Goals grant Derry stay of execution - but Harte’s men still look a shadow of former selves

All-Ireland SFC Group 1, round three Derry 2-7 Westmeath 0-9

Conor McCluskey celebrates after firing to the Westmeath net in Newry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Conor McCluskey celebrates after firing to the Westmeath net in Newry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

NORMAL order resumed for Derry when they got back to winning ways on Saturday night – though the nature of their four-point victory over Westmeath won’t have filled Oak Leaf followers with confidence heading into the knock-out rounds of the All-Ireland Championship.

A well-worked Conor McCluskey goal just before half-time eased the pressure after a nervy, error-strewn opening half-hour, but it wasn’t until Emmett Bradley lashed home their second goal seven minutes from time that there was any semblance of daylight to savour.

Because at no stage, not until the last few minutes anyway, was this ever comfortable. At no stage was it ever pretty.

Westmeath are that kind of team; obdurate, well-organised, and just lacking that clinical edge to narrow the gap to those in the top bracket. Had Dessie Dolan’s men brought a bit more potency, there could have been a very different story coming out of Newry.

Derry aren’t in that top bracket any more, not at the minute anyway. They rode their luck at times and were left to rue a host of chances that, just a matter of months ago, would have been converted blind-folded.

The sole consolation is that they dug it out when it looked at one stage as though Westmeath might snatch the draw that would send them through from Group 1. But that kind of performance is unlikely to move the Oak Leafs too much further.

Mickey Harte knows that better than anyone.

“We couldn’t think of anything else other than getting a result - we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, and that’s the fact of the matter,” said the Derry boss.

“We knew that, coming off the results we had, morale was dented, and it was difficult for the players to get back the belief they had that took them to the top of Division One.

“That is the beginning of the process of building back a bit of confidence and a bit of belief that they can play very good football, but it doesn’t solve all our problems.”

From the outset, it was clear that Harte’s men were still shouldering the weight of those season-shifting defeats to Donegal, Galway and Armagh that left them on the brink of All-Ireland exit in a Championship structure where it is nearly harder to go out than go through, and saw their manager’s future subject to frenzied speculation.

Saturday’s victory in Newry puts them into Monday morning’s preliminary quarter-final draw, and offers another opportunity to muster some kind of momentum from the wreckage of a disastrous few months.

On this evidence, though, there is considerable ground to make up. From looking invincible at times through the spring, the crisis in confidence will be hard to shift, with even their most reliable foot soldiers struggling for form.

The previously effervescent Ethan Doherty and Paul Cassidy have lost their fizz. Energy bunny Brendan Rogers suddenly looks tired. He was turned over a couple of times and offered little of the drive and buccaneering bursts that have become his trademark.

Slaughtneil club-mate Shane McGuigan has pushed himself into the top forwards conversation alongside David Clifford and Con O’Callaghan in recent years. He was efficient to the point of appearing effortless.

Now, everything looks that bit harder. The ground looks that bit softer beneath his feet. On Saturday he kicked three first-half wides that left you rubbing your eyes wondering was it the same man who so regularly shoots the lights out. Another dropped short.

Even one of the two frees he did score, from barely 25 metres, was tipped over the bar by Westmeath ‘keeper Jason Daly after a poor connection saw it drop towards the bar. It will click again eventually, of that there is no doubt, but maybe not in time to save Derry’s season.

Shane McGuigan endured a frustrating night at Pairc Esler as Derry eventually saw off Westmeath. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Shane McGuigan endured a frustrating night at Pairc Esler as Derry eventually saw off Westmeath. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Conor Glass and Ciaran McFaul stood up when it mattered, but it was up to the two men in the corner to propel Derry forward after Westmeath nudged ahead as half-time loomed, with Ronan O’Toole proving the perfect outlet on the counter as the Oak Leafs walked into their trap time and again.

The sight of Odhran Lynch rapidly retreating on a few occasions would have been enough to give supporters PTSD, but the Lake county weren’t able to punish Derry in the way others so ruthlessly have.

Diarmuid Baker - with number four on his back - has been the find of their year. Not only did he manage to completely curtail O’Toole after Conor McCluskey was freed of marking duties, the Steelstown man also played a key role in both crucial goals.

The first, on 33 minutes, saw Baker drift into space and lay off for McCluskey to blast to the net, while another burst from deep paved the way for Bradley to slam home – and boy did Derry need that.

Because the epitaphs were already being written. After a flying end to the first half, the last thing they wanted was Paul Faloon’s whistle. With it went their mojo, a hard-earned three point lead always carrying the risk of the goal that would do the job for Westmeath.

Subs Robbie Forde, Stephen Smith and Jack Smith came off the bench to score within minutes as the gap was narrowed to one going into the final 10; all the momentum was with the Lake county until Baker’s burst and Bradley’s finish finally left them too much to do.

All Derry needed was enough, and enough was what they got and nothing more. There were no wild celebrations, either on the field or in the stand. Monday’s draw is treated with trepidation rather than anticipation still, but they’re there.

For now, that is all that matters.

Derry O Lynch; C McCluskey (1-0), C McKaigue, D Baker; C McFaul, E McEvoy, D Gilmore; C Glass (0-2, 0-1 45), B Rogers; E Doherty, E Bradley (1-0), P Cassidy; E Mulholland (0-2), S McGuigan (0-2, frees), L Murray (0-1). Subs D Cassidy for Murray (62), C Murphy for Mulholland (66), R Forbes for Bradley (66), S Downey for Cassidy (70+1)

Yellow card D Baker (47)

Westmeath J Daly; J Gonoud (0-1), C Drumm, K Maguire; J Dolan (0-1), R Wallace, D Lynch; R Connellan (0-1), A McCormack; J Lynam, R O’Toole (0-3), S McCartan; L Loughlin, J Heslin, S Baker

Subs R Forde (0-1) for Lynam (50), S Smith (0-1) for Loughlin (50), J Smith (0-1) for Baker (58), S Allen for Gonoud (58), K Martin for Dolan (70)

Referee P Faloon (Down)