GAA Football

Magherafelt face old rivals as Derry football prepares for surreal beginning

Magherafelt's win over Coleraine last year was heralded at the time as their biggest since the 1983 semi-final against Ballinderry. The Rossas went on to win their first Derry SFC title in 41 years, and now begin their defence against Ballinderry, who have always held an upper hand on their urban neighbours. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

WHEN Jared Monaghan rose at the far post to dethrone Eoghan Rua in the opening round last year, the landscape of Derry football looked very different.

The big Magherafelt midfielder’s goal sent the Rossas into a state of delirium. They’d been known to take an odd scalp down the years but had never backed it up with any real consistency.

But under Adrian Cush and Paul Quinn last year they found the perfect template and they hit the levels. For the first time in 41 years, they became champions.

Tomorrow they begin their defence of the John McLaughlin Cup and the whole air around it will be strange.

Home-and-away games have never been a thing in Derry. If Magherafelt have played a championship game in Rossa Park before, it’s a long time ago.

Jared Monaghan’s goal propelled them to what was their biggest win since they’d beaten Ballinderry in a semi-final back in 1983.

The urban-rural rivalry between the two has always existed but for most of the recent past, it has favoured the Shamrocks. They won 11 championships between 1980 and 2013, with three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland on top.

When Magherafelt beat them in a league game in 2012, it was a first victory of any description over Ballinderry in ten years. It was heralded as a new dawn, yet it would be another seven years before such minor psychological victories manifested themselves into something grander.

The shoe is on the other foot now. Magherafelt have had reams of underage success in the last 15 years, while the production line down the far end of the Ballyronan Road has found a gentler pace.

Ballinderry haven’t beaten Magherafelt in six years now. Championship is always different though, and there is an inescapable sense that the Rossas will still chase the psychology of a win tomorrow.

To beat Ballinderry in the championship will always mean something to them.

It is shadow boxing to an extent, given that none of the 16 teams will be eliminated after a three-game group stage intended simply to act as extra games for starved clubs.

But the new-fangled round-robin could still do damage to a team’s ambitions in the long term, given that they will be used to seed teams for the knockout phase.

The middle two groups are heavily stacked. Magherafelt’s next Group C outing is a repeat of last year’s county final against Glen and their final game against the Banagher side they only just scraped past in the semi-final.

In Group B, three-time recent Ulster club champions Slaughtneil host neighbours Kilrea this afternoon, while 2018 champions Eoghan Rua meet the Lavey side they beat in the final two years ago.

Having won four-in-a-row between 2014 and 2017, the Emmet’s were starting to look close to unbeatable. But while their hurling success has carried on and almost taken over to a point, they still haven’t got past the local semi-final stage in football since Mickey Moran and John Joe Kearney stood down.

Tyrone assistant manager Gavin Devlin has joined recently-retired duo Paul Bradley and Padrig Kelly on the line to see if they can arrest the run. They will face what is expected to be a very young Kilrea side as they look towards the future having disappointingly failed to make the headway they were fancied to off reaching two Ulster minor club finals, winning one, in the mid-noughties.

The Pearses were back at that grade in 2016, losing the provincial decider to Burren, and while the likes of the youngest Kielt brother Larry and Paddy Quigg have already graduated, there is set to be greater emphasis placed on bleeding their youth this summer.

In Group A, former All-Ireland winning Tyrone team-mates Enda McGinley and Stephen O’Neill will go up against each other on the line as Swatragh host Dungiven.

The most eye-catching result of McGinley’s first year in charge was their 7-12 to 2-7 victory over Dungiven, who suffered an equally devastating championship loss to Ballinderry last year in which they conceded 6-18.

Dungiven were due to play in the intermediate league this year for the first time in a long number of years, but retained their senior championship status and will hope for a much more competitive fielding under O’Neill.

This evening’s game between The Loup and Bellaghy would have taken centre stage in Derry football a decade ago, but it will be viewed with intrigue as both clubs try to work their way back to the top.

Bellaghy have a raft of players coming through the ranks at underage and along with neighbours Lavey will be back fighting for titles in the next few years.

The game will be the subject of the first ever live stream of a Derry championship game, but with just 300-odd supporters allowed into Magherafelt’s ground, it will all feel a far cry from the 10,000 that watched tonight’s hosts bridge their 41-year gap in Celtic Park last year.

Derry SFC

Group A

Saturday, Magherafelt, 6.30pm: The Loup v Bellaghy

Sunday, Glen, 6.30pm: Newbridge v Foreglen

Group B

Saturday, Slaughtneil, 4pm: Slaughtneil v Kilrea

Saturday, Coleraine, 4.15pm: Eoghan Rua v Lavey

Group C

Saturday, Glen, 4pm: Glen v Banagher

Sunday, Magherafelt, 4pm: Magherafelt v Ballinderry

Group D

Saturday, Ballinascreen, 4pm: Ballinascreen v Claudy

Saturday, Swatragh, 4pm: Swatragh v Dungiven

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