Little to separate Derry and Tyrone in intriguing U20 decider

Red Hands’ unbeaten run to the final includes a one-point win over Oak Leafers at Celtic Park

Derry's Johnny McGuckin and Fionn McEldowney with Oisin Gormley of Tyrone
Derry's Johnny McGuckin and Fionn McEldowney with Oisin Gormley of Tyrone during the EirGrid Ulster U20 Football Championship game at Celtic Park last month. Tyrone's one-point win saw them edge the Oak Leafers at the top of the group on the way to Wednesday's final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )
EirGrid Ulster U20 Football Championship final
Derry v Tyrone (Wednesday, the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds, 7.30pm, live on Sport TG4)

THE signs all point to a tight affair when Derry and Tyrone lock horns in the Ulster U20 final.

Tyrone’s unbeaten run to the decider includes a one-point win over Derry at Celtic Park.

It was Gavin Potter’s fisted point that separated the teams just seconds after Johnny McGuckian’s rocket to the Red Hands’ net looked to have secured an unlikely draw after Tyrone turned the screw in the final quarter.

Derry and Tyrone had the bare minimum to spare against Donegal and Monaghan in their respective semi-finals.

Three years ago it was Tyrone who waltzed their way to a one-point All-Ireland minor final defeat to Meath.

Potter and captain Michael Rafferty both played in the All-Ireland U20 win over Kildare the following year. Cormac Devlin was also on the panel. Ruairi McHugh played at midfield and is still underage but missed much of the campaign with injury.

Cormac Devlin believes the extra week's rest has benefited Tyrone as they face Monaghan in the Ulster U20 FC semi-final
Cormac Devlin was on the Tyrone panel for the successful All-Ireland U20 campaign in 2022 (Oliver McVeigh)

Tyrone manager Paul Devlin has had to plan without senior player Ben Cullen, who hasn’t been with the U20s and is again ineligible due to his appearance on Sunday in the seniors’ defeat to Donegal in the Ulster SFC semi-final in Celtic Park.

It’s a younger Derry side with five of their minor All-Ireland winning team of last season expected to line out.

Captain Patrick McGurk, Ruairi Forbes, Niall O’Donnell and Ryan McNicholl have tasted brief McKenna Cup action under Mickey Harte before focussing on U20 duty.

McGurk missed the Tyrone defeat with a shoulder injury, while it was a first game for Danny McDermott after sustaining a broken collarbone on Ulster Club duty with Glen.

Both teams come in after stern tests and Derry needed a second-half turnaround to come from behind in Ballybofey.

“We had a really subdued first half. It took us a while to get into our own skin,” said Oak Leaf manager Hugh McGrath.

“Once we did, we felt comfortable and confident that we could break the lines.

“Will that level of performance beat Tyrone? Probably not,” he questioned.

Derry manager Hugh McGrath on the line against Antrim during the Ulster u20 Football Championship match played at Owenbeg on Wednesday 10th April 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

“That’s for us to work on…get ourselves set, get ourselves ready for the challenge ahead and make sure that we don’t leave anything behind us.”

Tyrone set up with seventh defender Callum Daly back covering behind midfield.

It allows their potent attacking unit extra space to breathe. Eoin McElholm is the fulcrum of the attack and Derry are likely to assign ace defender James Murray to pick him up.

Should their other Loughmacrory forward, Ruairi McCullagh, be handed another start he could very well find Rory Small for company.

That will allow the energetic Fionn McEldowney to offer Derry an overlapping option with McGurk anther important player in the middle third.

Ruairi Forbes is another player to watch and Tyrone’s midfield duo will be out to close down his options.

Oisin Doherty has led Derry’s scoring charge on the way to the final and it will be interesting to see if semi-final hero Ryan McNicholl will join him from the start.

Derry need to find their running game from minute one if they are to overturn a slick Tyrone side going for the county’s fourth title in six seasons.