GAA Football

Derry face crucial early promotion tester

Derry veteran Mark Lynch and Westmeath captain John Heslin will be huge players in Celtic Park tomorrow. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Allianz National Football League Division Three: Derry v Westmeath (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Celtic Park)

IT might not take on such a feel with any immediacy but when the cost of everything is being calculated at the end of March, these could turn out to be a massive two points for whoever gets them.

Westmeath may just have come from Division Four but they should never have been there in the first place. They will be among the cluster of sides looking to scale the third tier and if they are to do so, their start will be particularly significant.

An away trip to Derry followed by a home tie against Armagh could make or break them within a fortnight. That they have four home games, and that potential rivals Armagh, Fermanagh and Sligo will all be visitors to Mullingar, would leave their destiny very much in their own hands were they to scoop an opening day win in Celtic Park.

For Damian McErlain, the fixture list is not so kind and that perhaps makes his need slightly greater than that of his counterpart Colin Kelly.

Derry face consecutive trips to Armagh and Fermanagh in the middle of the campaign and anything less than a victory here would radically reduce their margin for error.

The Oak Leaf absentees are well established by this stage. Half a dozen of Slaughtneil's finest will sit out at least the early part of the league, while Ballinascreen duo Benny Heron and Carlus McWilliams are both due to miss out tomorrow because of injury.

There will be a decidedly inexperienced look about the hosts for the early part of the campaign at least, placing a considerable weight on Enda Lynn – named as skipper again earlier this week – Mark Lynch, James Kielt and even the relatively youthful Glen duo of Emmett Bradley and Ciaran McFaul.

What will catch the Oak Leaf eyes when they look at the Westmeath teamsheet is the strength of the visiting half-forward division. A trio of Kieran Martin, John Heslin and Ger Egan would cause trouble for any team.

Half-back is an area where Derry are particularly light on experience, so it's likely that Michael Bateson will start at six and that the peerless Niall Keenan may even be designated a job out there.

One thing that Westmeath displayed in their run to the as-yet-unplayed O'Byrne Cup final is a willingness to allow that attack to flourish.

Tom Cribbin had brought them a degree of championship success in reaching two straight Leinster finals, but they played both of them in a straitjacket.

Kelly has come in after guiding Louth to successive promotions, and doing so by encouraging his players to play on the front foot. Should he stick by those principles, then this could be open and entertaining fare.

That said, the emphasis on attacking football may fall down given the inexperience of his own defence.

Full-back Kevin Maguire has opted out for the year to go travelling, leaving Killian Daly and James Dolan as the only starting defenders from the 2015 Leinster final team.

When these sides last met, Derry handed out a thumping en-route to the Division One final in 2014, a result which started Westmeath's freefall through the divisions.

There's a fair chance that at least one of them will be climbing back into the second tier in two months' time, and whoever it is may well look back on tomorrow as hugely significant. That someone might just be the visitors.

THE TEAMS

Derry: TBA

Westmeath: E Carberry; M McCallon, K Daly, B Sayeh; N Mulligan, S Duncan, J Dolan; A Stone, D Corroon; K Martin, J Heslin, G Egan; C McCormack, L Loughlin, J Egan

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