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John McEntee: Derry have little to lose in clash with Tyrone

Derry have suffered heavy defeats at the hands of Tyrone in two of the last three Ulster campaigns and not many are expecting this Sunday's encounter to be a great deal different Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE Ulster Championship commences this weekend, with All-Ireland contenders Tyrone playing Derry.

Distant observers would consider this game to be a dead duck – a 10-point hammering for Derry.

My experience of playing Derry has always been different. In my time, they were one of the most difficult teams to beat.

Their great team of 1993 were fading when I commenced my career, but those stars were replaced by arguably finer players such as Enda Muldoon, Johnny McBride and Paddy Bradley.

In the late 1990s or early 2000s, if you beat Derry you would win Ulster.

Yet history has been unkind to them. Their last Ulster Championship success was 21 years ago. It is crazy to think that some of Ulster's finest players have only one provincial medal for their efforts.

In the same period, they won three National Football League titles.

Derry are a proud Ulster team. I am certain they will play their best football against Tyrone on Sunday, but the question remains, are they good enough to beat Tyrone?

This game is on a par with Galway versus London.

Tyrone is a big county. Its northern border hugs the GAA heartland of Derry so the local rivalry will be bitter in those parts.

Nevertheless, there are large swathes of Tyrone who harbour no hatred for Derry and who may believe this is a mismatch between a team at the top of Division One and another who is climbing out of Division Four. Surely the gulf in class is too large for this game to be competitive. Accomplished scoring forwards like Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly roll off the tongue of many neutrals, whereas these same neutrals may not know the Derry sharpshooters – forgetting that Slaughtneil players such as Shea McGuigan have had the longest period of commitment to their county in recent years. What was I saying about one's misfortune?

Having all your best players available is critical to achieving your best. This Derry team are coming in under the radar. They have been preparing quietly in the background and their season hinges on this one game.

A victory, however unlikely, will propel them back into the frame and send shockwaves across Ireland – not that that would annoy Tyrone, who are back-door specialists.

A strong performance for Derry which falls short of victory is more plausible and might just be enough to get the wheels rolling in the Qualifiers.

Success in 2019 for this Derry team would be a restoration of pride in the Ulster Championship and a return to winning ways in the Qualifiers where, with some good fortune, they will meet teams on a similar level.

Losing to Tyrone on Sunday is not the end of the world.

THE Connacht Championship is up and running, with Mayo and Galway reigning supreme, as expected, in ties against New York and London respectively.

During times of recession, many Irish lads emigrated to America or England in search of work.

This was a huge drain on rural clubs, with many having to amalgamate with neighbouring clubs in order to field teams.

Many more were less fortunate and were forced to fold.

One's misfortune can be another's good luck. Clubs across England, particularly in London have seen a healthy influx of ready-made players who were eager to maintain their cultural ties with home via the GAA playing fields. Naturally, the clubs became more competitive and the standard at inter-county grade improved. Prior to 2011, the trip across the Irish Sea was a bit of a nuisance factor, a costly excursion that would be better spent on a training camp. Maybe it was seen as an opportunity for team bonding.

Supporters who didn't travel would pull out the rosary beads to pray that their team would avoid serious injuries. It is my estimation that there was little discussion about football tactics or much effort spent conducting background research on the London players.

In reality, this game is perhaps the most challenging to rise to.

Even with the much more professional approach to our games these days, sleeping over prior to a match remains a novelty. It is simply not necessary within the current provincial format, and should only be called for in the Qualifiers only if two teams from opposite ends of the country are paired with one team being granted home advantage. Exceptions to this generalisation exist for teams who may reach the All Ireland

semi-finals or final.

Many good teams travel to London, struggle to perform and manage to scrape home with an uncomfortable win.

Mayo were extremely fortunate in 2011, Leitrim and Sligo too.

Does that make them a bad team? No. It actually helps their manager to focus minds and to ground his players.

No Galway player ever made a name for himself by scoring in Ruislip, it's how he performs in three weeks' time which matters most.

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