Ulster MFC final: Odds stacked against Orchardmen as they seek to stop Derry adding to Ulster minor tally

Armagh take on reigning All-Ireland champions in provincial final in Omagh

Derry-Armagh minors
Derry-Armagh minors
Electric Ireland Ulster MFC final: Armagh v Derry (Sunday, O’Neills Healy Park, 1pm)

DERRY lead Armagh in the Ulster Minor Championship roll of honour by just four titles but in recent times, the gap between the two has been much larger than that.

Armagh haven’t reached the decider since 2014 while Derry are the defending Ulster and All-Ireland champs.

Since the Orchard County last appeared on the big day (they lost to Donegal in 2014) Derry have won four titles, appeared in another three finals and Sunday is their fourth provincial final in the past five seasons.

The contrast between the two counties in the past decade is stark and when the pair line out at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday afternoon, the big question will be, how can Armagh close the gap?

When the sides met previously in the last round of the group stages just three weeks ago, Derry dominated proceedings and mauled Aidan O’Rourke’s youngsters by 17 points, seeing them qualify for the last four by topping the group.

2024 Ulster GAA Minor Championship Playoffs Quarter Final 2.
Armagh  Minor Manager Aidan O’Rourke  during Saturday's game at the  Athletic Grounds in Armagh.
Armagh minor manager Aidan O’Rourke PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Armagh had to take the scenic route and overcame Monaghan in the quarter-finals with relative ease before two second half goals from Jack Loughran and James McCooey helped them beat Donegal in the semis to reach the showpiece.

Both those men have been essential to Armagh’s success so far this season and Loughran has formed a telepathic midfield partnership with Daithi O’Callaghan, who finished with 0-2 the last day out.

What’s impressive about the Orchard County is the fact that there is no overreliance on any one star forward to guide them over the line.

Everyone on the field, including defenders, are comfortable raising green or white flags.

In their opening championship victory over Antrim, O’Callaghan (1-1) and skipper Shea Loughran (0-4) top scored while Loughran (1-0), Aaron Garvey (1-0) and Eoin Duffy (0-3) carried the scoring burden against Cavan.

In the quarter-final, Duffy led the line with 1-4 and although he failed to get on the scoresheet last weekend against Donegal, Armagh still emerged victorious. Diarmuid O’Rourke, Ross Marsden, Keelan McEntee and Fionn Toale have regularly chipped in with points as well.

But going back to that day in Owenbeg at the start of the month, Derry put their stamp on things pretty quickly after the turnaround and showed they were levels above where Armagh have been operating.

While only four points separated the sides at the break, three-pointers from Eamon Young and Ger Dillon, two All-Ireland winners from last year, helped open up a 17-point gap by the time the final whistle sounded.

Derry minor manager Damien McErlain
Derry minor manager Damien McErlain (Margaret McLaughlin)

Young and Dillon, along with the likes of James Sergent, Luke Grant and Jack McCloy all have All-Ireland medals in their back pockets from 12 months ago and know what to expect on the big days.

The aforementioned Dillon and Young combined for an impressive 0-7 in last week’s semi-final win over Tyrone while Caoimhin Hargan and Dylan Rocks both rattled the back of the net and Derry have hit seven goals in their four championship outings.

If Armagh are to have any chance, they’ll need to keep the score down and make sure they come away with a clean sheet. But even that may not be enough to make it past Damian McErlain’s all-conquering side.

It’ll take a miracle for Armagh to overturn a 17-point haul and hand Derry their first loss in over 12 months.

The odds are stacked against them, and the Oak Leafers should advance to the All-Ireland quarter-finals with another piece of silverware for their stacked trophy cabinet.