Cormac Murphy's joyful youthfulness wins the day for Derry

27 January 2024; Shane McGuigan of Derry celebrates after kicking a point from a free to win the game during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Kerry and Derry at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kerry v Derry - Allianz Football League Division 1 27 January 2024; Shane McGuigan of Derry celebrates after kicking a point from a free to win the game during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Kerry and Derry at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)
Allianz Football League Division One: Kerry 2-8 Derry 0-15
Cahair O’Kane in Tralee

PRIOR to Saturday night in Tralee, Cormac Murphy’s experience of inter-county amounted to a couple of McKenna Cup outings.

He’d done really well in them but with the real business starting against Kerry, Mickey Harte opted for experience. In the end, it was the joy of Murphy’s inexperience that won them the game.

It didn’t really look like the gap was there for him to take on when he got the ball.

The Magherafelt league debutant opened it for himself. He attacked the space, went right through the tackle and drew the free from which Shane McGuigan did the needful.

Derry fans can only hope that the rawness of it, the way he didn’t even hesitate for a split second, didn’t think to respect Graham O’Sullivan by shuffling the ball sideways, never leaves him. Because if not, they could have a serious asset on their hands.

In other ways, the Oak Leafers will mark their second consecutive league win in Kerry – albeit the last was nine years ago in Killarney – down as another good experience on the road to where they want to get to.

When they faced the big Kerry press last summer, they couldn’t find ways out.

Not much changed here in truth, with the last 20 minutes a real struggle barring one big Gareth McKinless fetch and the Kingdom letting a soft ball out late on.

But when Jack O’Connor’s side did let the ball out easy on the last Odhran Lynch restart, the visitors made the most of it to earn victory in Tralee.

Both sides will take learnings, as they’d say themselves, from it. Derry need to get better at it and Kerry need to hammer the hammer.

All in, it was a valiant and imperfect return to the top flight for Mickey Harte’s new charges. Gavin Devlin’s impassioned fist-pumps to the crowd upon the final whistle left nobody in any doubt that they hadn’t come six hours down the road for the craic.

That they were followed by such a healthy travelling band of fans was another sign of the rude health that Derry football finds itself in. A far cry from the long trips to Fraher Field and the Limerick Gaelic Grounds in Division Four just five years ago.

Back-to-back Ulster titles and back-to-back All-Ireland semi-final defeats indicate that they are a Division One team and this is a good first building block.

It was testament to the commitment of Glen trio Conor Glass, Ethan Doherty and Ciaran McFaul that they joined up to play just six days after winning a maiden All-Ireland club title.

The final 20 minutes were pockmarked by the surging runs of Glass’s midfield partner Brendan Rogers though, with his late incisions from deep laying the groundwork for the few scores Derry were able to manufacture to get over the line.

Conor McCluskey made bursts while McKinless and Conor Doherty, who was outstanding in the first half, punched enough holes into a fierce breeze that came with a few showers attached.

Derry looked comfortable for 45 minutes and then anything but for 20.

They leaked two goals, with a turnover that Derry thought was a push on Rogers let go by Joe McQuillan and punished by Barry Dan O’Sullivan as he curled the ball nicely from 30 yards into the empty net.

Declan Cassidy then allowed Graham O’Sullivan down the inside to square for Dylan Casey to roof from close range and suddenly, Kerry were level.

It was a charmed life Derry led in that spell.

Twice the long right arm of Chrissy McKaigue stretched far enough to deny Kerry what looked like certain goals.

Take nothing from McKaigue but the video review in Kerry this week could be fairly damning of their failure to convert both, never mind one of them.

Derry got loose and ragged but when they needed men to step up, they got the big plays.

Shane McGuigan’s catch on a kickout that led to a free that he brilliantly converted from the right wing was one such moment.

Rogers’ runs, Diarmuid Baker’s sliding interception on Paul Murphy, they were positive stamps on performances that were typically patchy for the first round of the league.

Kerry went home disappointed not to have taken something from it but happy with their second half given the men they were down, such as the Cliffords, Paul Geaney, Tadhg Morley et al.

They had gone with Sean O’Shea inside and he got joy off Chrissy McKaigue – who did get forward to kick a score of his own - in the first half before it evened out in the second.

Joe O’Connor didn’t do himself much harm in the midfield sector everyone is watching them in, although it was when Diarmuid O’Connor came off the bench that they really turned the screw.

It was a game that could have got away from Derry the way last year’s semi-final did.

This one didn’t. Regardless of the make-up of the Kerry team, it was still a good flag for the Oak Leafers to plant.

Kerry: S Ryan; G O’Sullivan (0-1 mark), J Foley, D Casey (1-0); B Ó Beaglaoich, T O’Sullivan, G White; J O’Connor, Sean O’Brien; D Moynihan (0-1), D Geaney (0-1), C Burke; K Spillane, S O’Shea (0-5, 0-4 frees), M Burns
Subs: B Dan O’Sullivan for Sean O’Brien (27), P Murphy for Ó Beaglaoich (HT), C Geaney (1-0) for Burns (HT), Stephen O’Brien for Burke (43), D O’Connor for Spillane (48)
Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue (0-1), D Baker; P McGrogan, G McKinless (0-1), C Doherty (0-1); C Glass (0-1), B Rogers (0-1); D Cassidy (0-1), C McFaul, E Doherty; N Loughlin, S McGuigan (0-7, 0-6 frees), Paul Cassidy
Subs: N Toner (0-1) for Cassidy (47), C Murphy for Loughlin (60)
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)