Derry secure Division Three title but performance shows there's still work to be done

Derry's Gareth McKinless in action during their Allianz Football League Division Three final win over Offaly at Croke Park on Saturday Picture: Philip Walsh.

Allianz Football League Division Three final: Derry 0-21 Fermanagh 1-6

SILVERWARE. Twenty-one points scored. Comfort beyond belief. Eleven different scorers. Goal chances galore. A handful of fine individual performances. So why did Saturday dampen rather than heighten the expectations of Derry?

Division Three champions was the least Rory Gallagher expected of his team. It didn’t take him until after lifting the trophy to admit that once they’d hit the same tally of 0-21 in Longford on the opening day, he fully expected promotion.

It came gift-wrapped by a fidgety and nervous Offaly side that brought their weaknesses to Croke Park and very few of the plus points that will take them into Division Two next year, and a Championship opener against Louth this weekend.

Their struggles to win primary possession have been a theme and it was one Derry went to town on. Conor Glass’s performance was that of a man burying a few Croke Park ghosts. The last time he was in the big bowl, David Gough’s red card sent him down the tunnel early in a Hogan Cup final.

So vexed was the notoriously disciplined Glen man about it at the time that, knowing he was bound for Australia and that schools football was over regardless, he appealed publically for witnesses and appealed the red card, winning his case just to clear his name.

He spoke before this game about how he wasn’t coming home just to win a Division Three title.

Derry are walking with their chests pushed out, convincing themselves they belong a bit closer to the top table in the hope that they can convince others too.

Saturday was perhaps circumstantial evidence. Twelve points is a handsome margin of victory for any league final, but Offaly were poor and it really should have been a whole lot more.

Five goal chances were botched. It’s become a bit of a worry. They hit five goals against Fermanagh but only one in their other four games combined. Chances are being created but unless they bring a more prolific edge to Championship, missed goal chances could be the hill they die on.

There were mixed performances in attack. Shane McGuigan got just a single point from play off the tight-marking Eoin Rigney, missed a terrible late penalty against midfielder Peter Cunningham who didn’t even bother to pull on gloves, yet landed a stunning score from a sideline ball with virtually nothing to aim at.

Niall Loughlin’s work-rate was terrific, setting a tone that others struggled to match, but his finishing has been a bit off lately and he got just one from play as well.

Ethan Doherty had an excellent second half, by far the outstanding attacker as he constantly linked play, while Niall Toner will be quietly confident that he can force himself into the 15th slot on a team that looks otherwise nailed down.

With Brendan Rogers due back in full training over the next “eight to 10 days”, when asked if he was certain of 14 of his Championship team, Gallagher replied: “Ah yeah. I would want to be going into the Championship with 12, 13, 14 of my team crystal clear.

“The likes of you going to the matches should almost be able to pick the team. You don’t want to hide who the best players are.

“Everybody knows Dublin’s team. Same as the Kerry team. That’s the level most teams aspire to, Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan have been dominating Ulster, people could pick their first 14 all the time.”

Derry got their first line of defensive cover from Gareth McKinless, who was once more easily the best player on the park for 45 minutes. The Ballinderry man has been a revelation all through the league but having seen the danger on Saturday of leaving him to operate as a free man, Donegal or Down won’t need reminded that such a plan might not be wise.

Twice he was a split second from setting up goals in the first half, his unsure mind in front of goal after two minutes rightly denying Niall Loughlin the green flag when McKinless was pinged for over-carrying by a fussy referee who didn’t help a pedestrian game.

McKinless had a central hand in three first half points before he eased up after the break, preferring to protect rather than penetrate for the rest of the day.

Defensively, despite a few jittery moments mostly caused by 36-year-old sub Niall McNamee whose introduction enlivened proceedings, Derry were sound down the middle, with Conor Glass’s deep presence also huge in that regard.

McNamee had been held back until the final 20-odd minutes by John Maughan all season but seeing how the game was drifting away at 0-7 to 0-1, the Faithful manager turned to the bench earlier and it helped.

The Rhode forward’s craft and basic skills were a step up. His superb take of a ball fired basically at his feet opened the chance for Eoin Carroll to palm home Ruairi McNamee’s pass, somehow leaving just four in at half-time.

A brilliant mark taken on the restart by the elder McNamee cousin cut the gap to three and gave the noisy Offaly contingent among the 2,400 fans allowed back in something to get their teeth into.

It needed McKinless to strip the ball from Colm Doyle’s arms in front of goal to deny a potential equalising goal. From that moment on, the Faithful only became more faithless.

Derry continued to pass up goalscoring opportunities. Shane McGuigan looked to have torn to the ground but he might also have charged at Paddy Dunican. Either way, when the ball spilled, referee Sean Lonergan didn’t allow the Joe Sheridan-esque finish.

There were 30 seconds shy of the hour played when McGuigan got his sole score from play, starting a run of seven unanswered points in 11 minutes that put a lick of tan on the scoreline.

Jack Doherty got the last of them and was then fouled by goalkeeper Dunican, who was black-carded. Offaly had used their seven subs so Peter Cunningham turned his jersey inside out, turfed Dunican’s borrowed gloves into the back of the net and seized his moment to Grobelaar himself around the goal.

McGuigan’s penalty was uncharacteristically indecisive, rolled weakly down the middle, and the stand-in ‘keeper got a foot to turn it away.

It was the moment that probably summed the whole day up in that it didn’t really matter one damn, and it was treated accordingly.

“Derry are very formidable. They are way advanced in their experience, expertise, the physicality of their midfield, they have a lot of top-class performers,” said Maughan.

“Hard to comprehend how they were a Division Three side, to be quite honest. That probably deserves an explanation in itself.”

They aren’t any longer, and nor are Offaly. But trajectories were adjusted, with one side looking like they’ll thrive up the grade and the other left wondering quite what they’re in for next spring.

Time enough to worry about that. Offaly’s summer starts in Navan on Sunday, and they’ll be happy if it doesn’t end there too.

For June 11, Derry know neither destination nor opponent yet. Donegal in Ballybofey or Down in Celtic Park.

That’s the day to right the wrongs.

Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue (0-1), P McGrogan; G McKinless; Padraig Cassidy, C Doherty; C Glass (0-1), E Bradley (0-1); E Doherty (0-2), N Loughlin (0-4, 0-3 frees), C McFaul (0-1); B Heron (0-1), S McGuigan (0-7, 0-5 frees, 0-1 sideline ball), O McWilliams (0-1)
Subs: Paul Cassidy for McWilliams (41), N Toner (0-1) for Heron (56), J Doherty (0-1) for C Doherty (67), B McCarron for E Doherty (70), K McKaigue for E Bradley (70)
Yellow cards: E Bradley (12), B Heron (33)

Offaly: P Dunican; D Dempsey, E Rigney, J Lalor; N Darby; C Doyle, C Stewart, J Hayes (0-1); P Cunningham, E Carroll (1-0); S Horan, R McNamee, A Sullivan; C Farrell (0-5, 0-4 frees), B Allen
Subs: N McNamee (0-1 mark) for Allen (25), C Mangan for Lalor (HT), A Leavy for Carroll (47), B Carroll for Horan (47), J Maher for R McNamee (53), C Donohoe for Hayes (53), J Moloney for Sullivan (56)
Yellow card: C Farrell (55)
Black card: P Dunican (73)

Referee: S Lonergan (Tipperary)

Attendance: 2,400

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