James Sargent-inspired Derry side complete three-peat against Armagh to be crowned All-Ireland minor champions

The Oak Leafers sealed back-to-back Tom Markham Cups at a drizzly Healy Park in Omagh

James Sargent
Derry captain James Sargent with the Tom Markham Cup at O'Neill's Healy Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )
Electric Ireland All-Ireland MFC final
Armagh 0-10 Derry 2-7

EXPERIENCE is a term seldom referenced in the world of U17 football, but a Derry team with 10 survivors from last year’s All-Ireland MFC triumph drew on that priceless ingredient to drag themselves over the line for a second successive title.

When a tense decider at O’Neills Healy Park was in the melting pot, three warriors from the class of 2023 brought it to a new level.

James Sargent, a captain and a leader, led his men with inspirational fortitude as the Oak Leafers turned a two-points deficit into a four-point lead in the space of six minutes.

The direction and nous of a champion team that had done it all before was written all over a final quarter of control and authority.

That said, Armagh will reflect on missed goal chances and lost possessions as moments that ultimately demanded a heavy price as they saw a heroic bid for a first minor title since 2009 slip away.

The Orchard lads, who lost to Derry by 17 points in the Ulster Championship group stage but finished just two points adrift when the sides met again in the provincial final, for long stretches looked as if they could turn over the champions.

But it was Derry who came flying out of the blocks with three points inside the opening four minutes, Ger Dillon, Eamon Young and Dylan Rocks all on target, with Ross Marsden getting the Orchard off the mark.

Armagh manager Aidan O’Rourke moved swiftly to shore up his defence, and it worked, with Derry waiting a full 30 minutes for their next score from play.

The challengers played their way into it patiently, and scores from a Diarmuid O’Rourke free and Fionn Toale’s well worked point, had them level by the 20-minute mark.

However, Derry grabbed a goal four minutes later. Turlough McHugh sent Grant through, and his shot was brilliantly deflected over the bar by ‘keeper Michael Finnegan, but referee Barry Tiernan brought play back and awarded a penalty for a foul on Grant, which Sargent blasted to the roof of the net.

Armagh’s response was emphatic, with full-back Gavin O’Rourke landing a long range score, before Eoin Duffy narrowed the gap.

And they almost grabbed a goal on the breakaway from a turnover, but full-back Ronan Canavan stepped in to thwart Duffy. Goalkeeper Finnegan drilled the 45 between the posts to level it at the break, 0-6 to 1-3.

Armagh, with the wind at their backs, went in front for the first time with another Finnegan 45, and were looking good when substitute Aaron Garvey nudged them two ahead.

But Derry never panicked, and with Sargent leading by example with a towering midfield performance, they picked away at the deficit.

Grant and Young were always involved as play was spread to the flanks to stretch the Armagh cover, and those three players all sent over points to get the holders back in front by the 47th minute.

The crucial score came 10 minutes from the end, as Dylan Rocks picked out brother Cody at the far post to punch home a goal.

Derry manager Damian McErlain with the cup after beating Armagh in the All Ireland Minor Football Championship Final played at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday 7th July 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Derry manager Damian McErlain with the Tom Markham Cup after Sunday's win over Armagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

Now the experience and big game mentality pressed it home for the Oak Leafers. They restricted their opponents to just one point in the final 20 minutes, an O’Rourke free, as the Tom Markham Cup prepared for another stay in Oak Leaf territory.

This latest triumph planted another ominous signpost in the GAA battleground, pointing to an exciting future for Derry football.

Recent progress at senior level, albeit checked by a dip in this year’s Championship, has solid back-up in a burgeoning youth system.

And the current crop of teenagers has an important role to play in the evolution of the masterplan.

Minor boss Damian McErlain, in his second stint in the role, has watched his teams lose just once in 30 outings, a remarkable marker of excellence and consistency that lies at the heart of the careful nurturing of a culture taking shape in the Oak Leaf county.

Armagh M Finnegan (0-2, 45s); T Fox, G O’Rourke (0-1), C Wilson; Fergus Toale, S Woods, D O’Rourke (0-3, frees); J Loughran, D O’Callaghan; R Marsden (0-1), J McCooe, K McEntee; Fionn Toale (0-1), E Duffy (0-1, free), S Loughran

Subs A Garvey (0-1) for Marsden (36), D McGee for Fergus Toale (52), O Gribben for Duffy (55)

Derry J McCloy; P O’Kane, R Canavan, P Haran; L Grant (0-1), C O Mianain, D McGuckin; J Sargent (1-1, 1-0 pen), C McBride; E Young (0-2), T McHugh, C Hargan; G Dillon (0-2, 0-1 free), C Rocks (1-0), D Rocks (0-1)

Subs R Collins for Hargan (46), R Biggs for O’Kane (55)

Referee B Tiernan (Dublin)