GAA Football

Derry defence's 'experience' could be vital versus improved Armagh attack

Derry man-marker Niall Keenan should be fit to take on Armagh U21s in their Ulster semi-final in Celtic Park tonight. Pic Seamus Loughran

Eirgrid Ulster U21 FC semi-final: Derry v Armagh (Celtic Park, 8pm tonight)

A GLANCE at the Derry U21 defence prompts a double-take – isn't that almost the same backline as started several Allianz Football League games?

Certainly Niall Keenan, Oisin Duffin, and Michael McEvoy played most matches for Damian Barton's team, while Peter Hagan was also deployed in defence at times – and even goalkeeper Ben McKinless started the round two game in Meath.

Given the mostly high scores conceded, except in the home opener against Clare, their Division Two involvement could be construed as a chastening experience.

However, Derry's U21 boss Fergal P McCusker believes those backs will have benefited from that high level exposure ahead of tonight's delayed Ulster semi-final against Peter McDonnell's Armagh.

"That was the situation we [Derry seniors] found ourselves in, a perfect storm including unavailability of Slaughtneil players and others through injury meant that Damian had to dip into the U21 squad and that was understandable.

"The boys who went up to play can only speak glowingly of the experience they had. OK, they might have experienced defeats but you're pitching yourself against the best.

"There's been a lot of talk recently about how National League football has almost eclipsed Championship football as regards being competitive. I think it has only brought them on, it can only be good for them."

Just as Derry's seniors received a belated quality injection of Slaughtneil players, so have these U21s. Wing-forward Shane McGuigan was called into the team for last Wednesday fixture – postponed due to a waterlogged pitch in Omagh.

Now wing-back Paul McNeill has accepted another invite onto the panel, as the Emmet's number seven Keelan Feeney had already done.

The latter's namesake Conor, the Banagher forward, remains out, however, still troubled by a hamstring problem, but the aforementioned Keenan has recovered from quad problems that ruled him out last Sunday in Fermanagh.

Apart from the absent Conor Feeney, the Oak Leafers' could change even more up front, after Patrick Coney and Ruairi McElwee – who netted a fortunate goal – impressed off the bench in dethroning last year's champions Monaghan. Armagh may be able to bring in the highly-rated Ciaran Higgins and Ryan Owens after injury absences.

McCusker knows his backs will need to be at their best against an Armagh attack that should be strengthened since their quarter-final win over Down, with Crossmaglen brothers Oisin and Rian O'Neill expected to return after being ruled out by injury and MacRory Cup Final commitments respectively.

"We played Armagh twice, in a challenge match and in the Shamrock Cup. We beat them by a point in Lurgan in a tight game.

"We're well aware of what they've got – and that was without Oisin and Rian O'Neill coming in," said McCusker.

"They'll certainly have the firepower – they've big, physical players stretched across their half-forward line, and then their midfield, with [Ben] Crealey and [Jack] Rafferty, is strong too.

"They like to get the ball in early to the full-forward; that may change if they decide to play either of the two O'Neill's in there.

"They're certainly very potent - not forgetting young [Shea] Loye, who scored 2-7 the last night out. A livewire, he'll certainly take a lot of watching."

Cullyhanna's Shea Hoey will surely start too, having played a part in both goals after his introduction in the 53rd minute against Down.

Oisin O'Neill impressed for Armagh seniors at midfield against Tipperary on Sunday, so all McCusker anticipates is that he'll be on the pitch:

"Oisin is too good a player, he'll have to come in somewhere. I know his brother [Rian] scored 1-9 for Crossmaglen in the Burren tournament last week, from play, from corner-forward, so," he laughs a little nervously, "it's about denying them the space to operate in.

"We got a look at how my own club [Glen (Maghera)] did that in the Ulster U21 Club Final"; the two O'Neills still scored 0-6 between them.

The Watty Graham's lads edged that encounter, thanks largely to 2-2 from another player with Derry senior experience, Danny Tallon.

The Oak Leafers probably deserved the luck of winning the toss for choice of venue, having offered to go to Armagh for the initial fixture, and the Derry side is favoured to come out on top again tonight, perhaps helped by that home advantage.

* Video highlights from this semi-final will be on www.irishnews.com from 11am tomorrow.

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