Derry minors aiming to complete Armagh treble for All-Ireland double

The Oak Leaf side have beaten the Orchard twice already this season

Derry-Armagh minors
Derry-Armagh minors

FOR the third time this season, Damian McErlain is preparing his Derry minor team for the challenge of Armagh.

Top spot in their Ulster MFC group was all that was up for grabs when Armagh travelled to Owenbeg in May. Derry put on a dominant display as they eased to a 17-point win, but the gap was significantly reduced when the sides renewed acquaintances in the provincial final.

This time around, with silverware on the table, the encounter turned out to be a much more even affair, but ultimately with the same result, as the Oak Leafers retained their Ulster crown with a two-point win.

Derry minor boss Damian McErlain
Derry minor boss Damian McErlain

This Sunday, at O’Neills Healy Park in Omagh, the prize on offer is an All-Ireland title.

McErlain is convinced that despite beating Armagh twice already this year, the competitiveness of the Ulster final will ensure there’s no sense of complacency inside the Oak Leaf changing room.

“It’ll be a totally different game with a totally different feel to it all,” said McErlain.

“There will be a bigger crowd and it’s a bigger occasion and the game itself will probably take on a life of its own, it’ll not follow the same sort of patterns as the last one.

“Every game is different, both teams have come through the All-Ireland series and both teams have improved drastically. Armagh have blown the All-Ireland opposition away, we’ve had two tough games. We’ve both shown progression, so it’s going to be a good game.

“At minor level it’s great for the lads to see exactly what is in front of them, and they saw that in the Ulster final. They saw how tough a game it was; they saw that they could have been pipped at the post as well.

“I think we managed the Ulster final really well given that it is a difficult scenario going into a match where you’ve beaten a team a couple of weeks previous, particularly when they are at a good level. All that’s out the door now, the boys know how 50-50 the game is going to be.

“The Ulster final was more realistic in terms of where Armagh are.

“Against us it was a 50-50 match, and that was the way we said it would be going into it, that it wouldn’t reflect the group-stage match at all.

“They’ve kicked on even since then, so it’s going to be an absolutely serious battle. They’re a quality side, brilliantly drilled, they work so hard for each other and we’re going to have to be at our absolutely best to make sure we’re in their reckoning coming down the stretch.”

Reigning All-Ireland champions Derry saw off Monaghan in last year’s all-Ulster All-Ireland decider and a number of players that featured that day are part of the current team.

McErlain, who also led Derry to an All-Ireland minor final in 2017, is hoping the experience of 12 months ago will help his side.

“You’d like to think it helps but, on the day, you still have to produce,” he said.

“You have to get it right in terms of what you’re planning to do. Performance-wise, that has to be good, so it’ll help the boys know what’s on and all that sort of thing.

“But you just never know, particularly at minor level, what happens on the day and that’ll be the thing, the team that produces on the day will win the match.

“Everyone is delighted to be back, it’s a good achievement for the county to produce two groups that are capable of going that far and we’re just looking forward to it. This is where you need to be, you need to be knocking on the door every few years at this level.

“It comes in cycles, you’ll not get here every year, that’s for certain. But it’s a good sign of the work going on in the county and hopefully it bodes well for the future.”

It’s been witnessed more than once at the highest level how pressure can affect even the most experienced campaigners, and chasing two All-Ireland titles in as many years, for the first time in the county’s history, is a heavy weight for young shoulders to carry.

But McErlain says that on a big day such as an All-Ireland final, there’s already an incredible amount of pressure attached to the occasion.

“You’re in the All-Ireland final, it’s hard to get any more pressure than just that itself,” he said.

“It’s a new game, it’s a new group, it’s a similar scenario to last year where you’re playing the team you beat in the provincial final. There’s pressure on everybody to perform, whether it be Armagh or Derry, it’s just a big game and everybody’s loving the fact that we’re there.”

Derry have had to do it the hard way. On their way to Sunday’s showpiece, McErlain’s youngsters showed tremendous resilience to surge past the incredibly difficult obstacles posed by Dublin and Kerry, games they won by two points and one point respectively.

“The last two games have been very pleasing in terms of the quality of opposition we’ve played against. We had to lift our game during both matches to get over the line in them,” said McErlain.

“We were asked questions and we were put under the cosh and thankfully the lads showed a maturity to get over the line at the finish.

“In both games, we probably missed opportunities to make it a wee bit more comfortable but they were two tight games and two tight finishes. Hopefully they will stand to us.”