Derry look for winning start to Dr McKenna Cup in clash with Ulster University
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section B: Derry v Ulster University (Wednesday, 8pm, Celtic Park)
A FEW recent dawns for Derry football have started off well so Oak Leaf fans can be forgiven for not reading too much into whatever happens over the next week or two.
John Brennan took the county to victory over Tyrone in the 2011 final, which was the last time the Red Hands didn’t lift the silverware at the end of January.
Damian Barton also guided them to back-to-back finals against Mickey Harte’s side during his two-year term, but their performances in the early part of 2016 were arguably the peak of his reign.
Now it’s the turn of his namesake McErlain to try and revive their fortunes, starting with a game against his alma mater, having studied Business at Jordanstown in the late 90s.
He will aim to bring the same distinctive, swashbuckling style of play that made his minor teams so distinctive over the last three years. The make-up of his early-season panel is evidence of those intentions.
If you start at his half-back options and work your way right up to the inside forward division, the vast majority of players are of similar characteristic and build. Long, lean and athletic.
There are likely to be debuts for Sigerson Cup winner Ruairi Mooney, whose progression over the past 18 months has been enormous, as well as Jordan Curran, the first adult product of a successful underage push in Faughanvale.
Given the number of men missing from the 26-man panel that was named for the competition, McErlain will may also have to delve quite deeply into Mickey Donnelly’s under-20 panel.
Slaughtneil sextet Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Paul McNeill, Padraig Cassidy and Shane McGuigan are all tied up for the next seven weeks at least.
Emmett Bradley, Niall Keenan (Queen’s) and Terence O’Brien and Danny Tallon (Ulster University) are all tied to their universities in January as well.
O’Brien and Tallon seem set to feature for UU in their first game under the management of Paul Rouse, Benny Hurl and Barry Dillon, the latter of whom was in John Brennan’s backroom team during his time as Derry boss, and who saw his Ballinascreen minor side beaten in the Ulster club final on New Year’s Day.
They’ve lost a significant portion of last year’s Sigerson Cup squad, as is the way. The likes of Ryan Johnston, Stephen Sheridan, Ryan McHugh, Niall McKeever, Ethan Rafferty and Paddy McBrearty have moved on.
It’s still a squad laced with talent though. Gareth McKinless – overlooked by McErlain – will be out to prove a point while the likes of Ronan McNamee, Ryan McAnespie, Eoin McHugh and Mark Bradley are established at inter-county level.
As is Niall Madine, who has been recalled to the Down panel, while Tyrone’s brightest young talent David Mulgrew is also included, as are Conor Burke (Antrim) and Malachy Magee of Down dual notoriety.
And yet there is something of a more modest look about their squad this season, an absence of the huge names that have attracted such hype ahead of recent unsuccessful Sigerson campaigns.
There could be a fair degree of inter-county experience among the student ranks that head to Celtic Park, which will host all Derry’s home games this year as remedial work is needed to bring Owenbeg’s surface back up to standard.
It’s a bigger body of work to get Derry punching in a higher weight class again. The first steps will tell us little but they should be tentative winning steps nonetheless.