Karl McKaigue - Derry are primed for National League
KARL McKaigue can’t wait for the National Football League to explode into action. Five Ulster counties will slug it out in an intriguing Division Two, with a couple of derby ties set to spice up the opening weekend.
Derry and Fermanagh go into their clash at Owenbeg with no baggage, a minimal amount of history in terms of rivalry, but this is a tie that will set the tone for their respective seasons.
Oak Leaf defender McKaigue believes the men from the north-west could not be any better prepared for their 2016 league bow.
Five Dr McKenna Cup ties, including an extra-time epic against Tyrone, have provided them with the momentum they need to begin their push for promotion.
“There’s absolutely no substitute for a game like that. You want to be playing the best teams in Ulster, and Tyrone are that,” he said.
“There’s no better way to go into that Fermanagh game than coming off that sort of game there, even though it was a defeat and a disappointing defeat.
“The intensity it was played at will really leave you in good stead for the opening round of the National League
“We had five games there in the McKenna Cup, everybody had a good run, and I think the panel is going to be trimmed down a wee bit now before the National League.
“But everybody got their chance and a lot of game time, and we’re well enough set going into the National League.
“Even for a game in January, that was an incredible pace, and to go 90 minutes at that level, it’s very tough and it shows both teams and squads are in very good condition already.
“And that will improve as the year goes on, and the next one is in the National League down in Healy Park, and I’m sure it will be up a level again.”
Fermanagh will want to test their progress against a team of Derry’s standing.
Last season’s championship adventure won them many admirers, but they must build on what they achieved in 2015, and a compelling performance this weekend is a must for the Erne men.
Pete McGrath has got a very good system in place, which can’t be overlooked,” said McKaigue.
“They’re very well organised and they’re utilising their players in the best possible way.
“We’re under no illusions about how tough it’s going to be next week, but we’re going into the game completely confident that we’re good enough to get a win out of it.”
McKaigue’s target is promotion straight back to Division One, and in the back of his mind is the prospect of another meeting with Tyrone in the league final.
The sides will already have had four competitive clashes under their belts by that stage, with yet another still to come in the Ulster Championship.
“That is the goal, to try and get into a league final, which could be another fixture with Tyrone.
“That’s our main aim, and we want to get these first two weeks with two victories going into the three-week break, and that will leave us in good stead for after the break. But all focus now switches to Fermanagh next week.”
The traditional rivalry between Derry and Tyrone had waned in recent seasons, but 2016 is certain to fire the passions as they lock horns in every single competition.
McKaigue and his team-mates are fully conversant with the importance of the honour at stake each tome they do battle.
“You only have to look back to those epic games of the nineties and noughties. There was always a lot at stake, and Tyrone probably came out n top more often than Derry, but it’s never handy and it’s always going to be close.
“This year is no different, we have played them three times and there hasn’t been much in it, bar the O Fiaich Cup, which was a trial run.
“But there’s still a few games to go yet, and the later it gets in the year, the more important it is.”
Tyrone have come out on top on each of the three occasions they have met to date this season, and the Slaughtneil man has deep regrets over eh outcome of the McKenna Cup decider.
“We have only ourselves to blame, we should have seen the game out, we were up a man, and it was all about ball retention at that stage, but we forced it forward and dropped the ball.
“The ball came up the field and over the bar and it was in to extra-time. I suppose Tyrone had the momentum going in to extra-time as well, but we’ll lose no sleep