Derry set to rest key men and avoid Dublin’s cross-examination

Derry manager Mickey Harte speaks to media after beating Monaghan during the NFL Division 1 match at Celtic Park on Saturday 17th February 2024. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Derry manager Mickey Harte speaks to media after beating Monaghan during the NFL Division 1 match at Celtic Park on Saturday 17th February 2024. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )
Allianz Football League Division One: Derry v Dublin (Saturday, 5pm, Celtic Park, live on RTÉ2)

WOULD it be a sign of confidence or a betrayal of it for Derry to rest a handful of key men for an evening like this?

When Dublin came to Celtic Park last year, a magical night ensued in the Maiden City.

The tingling sense of anticipation had spread beyond Oak Leaf borders. Everyone was looking forward to the top team in the country going up against a side being talked up for a summer ascension to the throne. All that chat was premature regardless but it seems as though now we’ll all have to wait.

Derry are understood to be resting a number of key players for the clash, including Glen trio Conor Glass, Ethan Doherty and Ciaran McFaul.

With Conor Doherty going off early in Galway and Cormac Murphy, Gareth McKinless and Odhran Lynch all expected to still be sidelined, it will be a much-changed Derry.

It has been a long stretch for those Glen men, unquestionably, but with safety already assured and games with Mayo and Roscommon to finish off, it was presumed the changes would come closer to the league’s end.

Is it a freshness thing or a powder-dry thing? You can only assume the latter.

Confidence is insulated by approach and if Derry are approaching this game as one they can afford to lose, is the psychological damage of losing absorbed?

Perhaps it’s all informed by last year’s experience. They beat Dublin in Celtic Park and then when it came to the Division Two final a few weeks later, they conceded four goals in Croke Park having taken no chances with Eoin McEvoy or Chrissy McKaigue and withdrawn Conor Glass instantly when he pulled up early in the second half.

It seemed like a great chance to further elevate their credentials but some of the external noise around Derry so far has been false.

Kerry and Monaghan both started with seven of their respective All-Ireland semi-final teams from last year.

Tyrone had five past Allstars plus Conn Kilpatrick and Frank Burns sidelined.

Galway had no Comer, Walsh, Conroy, McDaid, Tierney, only brought Sean Kelly on at half-time and Jack Glynn after 53 minutes.

Derry have stacked up against each of them with the closest thing to a championship starting line-up they can muster.

Thirteen of their semi-final team started in Tralee and against Tyrone, twelve against Monaghan and Galway.

Resting players avoids an examination of where Derry really stand against a Dublin team that still has bodies to bring back – one of whom, Paul Mannion, could return here – but whose depth of resources is greater than anyone else’s. Any Dublin team could win any league game.

All of it negates some of what we were looking to learn.

Take Niall Loughlin. In Rory Gallagher’s first championship game as Derry manager in 2020 (also the last time they lost in Celtic Park), Shane McGuigan was held scoreless from play by Rian Kennedy, but it was Loughlin who carried the fight. He got two from play, another from a mark and a fourth from a free off no less than Aidan Forker.

Gradually his role in the team changed.

Against Kerry last year, Loughlin had a half goal chance after 25 seconds. His first touch left him down and Tom O’Sullivan nipped in.

It was the 49th minute before the Greenlough man touched the ball again. His third and final touch was a shot that would have pushed Derry two clear on 56 minutes but tailed just wide from the top of the ‘D’.

But in many ways, Loughlin was a fish being judged on his ability to climb a tree.

His role was to stretch the pitch, to occupy a defender, create space for others coming from deep. The ball was a secondary object in the game he was being asked to play.

Rory Gallagher’s blunt style of management worked for Derry but maybe not for Loughlin, whose confidence seemed to visibly drain over time.

In the 213 minutes he’s played across this year’s four league games so far, Loughlin has had 23 possessions but it’s what he’s done with them. He’s coming deeper, getting on the ball, looking to take men on again. Buoyed by the confidence of his Sigerson Cup performances for Ulster University, Loughlin has scored 0-2 but also assisted 1-5.

The change in him has been brought about by the very different attacking structure with which Derry are playing under Harte and Gavin Devlin. It is freer, less constrained, more natural.

Derry deciding not to take the stand for cross-examination means we’ll probably know very little more tomorrow night than we do now.