County Focus: we run the rule over Derry 2019
Derry County Focus
Story of the Season
WHEN Damian McErlain and his lieutenants sat down at the tail-end of last year to map out their priorities for 2019, promotion from Division Four of the Allianz Football League was right at the top of the list.
A couple of decent showings in the Championship would have been seen as a bonus, especially with old nemesis Tyrone first up in Ulster.
In those terms, the season should be reflected upon as a success for Derry’s senior footballers and yet, by the end of July, McErlain had resigned as manager and the search was on for yet another new boss.
The Magherafelt man had been handed a three-year term to build on the underage success he delivered to the Oak Leaf county, with a clear emphasis on bringing through the talent that back-boned runs to four Ulster minor finals on the bounce and won the provincial U20 title in 2018.
After an almost obligatory run to the McKenna Cup semi-finals, Derry travelled to take on Antrim in their League opener at the end of January.
In many ways their first game was the pivotal one in what was to prove to a successful promotion push, with Derry squeezing home thanks to a late point from Padraig Cassidy.
A more routine win followed at home to London, with Emmett Bradley and Ciaran McFaul to the fore, and when two more points were collected despite an uninspiring performance in Waterford, the foundations for promotion were firmly in place, much to the relief of McErlain.
“Promotion at the first time of asking is the objective. Derry football has hit a bad patch and it is up to the county as a whole to get ourselves out of it,” he said.
Wicklow were the next visitors, and Chrissy McKaigue and Christopher Bradley found the net to make it four from four.
A fifth successive victory was delivered in Limerick, and with it a return to the third tier was secured.
Leitrim brought their own unbeaten record to Celtic Park on St Patrick’s weekend and ran into a red-hot Shane McGuigan, the Slaughtneil sharp-shooter scoring 2-5 as his side ran out 2-16 to 1-12 victors.
A trip to Croke Park for the divisional final was the reward for a flawless campaign – in terms of results at least – that was completed thanks to a high-scoring win over Wexford in Bellaghy that saw a goalscoring return to county colours for Benny Heron, but also hinted at defensive frailties with four goals conceded, although Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rodgers were both rested.
The Slaughtneil pair were back in harness as Leitrim were the opponents again in the final at headquarters on March 30. A comfortable four-point success saw skipper McKaigue lift the Division Four silverware but the lack of any real celebrations hinted at an embarrassment at being in the basement to begin with.
While you can only beat what is in front of you, McErlain knew his team faced a massive step up from Leitrim to Tyrone for the Ulster SFC clash at Healy Park in May.
Derry were dismissed by all and sundry in the build-up but when a McGuigan goal and a Christopher Bradley point put the Oak Leafs a point ahead after 62 minutes, a massive upset was a distinct reality.
However, Tyrone went straight down the field and found the net through Darren McCurry to re-establish their supremacy.
A couple of late points saw the home side run out 1-19 to 1-13 winners, a scoreline that was harsh on Derry after a display that featured plenty of encouraging signs.
The familiar Qualifier campaign beckoned, and a handy win in Wexford gave more grounds for optimism, a feeling that was added to by a home draw against Laois.
A large crowd made their way to Owenbeg expecting another good day, and Derry played very well in the first half although a one-point advantage at the break looked scant reward for their superiority.
Those worries came home to roost as the powerful visitors stepped it up on the restart, bullying their way to a four-point win that would have been bigger but for the heroics of goalkeeper Thomas Mallon.
The Derry faithful headed for the exits not really knowing what to think of the performance, and 2019 as a whole, and when McErlain followed them out the door less than a month later, the lid was hammered down on a confusing season.
It was a real mixed bag for Derry, but isn’t that always the way?
What they need
WHAT was very evident during Derry’s loss to Laois in the All-Ireland Qualifiers at Owenbeg was the size difference between the two sides.
The Leinster men had a number of big players in their starting line-up, and manager John Sugrue was able to bring another couple of physical specimens on at the business end of things.
One of the first things Rory Gallagher needs to do is look around the county for more players who can make a mark in a physical sense because if Derry are to compete in Division Three and against Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan in Ulster they need to be more powerful.
In that respect it is a shame Callum Brown and Conor Glass are plying their trade in Aussie Rules, but barnstorming U20 midfielder Dara Rafferty might be ready to step up to bolster the midfield ranks, while a phone call should be made to Eoghan Rua midfielder Niall Holly to see if he can be tempted into an inter-county return.
Naivety was also evident as Derry let Tyrone score a goal almost as soon as they had taken the lead in the Ulster SFC clash in Omagh, although Gallagher’s proven ability to organise a defence should address that, and all things considered there is the basis of a good team in Derry.
From Thomas Mallon in goal right through to Shane McGuigan in the full-forward line, there is a decent spine which would be well capable of mixing it in Division Three with a couple of additions.
McGuigan could possibly do with a bit of help on the scoring front, and there are a number of young forwards coming through the ranks, while Chrissy McKaigue might benefit from a more defined defensive role, and if a number of the underage players who have become accustomed to winning can put their hands up for regular selection, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
RORY Gallagher’s appointment as successor to Damian McErlain was hardly met with universal approval in Derry, with the clubs actually voting against the former Fermanagh and Donegal boss taking the reins before county board votes held sway.
Gallagher will bring a heavyweight name to the post at the very least and while he came in for criticism for an overly-negative approach at the Erne helm he did deliver an Ulster final appearance in his first season.
Derry fans would take that in a heartbeat, especially if they play with a little more swagger than Fermanagh did.
AS Derry achieved great consistency during the League, winning all eight games, two players stood out for the sustained level of their personal performances.
Padraig Cassidy ensured they got off to the right start by scoring a late point against Antrim and his mix of power and composure was a feature throughout the season.
Cassidy’s willingness to face opponents and take them on discomforts defences and his direct running and physical presence will be key for the Oak Leaf side going forward.
His Slaughtneil clubmate Shane McGuigan provided a threat all year, scoring four goals in the League and another two in the Championship, against Tyrone and Wexford.
The signs are good that he is the natural predator Derry have been lacking since Eoin Bradley left the inter-county scene.
The New Breed
DERRY teams reached four Ulster finals at minor level between 2015 and ’18, while they claimed the first U20 provincial title last year and reached the final again in July before going down to a defeat at the hands of Tyrone.
Therefore, there is a generation of players starting to filter on to the senior radar who are used to winning more than they lose in county colours.
A few of those have already tasted senior action, including U20 skipper Paudie McGrogan, Eoghan Concannon and Ben McCarron, who scored three goals against Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup in January and may get another chance to impress in the pre-season competition.
Swatragh’s Sean Francis Quinn made his Championship debut against Tyrone and should stick around, while Slaughtneil’s Brian Cassidy has been flying at club level and will surely get a chance.
End of The Line
THE Derry squad Rory Gallagher is taking over has a fairly low age profile, with even the established and experience players such as Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rodgers and Ciaran McFaul all in their mid or late 20s.
They all have a number of years left of inter-county combat, which leaves only Enda Lynn of the regular starters this year on the ‘wrong side’ of 30.
The Greenlough man was a consistent performer under Damian McErlain and has plenty still to offer, although he is believed to have been playing with a knee issue recently.
The likes of James Kielt and Niall Holly weren’t involved this year but Gallagher could be tempted to try and coax them back for one more go in the red and white.
BY the time the Ulster SFC starts in the spring, it will be nine years since Derry reached the decider. Rory Gallagher has stated that he wants to deliver a provincial title during his tenure, although with Tyrone and Donegal well ahead of the rest it will be easier said than done.
Ulster SFC preliminary round
Derry 1-13 Tyrone 1-19
All-Ireland SFC Qualifying round one
Wexford 0-10 Derry 4-16
All-Ireland SFC Qualifying round two
Derry 0-12 Laois 1-13
Championship tally for (average):
Championship tally against (average):
TEAM KNOCKED OUT OF ALL-IRELAND
All-Ireland SFC Qualifying round two
Owenbeg, June 22
Derry 0-12 Laois 1-13
Derry: T Mallon; K McKaigue, B Rogers, L McGoldrick; J Rocks, C McKaigue (0-1), N Keenan; C McFaul (0-1), C McAtamney; J Doherty, B Heron (0-2), P Cassidy; S McGuigan (0-5, 0-4 frees), R Bell (0-3, 0-2
frees), E Lynn.
Subs: E Concannon for L McGoldrick (h-t), P Coney for J Rocks (45), C Doherty for J Doherty (55), C Bradley for R Bell (57), SF Quinn for E Concannon (58).
NFL DIVISION FOUR
Derry (P) 7 7 0 0 35 14
Leitrim (P) 7 6 0 1 25 12
Antrim 7 3 0 4 13 6
Waterford 7 3 0 4 -7 6
Wicklow 7 3 0 4 -15 6
Wexford 7 3 0 4 -22 6
Limerick 7 2 0 5 -9 4
London 7 1 0 6 -20 2
Final position: First
Antrim 1-9 Derry 1-10
Derry 0-19 London 1-9
Waterford 1-8 Derry 2-12
Derry 2-8 Wicklow 0-9
Limerick 1-5 Derry 0-13
Derry 2-16 Leitrim 1-12
Derry 3-21 Wexford 4-16
Final: Derry 0-20 Leitrim 0-16
''After five years in total in Owenbeg it's been a big shift with some great memories and challenges in equal measure''
Damian McErlain stepping down as Derry manager