Kevin Madden: Derry support right to be excited, but the biggest challenges lie ahead

Donegal will fancy their chances of bringing swift end to Oak Leafs’ three in-a-row hopes

Kevin Madden

Kevin Madden

Former Antrim footballer and Irish News columnist

Mickey Harte
Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte will come face to face again when Donegal and Derry collide at Celtic Park on April 20. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IT would be fair to say this has been one of the most eagerly-anticipated Ulster Championships in many a year.

The emergence of Derry over the last couple of seasons has them in pole position to complete a treble of Anglo-Celt victories.

With the National League trophy already in the bag, their focus will be set on another provincial title - but that alone won’t satisfy the men from the Oak Leaf county, as us cynical/envious types across the Bann have been heard to whisper lately “did you not hear the craic? Derry have the All-Ireland won and it only April”.

Their sights are set on a bigger prize but, for now, they can’t look past the men from Tir Chonaill. When Donegal travel to Celtic Park on Saturday, April 20 the intrigue levels will be off the charts.

Mickey Harte managing Derry, Jim Mcguinness back in Donegal, two managerial giants. With Celtic Park packed to capacity, this is sure to be a battle in the Bogside.

You can expect Donegal will bring a level of anarchy to try and unsettle Derry. They will pick their moments to hunt Derry on the Odhran Lynch kick-out and will also take the opportunity to hit them high up the pitch.

But don’t be fooled that it will be all attack as there will be passages of deep lying zonal defence as a game of poker unfolds. Derry can play with great width and depth in attack but more recently they’ve become very effective at playing narrow and stacking the areas close to goal with bodies to create gaps.

That used to be considered ‘crowding the scoring zone’ but not anymore as the game evolves even further. Derry look to have developed as a squad but, more importantly, they have more scoring options both in their starting 15 and off the bench than they have had the previous two seasons. But I will get to that later.

I actually think Donegal have a serious chance in this game, especially if you look at their performance in defeating Armagh in the Division Two final. A fairly convincing victory was made even more impressive considering the quality players they had missing from their starting line-up.

When you begin to rhyme off the names you realise they are a team with so much firepower - Michael Langan, Ryan McHugh, Oisin Gallen, Paddy McBrearty, Niall O’Donnell, Ciaran Thompson, Peadar Mogan, Jamie Brennan... those are all serious players that can do damage against any opposition.

There won’t be much to separate these two sides and it may even take extra-time, but I do fancy Derry by the slimmest of margins. Of course, the Ulster Championship got under way last weekend as a Paddy Lynch-inspired Cavan disposed of Monaghan. With Tyrone up next, they won’t fear the Red Hands, but their ability to handle two of the best forwards in the province right now - Darragh Canavan and Darren McCurry - will have a big bearing on this one.

Antrim V Down at Corrigan Park. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Down got the better of Antrim in a League game at Corrigan Park. Picture by Mal McCann (Mal McCann)

Tyrone looked to have fallen back a bit the last couple of seasons but I wouldn’t be writing them off just yet, and I expect they will come through this tie marginally. On Saturday Antrim travel to Pairc Esler to take on Conor Laverty’s Down.

The Saffrons will not fear this challenge but perhaps the 1/8 odds in favour of the Mournemen indicate they are raging hot favourites for a reason. But as Westweath – conquerors oft Down in the Division Three final - found out to their peril, anything can happen in Championship as they were dropped by Oisin McConville’s Wicklow on the opening weekend.

Fermanagh are in a similar position as they face an onerous task against Armagh, but home advantage will give Kieran Donnelly’s men some hope.

As for the All-Ireland race, I believe this year’s winners will come from Dublin, Derry or Kerry. I’m just not convinced by Kerry yet as they struggle to shake the sense that they may just be too over-reliant on David Clifford - moreso than Derry are of Shane McGuigan and Dublin of Con O’Callaghan.

Behind that I don’t think there’s much between Galway, Mayo, Armagh, Donegal, Tyrone or, if they regroup sufficiently, Monaghan. Just when we thought the great Dublin team that won five in-a-row were coming to an end, Stephen Cluxton comes out of retirement and, with a sprinkle of magic dust, they are back at the top table again.

Instead of undertaking an anticipated rebuild, they have seamlessly integrated the new with the old.

However, I don’t believe Derry are too far away, and in Lachlan Murray and Cormac Murphy they have another two great scoring options to complement McGuigan. Of course much of the damage is done by their running game from deep and this is harder for opponents to counter-act. Watch the cat too closely and the mouse will bite you.

Eoin McEvoy - with his two goals against Dublin in the League final - is the prime example, but that mouse could also be Conor McCluskey, Conor Doherty, or any one of a number of players. Then there’s the momentum and belief garnered from Glen’s All-Ireland success.

Derry are the best placed in Ulster to rival the Dubs but my note of caution would be that Dublin had serious quality leaders missing the day of the League final, with Cluxton, James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimmons, Jack McCaffrey and Cormac Costello still to come into the reckoning.

All you Derry fans should be excited about what the year might bring but a word of caution - All-Irelands are won in July, not April.