GAA Football

Minors provide a silver lining for Derry after a stormy summer

Derry's senior footballers endured a difficult 2017 and will hope for better next year Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

DERRY started 2017 under a dark cloud and there is no getting away from the fact that the year was a bit of a disaster.

Yet, as is so often the way in the Oak Leaf county, every now and again a silver lining was just about visible.

Before a ball was kicked in Damian Barton’s second year at the helm, a number of influential players declared themselves unavailable and thoughts of improving on a promising 2016 turned to damage limitation.

As is almost the norm, Derry reached the McKenna Cup final before going down to a now customary defeat to Tyrone, who loomed large on the horizon as Ulster Championship opponents.

Before that, Division Two of the Allianz League should have offered an opportunity to get a settled team and a defined gameplan, but with Slaughtneil reaching the All-Ireland Club final and a host of other players absent, consistency was but a pipe dream.

Derry drew at home to Clare first up, but the writing was on the wall as a late James Kielt score salvaged a point.

Defeats to Meath, Down, Galway and Cork were broken up only by a home victory over Kildare, and relegation loomed large before a trip to Fermanagh on the final day.

However, once more a silver lining appeared as a scarcely-deserved win seemed to have ensured survival.

Derry’s players celebrated on the pitch, only for word to come through that Down had scraped a last-gasp draw in Cork, and the trapdoor opened wide.

A failure to truly compete in the second tier is no way to prepare for an Ulster SFC opener with Tyrone, who had rolled into Celtic Park a year earlier and left as 11-point victors.

The Red Hands made the same short journey on May 28 and once more went away as easy winners, by 11 points.

An early foray into the Qualifiers beckoned, and Barton (right) could hardly have asked for a better draw than a clash with Waterford, albeit away from home.

The trip to Dungarvan was successfully navigated, Danny Heavron getting the goal in a 1-17 to 0-13 victory.

Any hopes of another run in the Qualifiers looked to have been quashed when the draw threw up a second round away day in Mayo.

Those fans who travelled to Castlebar did so in hope that the score would be kept to a respectable level, but Derry defied the doubters and pulled out a great performance, leading for most of the way before seemingly relinquishing their chance late on.

However, a Mark Lynch goal forced extra-time and while Derry ran out of steam in the additional 20 minutes pride at least had been restored against a star-laden side who would go on to an All-Ireland final against Dublin which they could, and perhaps should, have won.

“Physically and emotionally they gave this a hell of a lash,” said Barton of his players.

Yet just four days later the Newbridge man was no longer Derry manager as the county board decided two years was enough, a decision an angered Barton did not take lying down.

“If we did get back for a third year, which I feel we were entitled to, there would have been changes – subtle changes, major changes. Let’s just say I’m a lot wiser than I was at

the start.”

While the senior summer was over at the very outset of July, the minors kept the interest going for the hardcore fans, claiming their second Ulster Championship in three years before reaching the All-Ireland final.

At Croke Park, Damian McErlain’s team ran into a Kerry side inspired by David Clifford and went down to a heavy defeat.

Yet the young Oaks had done more than enough to provide another silver lining at the end of a stormy summer.

Before that defeat at Headquarters, McErlain had been confirmed as Barton’s successor as senior boss and once more hopes are high that a corner can be turned.

The Magherafelt man has huge respect in the Oak Leaf county, with his teams very well drilled on a clear style of play.

Getting Derry on an upward curve will be a fair task initially, but it is one McErlain (above) is relishing.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge coming in, we love working in Owenbeg, we have the backing of everybody there to take the thing on,” he said.

After a turbulent time, the county can look forward to 2018 with a degree of optimism, which is a damn sight better than starting out under a dark cloud.

What They Need

IT might sound simplistic, but Derry need their best players fit and available if they are to move forward after a difficult couple of years.

Damian Barton used around 70 players during his two campaigns at the helm as he sought a winning formula and that kind of inconsistency will never bring any sort of success.

The Oak Leafs were without a number of their best and most experienced players in 2017 and Damian McErlain will surely make it a priority to find out whether he can entice the likes of Sean Leo McGoldrick, his brother Liam, Dermot McBride, Niall Holly (above) and Kevin Johnston back into the fold.

All of them still have plenty to offer on the inter-county stage, while their know-how would only benefit the younger players being blooded.

McErlain’s lofty reputation within the county should ensure a few players return, and from there the first aim should be a promotion tilt in Division Three of the Allianz League.

After leaving his post, Barton himself pointed out that “we have really, really good players,” and certainly a Derry squad at full strength ought to be competing with Armagh at the top of the third tier.

While he would never admit it publicly, McErlain probably wouldn’t mind if Slaughtneil don’t win the Ulster Club SFC this year so he can have their players on the training pitches at Owenbeg from the outset of his regime.

Brendan Rogers and Karl and Chrissy McKaigue form 50 per cent of Derry’s best defence and they will be key men in the months and years ahead.

Get all of their best men on the field at the same time and the Oak Leafs can be a match for all but the elite county sides.

Minor success means there is some optimism for the future, but those youngsters will only really kick on at senior level with a few older heads on the field to guide them.

Mr Consistency

NIALL KEENAN

IN a topsy-turvy campaign from start to finish, young corner-back Niall Keenan maintained a high level of performance.

The Castledawson clubman was one of the stars of the Ulster minor success of 2015 and further underlined his rich potential with an outstanding display on his senior Championship debut against Tyrone.

Keenan was moved on to Mark Bradley early on after the Red Hand forward made a flying start, and his influence was largely curtailed thereafter.

He also performed well in the Qualifier win over Waterford and wasn’t at all daunted by the prospect of taking on Mayo in Castlebar, turning in a fine display on Footballer of the Year contender Andy Moran.

Keenan even managed to get forward to take a score in each of those Qualifier games and he should be one of the cornerstones of Damian McErlain’s Derry reign.

End of the Line

AS things stand, it would appear all of those players available to Damian Barton this year should be back for another campaign in 2018, provided they are selected.

The focus will be more on bringing players back than men standing aside, while those older heads that played over the last few months might find their role evolving slightly under Damian McErlain.

Mark Lynch (above) has been an Oak Leaf mainstay for over a decade and retains a great ability to influence a game.

The Banagher man was sprung from the bench against Mayo and came up with a goal to force extra-time. He might be used as an effective impact player at the edge of the square under the new regime, especially as McErlain’s teams tend to get the ball forward quickly.

James Kielt and Enda Lynn have been around for a long time but both are still the right side of 30 and have plenty to offer to a generally youthful panel.

The New Breed

AFTER three successful seasons in charge of the county’s minors, it is fair to say Damian McErlain has a decent grasp of the young talent in Derry.

And while some fans will be keen to see this year’s crop pushed through after their run to the All-Ireland final, it will take a bit of time before the majority of them are ready for senior football.

Of the 2017 minor vintage, skipper Padraig McGrogan (left) might be best-placed to make the step up quickly, but the priority will be to further bed in those members of this season’s U21s who reached a provincial final and have tasted senior action.

Ben McKinless (right) played in all three Championship games between the sticks and impressed with his shot-stopping and willingness to change up his kicking game, even if it didn’t always work as planned.

The Ballinderry man will come on for his experiences this year, while fellow U21 stars like Paddy Coney, Conor Doherty, Michael McEvoy and Shane McGuigan will improve for their early exposure to senior football.

Glen forward Danny Tallon has also looked comfortable when given a chance and should be a regular starter in the seasons to come.

Of those on the club scene who have yet to receive a call, Slaughtneil’s hard-running wing-forward Meehaul McGrath may have caught McErlain’s eye on his team’s way to another county title.

Manager Status

WHILE one Damian moves on after an eventful two years, another steps into the breach to try and bring some sort of consistency and structure to Derry football.

Magherafelt clubman Damian McErlain has been a roaring success at minor level, taking the county to three Ulster finals in-a-row, and not even a chastening All-Ireland decider loss to a David Clifford-inspired Kerry has dented his reputation as a forward-thinking and attacking coach.

McErlain has been given a three-year deal and confidence is high that Derry will be in a better place at the end of that period.

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