Derry finding their feet says Emmet Bradley as Oak Leafs seek to advance in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifiers
THE spring is back in the step of players from both counties as they prepare for this evening’s rights-of-passage encounter at Owenbeg.
Just three years ago Derry and Laois fought out a remarkable 1-22 to 5-10 draw in Division Two but, entertaining as it was, that free-flowing naivety was pounced upon by result-focussed rivals and both counties suffered double relegations and spent spells in Division Four.
They’ve bounced back though.
Laois were fourth tier champions in 2017 and went on to clinch promotion to Division Three this year. Meanwhile, after the wailing and gnashing of teeth that heralded their relegation to the basement division in 2018,
Derry were promoted as champions in April and, with waves of talented youngsters set to come through, they look now to be headed firmly in the right direction.
Definitive evidence of that arrived when the Oak Leafers pushed Tyrone all the way in the Ulster preliminary round.
Rank underdogs, they took the lead in the second half after Shane McGuigan lashed a superb shot past Niall Morgan and it took a late Tyrone rally to see them off.
However, half-forward star Emmet Bradley says the Derry players took very little comfort from going down fighting at Healy Park that day.
“We were very disappointed because we firmly believed we could produce a performance that would trouble Tyrone,” said Bradley.
“When we put ourselves in a position to win the game and then let it slip it was very disappointing. Derry are after an Ulster Championship win, it’s very important for the county and it’s something we would be pushing towards.”
Credit to Bradley and his team-mates, they listened to manager Damian McErlain’s instructions, regrouped, went out the next day and hammered Wexford in the first round of Qualifiers.
“We’re happy with the season we’ve had so far – we’ve got promoted, we were disappointed with the result against Tyrone but we were glad to get things back on track against Wexford,” said Bradley.
“We knew that the second round of Qualifiers would be a really tough game. Laois came out of the hat and they are a team that plays good football and were promoted to Division Two so we know it’s going to be a really stiff test.
“Overall I thought it was a very good team performance against Wexford and the same will be required against Laois. They showed their credentials going from Division Four to three and now two so they are not to be taken lightly and if we’re to beat them we’re going to have to be at our absolute best.”
John Sugrue’s Laois – Leinster finalists last year - lost the Division Three final to Westmeath but bounced back to turn the tables on them in this year’s Leinster quarter-finals. Evan O’Carroll scored eight of their 12 points that day and the Crettyard clubman added three more in a losing cause against Meath in the semi-final.
So far this season, prolific O’Carroll has amassed 1-41 (NFL) and 0-11 in the Championship and he is the O’Mooremen’s main scoring threat. In the likes of Chrissy McKaigue, Niall Keenan, Karl McKaigue and Brendan Rogers, Derry have the defenders and the defensive organisation to deal with him but Laois are by no means a one-man show.
Paul Kingston is another potent forward and Laois can also call on the experience of Donie Kingston and Colm Begley while the team has a physical presence their Division Three rivals found hard to match this year.
When the Qualifier draw was made, Derry couldn’t have asked for much better than a home tie against a Division Three outfit. Winning this game will rubberstamp the progress they have made this year under McErlain and this week Bradley spoke of the “buzz around the place” in training.
The Maghera clubman, who scored 1-2 against Wexford, is “good to go” and will slot into a fluent attack that is averaging just over 19 points per game this season. Shane McGuigan (2-9) and Ryan Bell (1-7) have been the main scorers for the Oak Leafers and if the Derry produce the composure and determination they showed against Tyrone and Wexford they have every chance in what should be a good contest between two well-matched sides.
Laois will be a physical test and, in the last chance saloon, they’ll throw everything that have at this game but with home advantage and the wind in their sails, the Oak Leafers get the nod to progress to round three.