County focus: Following Derry is rarely a dull experience
After a chastening defeat to Tyrone, Derry’s year was in danger of being a disaster, but a good run in the Qualifiers has restored some optimism in the Oak Leaf county, as Michael McWilliams writes...
STORY OF THE SEASON
Life as a Derry supporter may never be laden down with success, but a lack of entertainment is never an issue. And that was never more the case than in a rollercoaster 2016, which saw Damian Barton take the helm and oversee a number of lows, as well as enough highs to give cause for optimism going forward.
The Oak Leafs started the year in positive fashion, reaching the McKenna Cup final and pushing neighbours Tyrone all the way to extra-time in a decider which will be remembered as much for the happenings on the sideline as those on the pitch. That positivity carried over into Division Two of the National League, as Derry started off with two wins on the bounce, at home to Fermanagh and away to Cavan.
Yet, the break in the league seemed to halt momentum to the extent that Barton’s side only just stayed in the second-tier, by virtue of scoring difference. Confidence is a brittle thing at the best of times in Derry football circles and even moreso when Tyrone in an Ulster opener is next up after a poor run of results. And the pessimism was well placed as the Red Hands rolled into Celtic Park and destroyed their hosts, easing to a 3-14 to 0-12 victory that suggested Derry’s season could be over by the end of June.
Barton, who put his hands up and took the blame for that chastening defeat, vowed to go back to the training pitch and iron a few things out and he was as good as his word. At that stage, even the most ardent Derry fan could not have predicted a run to the last-12 in the Championship, but that is what transpired and, for that, the Newbridge man and his willing foot soldiers must take credit.
Admittedly, Derry could hardly have asked for better than a home draw against a Louth side who had lost to Meath just six days earlier to get their Qualifier campaign started, but the game was still a potential banana skin. The sight of goalkeeping coach Mickey Conlan donning the gloves in the midst of an injury crisis probably didn’t fill the Owenbeg crowd with huge hope, but Derry did enough to lay a platform for the weeks ahead, even if the concession of 2-14 hinted at problems ahead.
It was back to Owenbeg in the next round, where Meath were the opponents and Derry started off in atrocious fashion, handed a lesson before the interval: “The worst Derry Championship display I’ve ever seen,” was how Adrian McGuckin summed up the first-half. Barton agreed afterwards, but something clicked at half-time and Derry roared back into things before a superb goal from Niall Loughlin saw them through.
The rollercoaster was on an upward curve again and the ascent continued at Breffni Park, when Derry once again started very slowly and trailed at the break before flying back late on to seal an unexpected success over a highly-rated Cavan side. Suddenly, almost by accident, Barton and his boys found themselves in the last-12 and, with Tipperary next up, talk of an All-Ireland quarter-final and a day out in Croke Park abounded.
However, in typical fasion, that is where the train hit the buffers as a young Tipp side edged an end-to-end encounter which was anything but typical of the modern game. On more than one occasion, Derry seemed to have the game won before letting their opponents back in to sneak through to the last-eight, diplaying a naivety the game’s big boys have long since left behind.
Yet, the surprisingly long summer enjoyed by the Oak Leafs gives ground for optimism going forward. The rollercoaster might just climb a bit further in 2017.
WHAT THEY NEED
The focus for Derry’s managment team over the off-season will surely be on working out an effective defensive structure and also adding a level of consistency to the team’s performances.
The Oak Leafs had no problem registering scores of their own during the summer, averaging over 18 points per game in the Championship, but they also conceded an average of 19 points and you can’t get away with that forerver. Derry’s rearguard was left hopelessly exposed against Tyrone, while Tipperary were allowed back into the game on the back of defensive naivety and a lack of cover.
The expected return from injury of Sean Leo McGoldrick, who has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, will certainly add a layer of security, while Dermot McBride should also be fit to take his place in the full-back line next year, which is a huge bonus. Derry’s levels of performance fluctuated wildly all year, not just from game-to-game, but also within a 70-minute period, as was evident against both Meath and Cavan, where poor first-half showings were followed by stirring fightbacks after the interval.
Another weakness has been their kick-out strategy, with Thomas Mallon forced to kick long and hope for the best time and time again. Cavan feasted on that problem, while Tipperary were gifted a goal because of kick-out confusion. Again, McGoldrick will help in that regard as he is always willing to show for a short ball and back his ability in a tight situation.
Yet, there are reasons for optimism too, with a fine spirit shown during the Qualifiers and promotion from Division Two of the National League should be an achievable goal, expecially now that Tyrone and Cavan have been promoted, to be replaced by Cork and Down.
The second-tier will be a fairly level playing field in 2017 and, with a bit more solidity, there is no reason why Derry shouldn’t be in the mix for a return to the top-flight.
Damian Barton was handed the reins in his native county last September, a full 10 years after first being linked strongly with the post, and there has been no doubting his passion for Derry throughout 2016.
The Newbridge man will be keen to build on some decent foundations next term and has vowed to make his players “bigger, faster, stronger” in the quest to take the Oak Leafs to the next level.
After serving his apprenticeship on the fringes of the Derry panel, Danny Heavron made his Championship bow in 2015 and took himself to a new level this term.
The Magherafelt man was one of the few to emerge with any credit from the Tyrone debacle, covering every blade of the Celtic Park grass in what was always a losing cause. His performance levels stayed high throughout the Qualifiers, but the display he turned in against Tipperary was a joy to behold. Operating as a sweeper, Heavron was perpetual motion, popping up with four scores and setting up Mark Lynch’s goal as well.
Very unlucky to miss out on an Ulster Allstar, Heavron is a player for Derry to hang their hat on going forward.
END OF THE LINE
Gerard O’Kane, Derry’s All-Ireland-winning minor captain from 2002, has already departed the inter-county scene after injuries restricted him to a bit-part role in 2016, and the Oak Leaf faithful will be hoping his is the only high-profile retirement over the close season.
O’Kane’s team-mate from that minor success 14-years-ago Mark Lynch seems likely to soldier on for his county and his performances this year suggest he still has plenty left to offer on the big stage. Dungiven pair Mark Craig and Kevin Johnston fell foul of Barton’s disciplinary code after turning out for their club in the midst of Derry’s Qualifiers run, but the manager said then the door was still open and their inter-county careers should still have a few chapters still to be written.
THE NEW BREED
Derry started 2016 with a panel of around 50 players, so it is fair to assume, if there are any new stars coming through, Damian Barton is aware of them. The manager wasn’t scared to give youth a chance this year, with forwards Niall Toner and Niall Loughlin impressing at different stages in the Championship.
Lavey’s Toner was parachuted in for the clash with Tyrone and, while he struggled a bit on that occasion, he served notice of his potential with three late points when coming off the bench in the comback win over Cavan. Loughlin, meanwhile, also made a memorable contribution as a sub, scoring a fine crucial goal against Meath, and he looks like he should have a long and successful inter-county career.
Conor McAtamney also served notice of his talent with a couple of strong midfield performances, notably in the defeat to Tipperary, while Eoghan Rua’s dynamic wing-back Liam McGoldrick might be expected to nail down a starting slot in 2017 after a couple of seasons on the panel.
WHAT THEY SAID
“It is great to hear Derry people coming out in support. What have we achieved? I think, if we have achieved that much alone, then it is a very positive thing. We have some really good players. We can get them bigger, faster, stronger, I think we can play with more pace, which we didn’t have in the first-half [and] we are still a bit too lateral at times.” - Damian Barton after Derry’s Qualifier loss to Tipperary.