Cahair O’Kane: Derry’s All-Ireland dream might not survive if they stick with Mickey Harte

A lot of the stuff thrown at Harte in recent weeks has been below the belt. Personal and unnecessary. But the statistics bear the truth that Derry have fallen off the face of a cliff this summer, particularly in attack.

Derry manager Mickey Harte pictured during his side's defeat by Donegal last weekend. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Derry manager Mickey Harte. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

WHEN Westmeath got within a point of Derry heading down the stretch in Newry, the cameras panned to Mickey Harte.

Derry were on the verge of exiting the championship. A draw would have knocked them out.

The strain of it was evident on his face.

It’s a tough gig.

When Derry came calling out of the blue late last summer, he saw it as an opportunity to go and win a fourth All-Ireland.

He was inheriting a team that had come so close to reaching last year’s final, leading Kerry for so long in a brilliant semi-final before it was snatched away at the finishing line.

Twelve months on, where is that same team headed under him?

If you could distil their problems this summer into a single moment, look at the 55th minute of Sunday’s defeat by Kerry.

Conor McCluskey is carrying the ball up their left wing.

Ethan Doherty, their master of angled running, cuts in off the sideline the way he’s done a thousand times.

But pass and run don’t meet. The ball is too high. Doherty can only get his fingertips to it.

The ball falls to the floor, Brian Ó Beaglaoich seizing rare open space. Down the field in a flash, Sean O’Shea taking the point to kick them back into a lead they’d retain from there until the end.

That move was symptomatic of how their attacking play has disintegrated this year.

Against Kerry on Sunday, they worked just one shot from inside the ‘D’.

In Mayo, three.

Against Armagh and Donegal, six each.

Contrast that with last year.

In the semi-final loss to the Kingdom, Derry took 10 shots inside the opposition ‘D’, scoring 1-3.

2-3 from nine against Donegal in Ballybofey; 1-6 from eleven shots against Cork.

For a team whose ambition was to manufacture the best chance for the right player as close to goal as possible, that’s a big problem.

Statistically, their last two games have been their two worst attacking performances of the last two years.

The stats from big games in 2023 and 2024 that show the extent to which Derry's performances have dropped off.
The stats from big games in 2023 and 2024 that show the extent to which Derry's performances have dropped off.

Last year they averaged 28 shots from an average of 34 attacks across games against Kerry, Donegal, Cork and Armagh.

Against Mayo last week, they created 17 shots from 28 attacks in normal time.

On Sunday, they took just 21 shots from 31 attacks.

They created so few turnovers, just nine, scoring just 0-4 off them.

Derry’s only two goals in six championship games this year came against Westmeath.

Again, go back to last summer. Conor Doherty netted twice, Gareth McKinless, Padraig McGrogan, Conor McCluskey and Brendan Rogers all once each. The threat began from deep.

But under Rory Gallagher, they worked relentlessly on the shape and depth and width of their attack, the timing of those runs, the instigation of back-door cuts, the creation of goals.

It became so instinctive that it was borderline telepathic.

The way they’ve attacked this year has been so different.

They kicked a lot more during the league and when defences began to cut off that space as summer arrived, Derry really struggled to play through teams.

Reverting to the defensive approach the last two games has allowed them to be competitive but in itself was an admission of a big step backwards.

They couldn’t have gone to face Kerry with the bold approach of last year. It would not have ended well.

When Tyrone set a very similar defensive stall out against Kerry in 2021, it frustrated the Kingdom but they also were set up to hurt.

The Red Hands scored 2-9 off turnovers that day, attacking the space hard.

That was their first year after Harte had left. His team had failed to beat any of Kerry, Mayo or Dublin in championship football over 11 games since 2008.

Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher guided them to wins over both Kerry and Mayo en-route to the title in 2021.

Those are just the facts.

A lot of the stuff thrown at Harte in recent weeks has been below the belt. Personal and unnecessary.

When Derry appointed him, it was absolutely the best they could have done in the situation.

But that was a situation of their own making. They held on so long wanting to reappoint Rory Gallagher that they missed a window where they might have been able to get Malachy O’Rourke.

Harte accepted he wasn’t first choice but he didn’t mind because this was a chance.

He had done a really good job in Louth, leading them to successive promotions in the league and a rare Leinster final, albeit things went fairly disastrously wrong that day on the back of the gung-ho strategy they employed against the Dubs.

Mickey Harte had labelled Gavin Devlin as “the best coach in the country” before the Donegal game this year.

So much of the work Devlin had done in Louth was based on Rory Gallagher’s Derry. Their style, their attempt to mimic the angles of running and attacking structure, they came Derry Lite.

But putting their stamp on the full-fat version has proven difficult.

The gung-ho approach took Derry to a league title in the spring.

Days later, they departed for a training camp in Portugal.

Harte had never once taken a Tyrone team on a foreign training camp, even when it was all the rage.

The optics of spending a small fortune on making the thing more professional to then undermine it by giving players licence to stay on for a few days themselves right on the eve of championship weren’t great.

Donegal came and all they did was put a jimmy into the cracks.

Derry had gotten away without any huge structure to their attacking play in the league, partly because Shane McGuigan was getting space and ball and shooting the lights out. He threatened for a while to keep them in the championship all on his own on Sunday, but it wasn’t enough.

This Derry team had relied hugely on the structure that they were given by the previous management.

The players were absolutely convinced that Rory Gallagher would win them an All-Ireland.

His relationship with the players contrasts with that of the more distant Harte, all of which feeds into the idea that it’s just not what it was.

The fanbase has fallen off. If there were 1,000 Derry supporters in Castlebar that was the height of it.

It rebounded a bit off that result but there was nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm or excitement as for previous visits to Croke Park.

When you remove emotion from it and look at the cold, hard facts, Derry have fallen off a cliff this summer.

A playing career is short. The window for Derry to win All-Irelands will open once in a generation and it won’t stay off the latch for long.

Right now, they are so far off it that will take a monumental improvement to bring them back to where they were.

Real ambition is ruthless.

Do the Derry players genuinely believe that it was all circumstantial and that year two will be that much better that they’ll climb back into contention?

It feels more like it’s over for Mickey Harte’s dream of winning another All-Ireland.

Whether Derry’s dream is dead too probably depends on whether they keep him.