Derry might douse the flames further - but they won’t put out the fire completely as Harte’s men enter last chance saloon

Oak Leafs must beat Westmeath to keep All-Ireland hopes alive

After a tumultuous few months, can Mickey Harte's Derry keep their All-Ireland hopes alive with victory over Westmeath? Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
After a tumultuous few months, can Mickey Harte's Derry keep their All-Ireland hopes alive with victory over Westmeath? Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
All-Ireland SFC Group One: Derry v Westmeath (Saturday, Pairc Esler, 7pm – live on GAAGO)

THE flames might have died down, but smoke is still seeping out from beneath the doorway as Derry’s date with destiny looms.

It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eleven weeks ago, Odhran Lynch was the penalty shoot-out hero when the Oak Leafs claimed the Division One crown with victory over All-Ireland champions Dublin at Croke Park.

From 12 games between McKenna Cup and National League, they had won 11 – Derry’s sole defeat coming at the hands of the Dubs when the pack was shuffled significantly amid a gruelling schedule.

The Mickey Harte era was well and truly under way, those disgruntled murmurs that followed the former Tyrone boss across county lines dwindling with each week that passed.

They’re flying. They look better than last year. There’s a stronger look to the panel with the emergence of men like Diarmuid Baker and Cormac Murphy. Derry for Sam.

Yet here we are less than three months on – three Championship games played, three defeats, Ulster three in-a-row dreams left in smithereens and a previously water-tight defence leaking goals like they’re going out of fashion.

And, once cracks emerged, water came gushing through. Suddenly there was talk about what went on at a training camp in Portugal before their Ulster exit to Donegal. Injuries began to mount.

The manner in which Jim McGuinness’s men picked apart Derry’s high press - and the sight of the ball beating Lynch in a race to the net – left supporters wondering where this once-in-a-generation team was headed after incrementally closing the gap to the top in recent years.

The tactical approach of Harte and Gavin Devlin has come under even greater scrutiny in the aftermath of subsequent damaging defeats to Galway and Armagh, when their fragility was once more exposed.

Against the Orchard, Derry were unrecognisable from their previous incarnation – tired, sluggish, sloppy. Short of ideas, short of confidence.

It has been a spectacular, and shocking, fall from grace in a remarkably short space of time.

From All-Ireland contenders, tucked in just behind Dublin and Kerry at the head of the pack, to 20/1 outsiders whose hopes of remaining in the competition - never mind winning it - hang by a thread going into Saturday night’s do-or-die clash with Westmeath.

And it isn’t just Derry’s All-Ireland ambitions under threat either.

Rumours of Harte’s demise days after that defeat to Armagh proved premature, WhatsApp whispers sweeping out of control in a county whose collective head was still spinning.

Yet while county board officials put that one to bed eventually, longer-term uncertainty remains, irrespective of what happens at Pairc Esler.

On paper, Westmeath should have been the dead rubber game at the end of the group when the Oak Leafs were able to rest some weary limbs while the summer spread out before them. Instead, they are in the last chance saloon, fighting for their lives.

With their superior scoring difference, aided greatly by Armagh’s 11-point hammering of Harte’s men, a draw or a win would be enough for the Lake County to secure third spot and a preliminary quarter-final clash next weekend.

That is an absolutely unthinkable outcome for Derry, and one which would heap further pressure on their All-Ireland winning manager.

Conor Turbitt rolls home Armagh's second goal despite the best efforts of Odhran Lynch and Brendan Rogers. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Armagh proved far too strong for Derry in their last outing a fortnight ago. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

How they have reacted to the madness of the past fortnight will dictate what course their campaign takes from here. The scars of defeat to Armagh will take time to heal but the fallout that followed, and the criticism that has come the way of all concerned, could galvinise them going into the Westmeath game.

Derry are still without the suspended Gareth McKinless, while Eoin McEvoy – although named in the starting 15 after missing the Armagh game – remains touch and go, and may instead be used from the bench.

Dessie Dolan’s men are adept at sitting in and cluttering up space, with the pace of men like Sam McCartan deadly on the break. This is exactly how they will approach the game on Saturday.

Having watched as Derry’s once free-flowing attack stutter, Westmeath will fancy their chances of dragging the Oak Leafs into a dogfight in Newry, knowing the pressure rests more heavily on their shoulders.

Last year they passed up the opportunity to put Armagh to the sword at the Athletic Grounds. Galway were there for the taking two weeks ago. Westmeath supporters may be growing weary of moral victories, but the truth is more likely that they are just not at the level yet to really punish the top tier counties.

With just six goals from their 11 League and Championship games so far, nine of which were against Division Three opposition, the Lake County don’t possess the tools to truly expose Derry’s vulnerability.

So the show might roll on for another week - but even that won’t be enough to put out the fire completely.


Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue, D Baker; C McFaul, E McEvoy, D Gilmore; C Glass, B Rogers; E Doherty, E Bradley, P Cassidy; E Mulholland, S McGuigan, L Murray

Westmeath: J Daly; J Gonoud, C Drumm, K Maguire; J Dolan, R Wallace, D Lynch; R Connellan, A McCormack; J Lynam, R O’Toole, S McCartan; L Loughlin, J Heslin, S Baker