Galway hex the best place from which to view Derry’s progress

9/7/2022  Derrys   Brendan Rogers    in action with  Galways  Shane Walsh     in Saturdays  All Ireland Football Semi Final at Croke Park   Picture  Seamus Loughran
The more things change: The 2022 All-Ireland semi-final was Brendan Rogers' last day at full-back. His change in role is one of a number of very notable evolutions that Derry have made since that day. Picture: Seamus Loughran
Allianz Football League Division One: Galway v Derry (Sunday, 1.45pm, Pearse Stadium, live on TG4)

THE ghosts of so many Derry summers wear maroon and white.

Kieran McKeever’s sending off on two yellows in 1998 that he’s never fully gotten over.

Matthew Clancy’s goal in 2001.

Brian McIver’s fury at Conor Lane in the rain in 2015.

Damien Comer’s destructive influence two years ago.

Three of their four championship meetings have been All-Ireland semi-finals and Galway have won the four.

They’re also unbeaten against Derry in the league going back to 2010.

If you were asked to define a bogey team, here you are.

And yet what Derry have rarely had in any of those meetings is cause for complaint. Certainly the 2001 semi-final was the one that got away, five up going into the last 15 minutes, but even then Galway’s attacking class told. In the other meetings, the Tribesmen simply deserved to win.

There is genuine excitement up and down the country over the Oak Leafers’ early season form under the new regime of Mickey Harte.

Six games, six wins, can’t ask for more than that.

But it is premature talk. No matter what way you dress it up, it was half a Kerry team, half a Tyrone team and a Monaghan side without a host of their own regulars, against a Derry side containing at least 13 of what will be their championship side.

It doesn’t take away from their performances, least of all the last night, when they were brilliant against Vinny Corey’s side. But it does qualify it somewhat.

If Galway remain without Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Sean Kelly, Cillian McDaid, Jack Glynn, Liam Silke this weekend, will Derry’s true position be any more judgeable? Perhaps not.

But when you go back to that All-Ireland final in the summer of ‘22, there is ample evidence of what has changed since then and why the current Oak Leaf iteration are unquestionably superior to what they were then.

Take Padraig McGrogan. The narrative that was badly missed after last year’s very different semi-final defeat by Kerry was how big a loss McGrogan was when he went off injured after kicking an early point.

There was a moment in ‘22 when Derry were in need of a score and McGrogan, in his relative inexperience, sallied into a sea of maroon jerseys. Nowhere to go, turned over, and 50 seconds later Johnny Heaney was somehow palming the ball over rather than under Odhran Lynch’s crossbar.

Conor Doherty had a quiet day, something that’s becoming increasingly rare. Conor McCluskey was solely preoccupied with the brilliant defensive job he did on Shane Walsh but if that was now, McCluskey gets on more ball and hurts the opposition.

That was the last time Shane McGuigan was properly shut out of a football match. Liam Silke was really good on him but he missed a couple that he should have nailed, including a 40-metre free dead straight when Derry led by 0-3 to 0-1.

The version of McGuigan that emerged after that winter was 20 per cent better. He kicked 11 points from 11 shots against Monaghan, and has scored from 21 of his 24 attempts in the league so far.

Alongside him, Niall Loughlin is unshackled, back to the player who dovetailed so well with McGuigan in the early days of Rory Gallagher’s reign.

Harte’s Tyrone team got a name for not kicking the ball in the latter part of his reign and that has stuck to him. But the primary difference in Derry 2024 and Derry 2023 is precisely the opposite. They are kicking the ball so much more, looking to thread needles and move the ball faster. It has been very effective, particularly down in Kerry.

There were so many moments in the game two years ago that in hindsight show where Derry were just that bit short.

Conor Glass had a poor day, culminating in being turned over for the second goal when Odhran Lynch was by his side on the Galway 45.

Brendan Rogers gave a loose pass at one end and then slipped at the other end for the first goal. That was his last outing at full-back, and he’s since become an Allstar midfielder and Footballer of the Year nominee.

That semi-final is the best vantage point from which to look at Derry’s evolution since.

A rare win over Galway awaits.