Mickey Harte’s life is not going to get any easier in the next three weeks

If Derry can beat Westmeath, their next opponents will almost certainly be one of Louth, Tyrone, Donegal, Dublin or Mayo - none of which will delight the Oak Leaf manager

Derry will have their work cut out against Westmeath next weekend but even if they escape that, the draw that would come next does not look appetising for Mickey Harte. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Derry will have their work cut out against Westmeath next weekend but even if they escape that, the draw that would come next does not look appetising for Mickey Harte. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

THERE is no scenario left for Derry that will make Mickey Harte’s life any easier in the next few weeks.

Confirmation finally arrived on Tuesday afternoon that their clash with Westmeath will take place in Newry next Saturday evening.

A month ago, it was a game seen as a mere formality, two handy points on their way to wherever they were headed.

Now, Derry are in no position to look past them.

Even though Westmeath have operated out of Division Three for the past two seasons, Dessie Dolan and Jason Sherlock have made them fiercely competitive in the championship.

In both years, they have been drawn in the group of death.

Last year, Armagh beat them by a point. They were level with Galway at 50 minutes before Ray Connellan’s second booking opened the door for Padraic Joyce’s team. And then they were the width of the post away from knocking Tyrone out and going through at the Red Hands’ expense.

This year, they stuck with Armagh until half-time, losing by five. Against Galway, they were right in the mix until a bad turnover at midfield gave Shane Walsh a free run to the net. Even with that, just four points separated them in the end.

Imagine what that Westmeath dressing room is like this week.

They have acquitted themselves so well, come really close to a scalp on more than one occasion, and now they have Derry in the most vulnerable state they could ever hope to encounter them in.

It is such a dangerous game for the Oak Leafers.

If they escape it, Harte will be left in a position where he’s almost praying to go to Castlebar and face Mayo.

Not because they particularly fancy that, but because it’s the lesser of all the evils.

Louth will almost certainly finish second in Group 4.

The only things that can prevent that are Ger Brennan’s side beating Kerry, or Monaghan beating Meath and the two games producing a 20-point swing in score difference.

The Louth players were left stunned by Mickey Harte’s departure in mid-September.

Players arrived at Darver having been called to a last-minute meeting that afternoon. They had no clue what it was about.

Captain Sam Mulroy had been informed by Harte that morning that having made plans to stay on for a fourth season in Louth, he was instead leaving to take the Derry job.

Louth were stunned. They were hurt, both the players and the executive, as evidenced by the county’s statement not only announcing his departure but telling the world Derry’s news before they had the chance themselves.

Having not only steadied up under Ger Brennan but improved again, the thought of bouncing Harte and Derry from the championship now? They would love nothing more.

From Group 2, the only two teams they can face are Tyrone and Donegal.

If Cork win, they top the group. If Tyrone beat Cork, the Rebels will come third unless Clare beat Donegal by a greater margin than whatever Cork lose by.

That creates the prospect that Harte has to take Derry to Omagh.

The Tyrone public has taken his appointment at the helm of their biggest rivals badly.

Healy Park hasn’t been a cauldron for a while but you can be sure if Mickey Harte is bringing Derry there for a knockout championship game, it would be that day.

So would they rather Jim McGuinness in Ballybofey?

There are similarities between this Derry run of form and what happened the Waterford hurlers in 2022.

They’d taken the National League by storm, hitting 13 goals on their way to the final and another four when they were there to beat Cork and claim their first title since 2015.

Tipperary were dispatched in the opening round robin game, they gave Waterford their fill and then they had a three-week break before facing Cork.

Liam Cahill decided to put down a bank of hard training for the later stages, gambling that his team would beat a Cork team that had lost their opening two games.

During that spell, it’s understood that Cahill had none other than Jim McGuinness taking sessions.

Waterford imploded. They lost to Cork, lost to Clare and were out of the Championship at the end of the group stage. Six weeks later, Cahill was gone.

Harte pondered after Sunday’s defeat by Armagh whether it was fatigue or there were other psychological factors at play.

He was widely criticised right back in January for using Glen trio Conor Glass, Ethan Doherty and Ciaran McFaul in their opening League game down in Tralee, six days after they had won an historic All-Ireland Club title.

If they can escape Westmeath then Louth, Tyrone and Donegal are three of their most likely opponents.

The other two in realistic contention are Dublin and Mayo.

Their Group 2 clash has been set for Dr Hyde Park on Sunday week.

Work on Roscommon’s home ground over the last year has increased capacity back up to 23,900.

That still it would hold a Dublin-Mayo game is a sign of the diminished interest in the round-robin games and how the two biggest support bases in the country have worryingly dwindled.

A draw would see Dublin top the group, with a win for either side ensuring that the other will finish second.

In Derry’s own group, Armagh will take on Galway in Markievicz Park.

Padraic Joyce had called for the game to be taken to Croke Park but that was never a runner. It’s understood that Galway’s preferred venue was Navan, but CCCC have fixed the game for Sligo.

It’s winner takes all as well, as it was 12 months ago, when Rory Grugan’s late free and Shane Walsh’s even later miss sent Galway down the path that Mayo knocked them off a week later.

Tyrone must wait until after this weekend to discover the venue for their game with Cork.

The winners of Sunday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final between Offaly and Laois will host Cork hurlers in their All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final, with which the Tyrone-Cork football tie will double up.

Donegal are in Castlebar against Clare on the Saturday afternoon (3pm), with Cavan meeting Roscommon in Pearse Park (5pm).

Monaghan and Meath will make the short hop across county borders into Cavan to determine their fate on the Sunday afternoon, a game chosen for GAAGO coverage ahead of Kerry’s clash with Louth.



Group 1 Derry v Westmeath (Páirc Esler, 7pm, live on GAAGO)

Group 2 Roscommon v Cavan (Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, 5pm)

Group 3 (3pm) Donegal v Clare (Hastings Insurance MacHale Park); Tyrone v Cork (Glenisk O’Connor Park OR Laois Hire O’Moore Park)


Group 1 Galway v Armagh (Markiewicz Park, 1.45pm, live on RTÉ2)

Group 2 Dublin v Mayo (Dr Hyde Park, 3.45pm, live on RTÉ2)

Group 4 (3pm) Kerry v Louth (Laois Hire O’Moore Park); Monaghan v Meath (Kingspan Breffni)