Derry minors chasing back-to-back minor titles as Armagh stand in their way

‘You couldn’t have known starting out how well we were going to get on in terms of the win rate’

Armagh management
Stefan Forker (right) with the Armagh management team Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )
Electric Ireland All-Ireland MFC final
Armagh v Derry (O’Neills Healy Park, Sunday, 2pm)

DAMIAN McErlain had modest expectations when he returned to the role of Derry minor manager for 2023.

He’d guided the county to two Ulster titles in the 2010s, and an Electric Ireland All-Ireland final in 2017, but needed to weigh up his latest group.

“I felt we were strong enough but initially you just wanted them to be competitive with the other teams,” said McErlain. “That was as far as we thought about it.”

Competitive? They’ve been that alright. On the eve of the Electric Ireland All-Ireland minor football final, they are chasing back-to-back titles for the first time in the county’s history. They have already claimed back-to-back provincial titles and have lost just once in their last 29 outings, a 2023 league final defeat.

“We realised when we took the squad at the start of last year that 10 of them were going to be underage again this year,” said McErlain. “That was going to be an advantage coming into this year. But you couldn’t have known starting out how well we were going to get on in terms of the win rate that they’ve had. Hopefully there’s one more in it.”

Derry will play Armagh in Sunday’s Electric Ireland All-Ireland minor final in Omagh and the circumstances for the Oak Leaf County are similar to last year. They also played an Ulster rival in the 2023 final, Monaghan, and just like last year have played Armagh twice already, beating them in their Ulster group and then in the provincial final.

The experience of last year’s success has stood to the present group. Derry captain James Sargent, thrilling half-back Luke Grant, attackers Ger Dillon and Eamon Young contributed 0-11 between them in the recent come-from-behind semi-final defeat of Kerry. All four lined out in last year’s final.

The bigger picture for Derry is that this is the county’s fourth national final at the grade in eight seasons. They won the 2020 and 2023 deciders and have claimed five of the last 10 Ulster titles. McErlain has had a huge input across his two stints. Derry minor teams that he has managed have won a remarkable 28 of their 32 games.

He says there is no secret sauce to reveal, pointing instead to the high standards being applied within clubs, schools and development squads across the county.

“My lad is only 10 so I get to see that in my spare time, when I’m working with them too,” said McErlain, who had a stint with the Derry seniors.

Opponents Armagh, managed by the hugely experienced Aidan O’Rourke, and with ex-Orchard County senior Stefan Forker coaching them, possess a lower profile. That will suit them fine.

Derry beat Armagh 2-18 to 0-7 when they met in their provincial group. For the Ulster final, Derry had just two points to spare, 0-12 to 1-7. Since then, Armagh have recorded comfortable wins over strong Longford and Mayo sides.

“The big thing for us is I think we’ve progressed a lot since even the Ulster final, in terms of we’re more comfortable in what we’re about,” said Forker.

Eoin Duffy and team skipper Shea Loughran have been consistent scorers for Armagh throughout their eight game odyssey. So has Diarmuid O’Rourke while Daithi O’Callaghan gives them a strong presence in the middle third.

“We were disappointed with the Ulster final,” said Forker. “There were a lot of pats on the back from people saying, ‘Jeez, you did well there, you kept them to within two points’. But that’s not what we’re about. I know Derry have been strong throughout the season but we’re fully expecting to give them a good game.”