GAA Football

Derry fans cling to hope as Oak Leafers meet Tyrone in Ulster Championship opener at Healy Park

Cathal McShane will look to hit the ground running after an outstanding finish to the League. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round: Tyrone v Derry (tomorrow, Healy Park, 4pm, deferred coverage on BBC2 NI from 7pm)

DAVID takes on Goliath in the Ulster Championship opener and this Omagh tussle isn't expected to produce the same shock result the Biblical classic did.

In terms of experience, success and pedigree, Tyrone hold all the aces and they even have home advantage tomorrow.

Is there any hope for Derry? Well, they turned the tables on Tyrone (then All-Ireland champions) back in 2006 and throughout all the gloom and doom that has surrounded Derry football in recent years, the two shafts of light have been Slaughtneil's form in the Ulster and All-Ireland club competitions and the success of the Derry minors.

Those two strands will be brought together at Healy Park tomorrow and that gives Derry optimists something to cling to.

But Tyrone are massive favourites and rightly so. Last year, while the Red Hands were preparing for the All-Ireland final, Derry's players were kicking their heels on the sidelines after they'd exited in the first round of the Qualifiers in early June.

This year, Tyrone finished third in Division One while Derry operated in Division Four.

Relegation last year had been a hammer blow to the Oak Leaf fans who have witnessed the steady decline of their county's fortunes over the past five years.

Derry, who haven't reached the Ulster final since 2011 and last won their provincial Championship in 1998, were Division One finalists in 2014 but dropped like a stone after that brief resurgence.

Relegation in 2018 was ground zero but, under the management of Damian McErlain who brought so much underage success to the county, they have at least begun to work their way back up. McErlain's men won eight out of eight in the League and picked up the Division Four title with a four-point win over Leitrim at Croke Park.

Shane McGuigan (4-17 in the League) was outstanding in that game, finishing with six points, and he is one of seven Slaughtneil clubmen who start tomorrow. The pacey forward will be joined by the McKaigue brothers, Karl and skipper Chrissy, corner-back Paul McNeill, full-back Brendan Rogers, midfielder Padraig Cassidy and jack-in-the-box corner-forward Christopher ‘Sammy' Bradley.

Those players were involved in Slaughtneil's three Ulster club titles (2014, 2016 and 2017) and the All-Ireland finals of 2015 and 2017 and they bring a winning mentality and attention to detail to the Derry dressingroom.

Manager McErlain shepherded the Derry minors to Ulster titles in 2015 and 2017 and the All-Ireland final in 2017. Commendably, he has resisted the temptation to throw talented youngsters into the fray before they are ready and only Niall Keenan and McGuigan, from the 2015 side, will feature tomorrow. Several of the other stars from those minor teams have sampled senior action here and there but they are being given the chance to develop without pressure.

And so the Derry side, from Thomas Mallon in goal, through Keenan and Conor McAtamney in midfield up to Emmett Bradley, Enda Lynn and Ryan Bell in attack, has reserves of experience to draw upon.

It hasn't all been positive mind you. Quite a few of them experienced the 0-22 to 0-11 hammering against Tyrone back in 2017 at Celtic Park which followed hot on the heels of the 3-16 to 0-12 thumping, also in the Bogside, the previous year.

Another one-sided game is expected tomorrow and the scene is certainly set for it. Healy Park will pay homage to Mickey Harte, who'll have his 100th Championship game as Tyrone manager, and the veteran Red Hands boss and the home supporters will demand ruthlessness from the throw-in.

Derry bring League form into the game but so do Tyrone. The Red Hands' seemed to be suffering from a post All-Ireland final hangover early in the year and they took just one point from their first three games (including a humbling home loss to Mayo in their second outing) before they clicked back into gear.

Harte's men closed out the League with a run of four-out-of-four that included turning over Dublin at Croke Park and victories over Galway and Monaghan – last year's losing All-Ireland semi-finalists.

There was also a change in tactics from the meticulous, possession-orientated hand-passing game to a more flamboyant kicking strategy that saw Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane installed as a two-man full-forward line. The pair of them wreaked havoc with McShane registering 1-12 in the four-game run and Donnelly 1-8.

Playing off those two were the reliable Peter Harte and Niall Sludden and, although there are three debutants named in the starting line-up including Michael Cassidy and Ben McDonnell who slot into the half-back line that also includes Killyclogher thoroughbred Tiarnan McCann, this is a Tyrone side packed with experienced players who have fought through survival-of-the-fittest in-house games to claim starting slots in the side.

Take the full-back line, Hugh Pat McGeary wore the number four jersey for the last three League games, but he makes way for Michael McKernan tomorrow and it is hard to see that defence giving the Derry forwards any space to work in.

Cassidy, the key man in the Derry midfield, may have a bright spell or two in the game but, in Conor Meyler and Frank Burns, Tyrone have the markers to restrict his influence.

Much has been written about Tyrone's kicking game but their tried and tested running game – the tactical set-up that same them canter to the wins in 2016 and 2017 – will be just as dangerous tomorrow. Derry set-up defensively themselves throughout the League and Tyrone are unlikely to start kicking the ball into massed ranks of Oak Leaf defenders.

With Rogers and the McKaigue brothers organising things, the Derry defence should stand up and it will be a surprise if Tyrone run up the totals they managed in the previous two meetings.

Derry will be vulnerable when they have the ball and break out of their defensive shape. Can they get Cassidy and McGuigan into the game, get forward to support them and at the same time keep Harte, Sludden, Donnelly, McCann, Meyler and company quiet?

Occasionally perhaps but not often enough to post a match-winning score and they will struggle with the pace of the Tyrone counters. Expect a battling performance from Derry who will look to stay in the game but the Red Hands should win this by five points at least.

Man of the moment

Mattie Donnelly

A ROLLS Royce of a footballer, versatile Trillick clubman Donnelly can do a job anywhere for Tyrone. Strong, quick and comfortable on the ball he has played at full-back, midfield and full-forward and everywhere else in between during his career.

This season, two-time Allstar Donnelly has been reprogrammed as an inside forward and his partnership with Cathal McShane proved an outstanding success. The pair of them thrived on early ball from the likes of Peter Harte and Niall Sludden and cut opposition defences to shreds in the latter rounds of the League.

Donnelly could operate inside again tomorrow but is more likely to divide his time between full-forward and a ball-carrying/playmaking role around the middle third.

Key battle

Chrissy McKaigue (Derry) v Cathal McShane (Tyrone)

McKAIGUE will need to play out of his skin for Derry to stay in the game. He will have his hands full with the developing McShane and vice-versa.

Peter Harte was Tyrone's top scorer in the League with 3-2, but McShane bagged 2-11 including 2-3 from play and he will be determined to hit the ground running tomorrow.

McKaigue, a three-time Ulster champion with his club, is strong and calm under pressure and will operate in the centre of the Derry defence alongside Brendan Rogers. He humbled, and out-scored, St Vincent's and Dublin star Diarmuid Connolly in an All-Ireland club semi-final a couple of years ago and will aim to do the same to McShane tomorrow.

Team talk

Tyrone

N Morgan; P Hampsey, R McNamee, M McKernan; M Cassidy, B McDonnell, T McCann; R Donnelly, B Kennedy; M Donnelly, N Sludden, F Burns; C McShane, P Harte, C Meyler

YOU could say that this is a defensive-looking Tyrone line-up because there isn't an out-and-out forward in the side. But the team is packed with all-rounders who can switch positions seamlessly.

Midfielder Bryan Kennedy was reported to be struggling with injury but he has been named to start and is one of three debutants in a team that also includes Michael Cassidy and centre half-back Ben McDonnell.

Niall Morgan, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte were ever-present in the League and Ronan McNamee, Niall Sludden, Cathal McShane and Darren McCurry featured in all seven games. So did Kieran McGeary but he is injured and is replaced by Frank Burns tomorrow. If Kennedy doesn't make the starting line-up Colm Cavanagh is a ready-made replacement from the bench.

Derry

T Mallon; SF Quinn, B Rogers, K McKaigue; P McNeill, C McKaigue, N Keenan; P Cassidy, C McAtamney; E Bradley, E Lynn, C McFaul; S McGuigan, R Bell, C Bradley

SWATRAGH'S Sean F Quinn is the only debutant on the Derry team tomorrow. Quinn featured in the League opener against Antrim and returned to the team for the fixtures against Limerick, Leitrim and Wexford.

The team is backboned by seven players from Slaughtneil Robert Emmet's and, Quinn apart, there is an experienced look to it. Ciaran McFaul is likely to partner Conor McAtamney in midfield, with Padraig Cassidy switching to wing half-forward. Emmet Bradley will operate at centre half-forward with Ryan Bell and Shane McGuigan the inside forward duo.

Tactical take

Derry

THE strength of this Oak Leaf side is its defence which is no surprise given that it contains Slaughtneil quartet Brendan Rogers, Karl and Chrissy McKaigue and Paul McNeill.

It looks likely that Chrissy McKaigue will be dispatched to mark the versatile Cathal McShane with Rogers on Mattie Donnelly. Without the ball, Derry usually leave two forwards – Shane McGuigan and Ryan Bell – in the opposition half and look to break out of defence to support them.

Mindful of their previous maulings in this fixture, it will be a surprise if the Oak Leafers gamble too much tomorrow. They will get mind behind the ball and look to turn Tyrone over and hit them on the break. Ballinderry clubman Bell is a physical full-forward and, if they can get enough ball into his hands, he could be an important player in the game.

Tyrone

AFTER taking just a point from their first three League games, Mickey Harte changed tack and ushered in a kicking style that saw his side beat Cavan, Monaghan, Galway and Dublin.

Against a packed Derry defence it's unlikely that his men will over-do the kicking tomorrow and Tyrone could revert to the running style that has saw them obliterate Derry in 2016 and 2017.

Derry's dangerman is Shane McGuigan and Padraig Hampsey should be dispatched to pick him up, with Mickey McKernan on ‘Sammy' Bradley and Ronan McNamee on Bell. Padraig Cassidy is another obvious threat and he could well have Conor Meyler for company.

Last five Championship meetings…

2017, Ulster SFC quarter-final: Tyrone 0-22 Derry 0-11

2016, Ulster SFC quarter-final: Tyrone 3-16 Derry 0-12

2009, Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone 0-15 Derry 0-9

2006, Ulster SFC quarter-final: Derry 1-08 Tyrone 0-5

2004, Ulster preliminary round: Tyrone 1-17 Derry 1-6

Betting box…

Tyrone 1/10

Derry 15/2

Draw: 14/1

Worth a punt: Peter Harte to be first goalscorer 6/1

Weather watch…

BLUE skies and sunshine to herald the opening salvos of the Ulster Championship. According to the forecastthere will be sunny intervals and a gentle breeze at Healy Park and very little chance of rain. Bring your umbrella just in case.

Last Championship meeting…

Sunday, May 28, 2017, Ulster SFC quarter-final: Derry 0-11 Tyrone 0-22

DERRY fans look away now.

Sean Cavanagh (2), Peter Harte, Conall McCann and Mark Bradley had all landed points before Niall Loughlin's free opened Derry's account and the Oak Leafers matched Tyrone score for score until the break came with the Red Hands 0-10 to 0-5 ahead.

Derry began the second half brightly and corner-back Niall Keenan left four in it before Derry skipper Enda Lynn settled for a point when he could have had a shot on goal.

Benny Heron's free narrowed the gap to three and Derry fans began to dream of a rare win over their neighbours. But Tyrone weathered the storm. Harte, Cavanagh and subs Darren McCurry and David Mulgrew tagged on scores and Tyrone were seven clear going into the final 10 minutes.

Declan Mulgrew and Lee Brenann also split the posts as the reigning Ulster champions cantered to an 11-point success.

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