

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