Derry boss McErlain aiming not to be 'absolutely irrelevant' against Tyrone
'ABSOLUTELY irrelevant' was a phrase Damian McErlain used repeatedly about previous meetings with Tyrone – and the Derry football manager is determined that those two words won't apply to this weekend's Ulster opener.
The Magherafelt man accepts that the Red Hands are "huge favourites" to progress through the Ulster SFC preliminary round to meet Antrim.
However, he believes his players can give Mickey Harte's men a much tougher test than in recent matches.
Obviously that wouldn't be difficult after Derry suffered two 11-point defeats, both in Celtic Park, in 2016 and 2017, and an eight-point loss a decade ago.
The Oak Leafers did record a famous victory in their last Championship encounter in Omagh, beating the then All-Ireland Champions in 2006, but McErlain laughed as he insisted that only one person in the Derry camp had been mentioning that match – their current goalkeeping coach, who was in nets that day:
"No, the only man who has any interest in that is Barry Gillis, he wants to talk about it all the time.
"I remember the day well, it was amazing, in the sense that Tyrone didn't score in the first half – but it has absolutely no significance now. Totally different players, different time, different game.
"Same two counties – but the rivalry has probably subsided a bit since those days due to a lack of competitiveness over the last few years. It has no real bearing on where we are now."
That reduced rivalry has included those embarrassing recent defeats for Derry, but McErlain declared:
"Those games are absolutely irrelevant to where we are now. The game has evolved even since then and I'd like to think that we have too, particularly this year because we got everybody together and we're starting to build a game and build a team – that was actually possible this year."
Key to that was Slaughtneil's loss in last year's Derry quarter-final replay, freeing their contingent for the county for the first time in five seasons.
Seven Emmet's are likely to start against Tyrone - Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Paul McNeill, Padraig Cassidy, Christopher 'Sammy' Bradley, and Shane McGuigan – and McErlain is delighted with the difference they have brought to Derry so far this year:
"It's just night and day. It's like asking you to go build a house but just use half the foundations and hope that it stays up.
"It's not just having that quality of player on the pitch, it's the fact that they're here every night [at training], that they're hearing the one message, we're all going the one way at the one time. They're not missing for three months, then you're not having to repeat and integrate.
"They're a really good influence, it's great to have them about. You see from some of them why they are successful, their whole mentality and approach to things is what we need young players seeing, night in, night out: this is how real county players behave and prepare."
Derry also have other players back who missed last year's Championship, leading McErlain to say: "I do feel that our squad is stronger overall this year. Obviously we have Niall Keenan and Ciaran McFaul back, who went to America last year. There are also a couple of lads I've brought back in who I didn't pick last year; just had to put your hands up and say 'These boys should have been in'. They've come back and done well."
The mood of Derry – and McErlain – could be summed up as 'cautious optimism': "Everybody likes to be the underdog, to have that extra incentive – but on the day it'll be absolutely irrelevant if we let Tyrone do the things they're good at.
"If we hand them the ball, like we gave the ball way to Leitrim in the first 20 minutes [of the Division Four Final], the game will be over, just like it has been the last two times we played Tyrone".