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GAA Football

I hope players have been stung by the criticism ahead of Championship: Derry boss Damian McErlain

Derry manager Damian McErlain is hoping to restore pride in the Oak Leaf jersey this summer

DERRY boss Damian McErlain says he hopes his players are hurting from being relegated to Division Four and enduring some fierce criticism along the way.

While 2018 has been generally regarded as a transitional year for the Derry footballers, they were still expected to consolidate their Division Three status but suffered five defeats out of seven and went down with Wexford.

McErlain, who has stepped up to the seniors after a very successful period in charge of the minors, says some criticisms were over the top but hoped it would drive the squad on ahead of their daunting Ulster Championship clash with Donegal on May 27.

“A lot of opinions were hysterical and [coming from] people who were not in the know, and maybe some people had agendas,” said the Magherafelt man.

“But, at the same time, me as the manager, I hope we are hurt [by the criticism] because we need a cause and I think all the lads feel that and the response from the end of the League has been really positive.

“Everybody knows the first time we had our full squad in the same room was on the 2nd of April. So, there aren't many county manager who had to deal with that, to be quite honest.

“But, Derry is a seriously strong GAA county. We have to stick together and come out the other side. We'll have had three or four weeks together which is important.”

Asked if he felt the stress of trying to steer Derry football through difficult times, McErlain said: “Yes, I don't think you could stand here and say there are no stress levels with the job.

“The management team, both collectively and individually are ambitious, we want to do the best for Derry, we certainly are not there to do it any harm.

"We've succeeded at minor. We've taken the step up. We've had a fairly steep learning curve over the winter, while under the duress of not having a full squad. But look, it's a process, we'll show a bit of patience and hopefully we'll get a turn of fortune and get a break in the summer.”

On some match-days McErlain ran with a squad 22 with a generous sprinkling of players still cutting their teeth at senior level.

Had they the Slaughtneil contingent been available, Derry almost certainly would have avoided relegation.

Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Paul McNeill, Padraig Cassidy and Shane McGuigan have since hooked up with the county panel.

More experienced men such as James Kielt and Mark Lynch were used from the bench quite a bit in the League, but McErlain hinted Derry will go with a more seasoned line-up for their Championship meeting with Donegal.

Coleraine's Sean Leo McGoldrick has also been called up ahead of the Ulster Championship.

Benny Heron (shoulder) remains a doubtful starter while Terence O'Brien – also a shoulder injury – is expected to be fit for the Championship.

“At the start of the season, we brought in new players plus we were playing without the players from Slaughtneil – everybody knows that they are some of Derry's better players.

“Going down to Division Four was the perfect storm – the amount of things that could have gone wrong went wrong. But the Leagues don't lie; we didn't win the matches.

"That's it. It's up to us to turn it around in the summer and drive on into next season and improve and get Derry on a solid footing, and get a culture where everybody that is there wants to play county football and that they enjoy the environment.”

McErlain added: “We knew we were coming into a team where there was a job to be done. We went with youth and it's a case of being patient. We know there's quality there.

“We've waited this long – why not bring the lads with the potential through? But, look, there is a serious mix of player in Derry. By the time some of the younger lads are ready I mightn't even be in the job.

“We played quite a number of young lads in the McKenna Cup but you mightn't see as many of them come the Championship. The lads that have come out of minor over the last two or three years will take another two or three years to absolutely mature.

“It does take that amount of patience. There is a lot of good work going on in Derry in my few years involved – good structures and strategic plans – but nobody wants to talk about that once you get relegated to Division Four. Everybody has an opinion.”

Despite the extent of the rebuilding work required, McErlain described the attitude of his squad as “first class” and was confident of them putting in a performance against Donegal that they can be “proud of”.

“We want to restore pride in playing for the county and the group that we have at the minute has been superb right from the start and the response from the League finished has been first class. Everybody has put their shoulder to the wheel as if to say: ‘We're here. We want to turn this thing around.'”

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