‘They have to go full-tilt at this...’ Derry and Dublin go head-to-head in Division One showpiece at Croke Park

Derry manager Mickey Harte says Dublin class of 2024 are determined to make statement of intent

Shane McGuigan led the Derry attack brilliantly throughout the Championship
Shane McGuigan has contributed exactly a third of Derry's scores this season

Allianz Football League Division One final

Derry v Dublin (Sunday, Croke Park, 4pm, live on TG4)

WHAT a difference two months make. On January 27, in the first round of games in Division One, Monaghan shocked everyone bar themselves when they ran in three brilliant goals and beat Dublin at Croke Park.

Despite that brilliant start, Monaghan have been relegated and, despite losing their first two games, the Dubs have built up an intimidating head of steam with five wins on-the-trot to set up a repeat of last year’s Division Two decider (which they won by seven points).

On the way to the runners-up spot in the table, Dublin handed out hammerings to Kerry, Galway and Tyrone. Their winning run also including a five-point victory at Celtic Park in a game that swung on a crucial second half spell during which David O’Hanlon saved from Shane McGuigan and Con O’Callaghan hit the net for Dublin.

Derry manager Mickey Harte kept his cards close to his chest that night. Derry had three wins behind them and he was concerned that the weight of expectation might drag down his players so he left out Conor Glass and made some changes.

“We didn’t put out the best team we had,” said Harte.

“It was kind of, I suppose, a precaution because, number one, if you put out your best team there’s no guarantee we’d win anyway.

“But if you did win then this unbeaten run is on in the League and the talk is on because you won four games in-a-row that big things will happen and all of that.

“There isn’t the substance to be saying that if you’ve sense but if you’re an outsider looking in and want to paint a picture and create a narrative you can do that.

“So I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world that we didn’t win that game and I think it helps us to be where we are today.”

Con O'Callaghan (left) is one of a few top class forwards Dublin will send out against Cork in this evening's second All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.<br />Pic Philip Walsh
Con O'Callaghan has been in superb form for Dublin this year

Where are Derry? While Dublin have gone through the gears so impressively, Derry have been the most consistent county in the country. Just that one loss, the best defensive record in the division and, in Shane McGuigan, the top scorer with 2-40 which is exactly one third of his team’s scores and exactly what you’d be after from your best forward.

The rest of the team chips in. Derry had 20 scorers in the League including a few from new faces Diarmuid Baker and Cormac Murphy. Ethan Doherty, Conor Glass, Niall Toner and, in the final round, young Lachlan Murray all showed consistent form in front of the posts.

Main man McGuigan can expect to have John Small in his face on Sunday but he had him there at Celtic Park and still managed seven points after coming off the bench. Something similar on Sunday will keep the Oak Leafers in the hunt.

“A national title is always great to get,” said Harte.

“There’s not many of them about.”

To get your hands on any of them you have to beat the Dubs who go into Sunday’s final on the back of absolutely hammering Tyrone. 21-point wins shouldn’t really happen at this level but Niall Scully, Cian Murphy and Lorcan O’Dell all scored goals and Colm Basquel got 2-3 as the Dubs ran riot.

On top of that, relative newcomers Ross McGarry, Sean McMahon, Cian Murphy and midfielder Killian McGinnis caught the eye alongside experienced campaigners like O’Callaghan (second top scorer with 3-29) and Ciaran Kilkenny.

“They’re making a statement of intent here again,” said Harte.

“People were tending to say that a lot of those older statesmen were gone and Dublin are not what they used to be and they had to take that for a while. I think they weren’t too enamoured about that and they are firing back and saying: ‘Just take care what you say about us because we’ll show you we’re not a spent force’.”

There are match-ups all over the field to give you goosebumps: McGuigan-Small, Fenton-Glass, O’Callaghan-McKaigue… The Championship is around the corner but neither county can afford not to go full-tilt at this. Spearheaded by O’Callaghan, Dublin are in brilliant form and so familiar in Croke Park where their kicking game can destroy the best defences.

If there’s a team that can stop them it has to be Derry who will be patient, keep the ball and use their wide spread of scorers. But the Dubs get the nod to shade what promises to be an engrossing battle that will whet the appetite for more to come this summer.