Derry have to believe to have a chance against Mayo in All-Ireland Qualifier in Castlebar
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifying Round 2A: Mayo v Derry (Saturday, Castlebar, 5pm, live on RTE1)
SO much depends on how Derry come out of the tunnel at MacHale Park this evening.
Manager Damien Barton believes his underdogs will win and his players have to believe it too to have any chance in this game.
After relegation and an 11-point hammering from Tyrone in Ulster, Derry are 5/1 long-shots with the bookies to beat a home side that has contested three All-Ireland finals in the last six seasons.
But the Oak Leafers could have picked a worse time to take on Mayo outfit that has found form hard to come by this year and are in need of an impressive win to arrest signs of decline.
Manager Stephen Rochford – like Barton in his second year at inter-county level and still searching for a trophy – is without Keith Higgins (suspended) while regular corner-backs Ger Cafferkey and Chris Barrett are struggling with injury.
Meanwhile, full-forward Aidan O’Shea has a groin injury and Lee Keegan is nursing a leg muscle injury and may not start the game.
The absence of those five would level the playing field, but even so this evening is viewed as the end of the road for Barton.
If it is, his rein should be remembered for more than a Qualifier loss in Castlebar.
If Armagh, Down, Antrim, Cavan or Fermanagh had gone on the Qualifier run Derry managed last year their supporters would have jumped on the bandwagon with gusto and looked forward to a major breakthrough this season.
It’s easily forgotten that last year Derry were a kick of the ball away from reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time since 2007.
They lost a thriller to Tipperary (who made it to the semis) after beating Louth, Meath and Cavan but there was no wave of optimism going into 2017, no this-is-our-year spin-off.
Key players walked away before the season started and, with his strength-in-depth gone, all the ground Barton had gained was lost meaning he started his second season in worse shape than he ended his first.
It isn’t meant to work like that, so you have to feel some sympathy for the Derry manager who picked his players up to beat Waterford in the first round of Qualifiers after the Oak Leafers had struggled with Tyrone.
Bar a spell in the second half they were well beaten in that game and the absence of a route-one option compounded their defensive problems against the Red Hands.
Early attempts to kick the ball to inside forward Danny Tallon came to nothing and so Derry painstakingly held possession around the middle and tried to punch holes in the Tyrone defence.
They weren’t able to move the ball quickly enough to make a case for winning the game although they did hang in there longer than the previous year.
Lessons need to have been learned for this evening and the absence of Aidan O’Shea at full-forward could mean Chrissy McKaigue starts at midfield where he will pick up Tom Parsons with Conor McAtamney marking Seamus O’Shea.
In defence, Brendan Rogers and Karl McKaigue will be tasked with keeping tabs on Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor while Niall Keenan could be used to track the elusive Kevin McLoughlin.
At the other end of the field, Barton has Emmet McGuckin and Mark Lynch up his sleeve to use in a physical full-forward line with Danny Tallon and Benny Heron providing the mobility.
Danny Heavron scored 1-1 against Waterford in a welcome return to form. The Magherafelt clubman was Derry’s best player last year but injury meant he missed the entire League campaign and he was well short of his best against Tyrone.
With him firing again, Derry will have a composed playmaker with increased finishing power in their ranks but Mayo are still a very tough nut to crack.
The westerners are a vastly experienced outfit. Keegan is expected to feature to some degree and, even without Higgins, Derry have the teak-tough Colm Boyle to contend with alongside Donal Vaughan and Brendan Harrison.
O'Connor and Moran will fancy their chances against a defence that conceded nine first half points against Waterford and Conor O’Shea and Barry Moran both trained this week and could also play a part.
If Mayo are slipping they’ll see this game as the perfect opportunity to play themselves back into form. To be competitive Derry will have to produce much better than we’ve seen from them this season and so, setting romantic notions of an upset aside, the home side start as firm favourites this evening.
Barton believes in Derry and fans of Ulster football want to believe too. But it’ll take victory in Mayo to convince us.
Derry: B McKinless; N Keenan, B Rogers, K McKaigue; C McFaul, C McWilliams, D Heavron; C McAtamney, C McKaigue; R Bell, N Loughlin, M McEvoy; D Tallon, J Kielt, B Heron