Derry's wider attacking range could edge them past Armagh in Ulster U21 semi-final
Eirgrid Ulster U21 Football Championship semi-final: Armagh v Derry (Wednesday, Healy Park, 8pm)
BROTHERS Oisin and Rian O’Neill are both available to Armagh under-21s for tonight’s meeting with a Derry side that is also boosted by returning Slaughtneil players.
The Orchard were without Oisin O’Neill through injury for their quarter-final win over rivals Down, while his younger sibling was one of four players tied up with St Colman’s Newry as they reached the MacRory Cup final.
Conor O’Neill, Eoghan McDonnell and Ryan Garvey are all introduced to the Armagh squad after their St Patrick’s Day defeat by first-time winners, St Mary’s Magherafelt.
Ciaran Higgins, a key figure in Maghery’s senior club success last year, and Ryan Owens also both missed the Down game through injury but while Peter McDonnell admits he is still sweating on them, he is hopeful they too will be available.
And with Tom O’Kane, Stephen Morris and Shea Hoey all having impressed off the bench, contributing four crucial points between them in that 2-13 to 0-13 win over Down, the Armagh boss has a considerable headache in terms of team selection.
That St Mary’s Magherafelt side won’t have any representation on the starting Oak Leaf team, though Derry boss Fergal McCusker is set to make three changes from his side that dethroned champions Monaghan two weeks ago.
Shane McGuigan is one of three Slaughtneil players brought into the squad, though he will be the only one parachuted straight into the starting XV.
He takes the place of Conor Feeney, who suffered a hamstring injury in a club game 10 days ago and hasn’t recovered in time.
Keelan Feeney and the Emmet’s sub goalkeeper Sean Ó Caiside will be among the subs, though they will be without Cormac O’Doherty and Paul McNeill who both turned down invitations to join the squad.
Patrick Coney, whose performance after his early introduction against Monaghan impressed the Armagh boss, is set to start in the half-forward line with Ruairi McElwee to come into the full-forward division.
If Oisin O’Neill is to come back into the Armagh side at midfield as expected, Derry are likely to pit Patrick Kearney against him in what could be a fascinating battle of two fine high fielders.
The sides met in a challenge game at the turn of the year before facing off in the Shamrock Cup, with former senior manager McDonnell learning a few lessons about tonight’s opponents.
“Derry gave us a hell of a walloping with a much bigger side than we’d seen at Christmas, down at Lurgan in February. At that stage, they still hadn’t their full compliment.
“The cornerstone there is the MacRory Cup footballers, there was a conveyor belt of them there coming through. These lads have won at every stage the whole way up and they’re very formidable opposition.
“We’re certainly not underestimating Derry in any shape or form.
“Young Coney came on as a sub the last night brought a whole different dimension to their game when he came on to the pitch. The athleticism seems to be very good, and this is all without Conor Glass,” he said, referencing the Glen man who would have been at midfield for Derry had it not been for his AFL career with Hawthorn.
Derry will most likely put Niall Keenan on Armagh dangerman Shea Loye, who hit 2-7 against Down. He was the only one of their six forwards to score that night.
Tiernan Flanagan netted both of Derry’s goals off the bench against Monaghan but even that isn’t enough to earn him a start in a forward line where Danny Tallon will carry the expectation. His battle with Crossmaglen’s Aidan Rushe could also be pivotal.
There looks to be very little to separate them but Derry’s slightly wider scoring threat could squeeze them into the decider.