Derry dreams must survive old Pearse Park burial ground
Allianz Football League Division Three North: Longford v Derry (today, 5pm, Pearse Park, live on GAAGO)
IF there’s a ground Derry would have wished they weren’t being sent to hunt for a vitally important opening win, it’s Pearse Park.
Anyone familiar with the recent history of these two teams will not need reminded that Longford are the definition of a bogey team for the Oak Leafers.
Championship exits in 2006, 2012 and 2014 were all from a position of heavy favouritism, while Derry’s last visit to the midlands three years ago resulted in a seven-point league defeat.
That they were clear and comfortable winners in Celtic Park when the sides met in the first game after the resumption of the league last autumn will have broken down some of the barriers.
Derry are also going well, by all reports. They were victors over a strong-ish Monaghan side in a challenge game last weekend, albeit the Farney men had split their squad over two days to also play Dublin the previous night.
Karl McKaigue is ready to return to football after a long spell out with a ruptured Achilles, while his brother Chrissy and clubmate Brendan Rogers have both rehabbed from more minor surgeries during the off-season.
Gareth McKinless’s return to the squad brings to five the number of players who were involved against Longford when they raided Celtic Park seven years ago, scoring a famous qualifier win over a Derry side that had reached the Division One final and pushed Donegal all the way in Ulster.
Chrissy McKaigue, Emmett Bradley, Ciaran McFaul and Benny Heron were the others who are now relative veterans on a squad that is starting to develop something of a settled look.
While the external focuses might be drawn to a pair of Ulster derbies against Fermanagh and provincial champions Cavan, the scrap for the top two spots in the northern group is far from clear-cut.
Longford’s 2020 included a win over eventual Munster champions Tipperary and a tight game with Down, though their championship hopes were only as grand as those of anyone in Leinster can be.
Defeat by Laois spared them the beating Dublin would inevitably have given them in the semi-final.
They were, however, without a handful of key players that day who are all back in harness.
Michael Quinn is to the fore of that group, and Derry will be well aware after he ran the show in that 2018 meeting.
Top-scoring forward Robbie Smyth is fit again, David McGivney has returned and Barry McKeon is back along with brothers Shane and Oran Kenny.
They will be without defender Barry O’Farrell, out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery, but on the whole it’s a stronger Longford team than the one Derry feasted upon last October.
Provincial successes, at this point in time, look beyond either Longford or Derry this year. It’s the usual story in Leinster, where winning is avoiding Dublin until the final, while Derry will be rank outsiders after another horrible draw.
If Donegal were to do as expected and win in Newry, it would mean another north-west derby in Ballybofey for Derry’s knockout shot at the Ulster title.
You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time Derry’s opening championship game was against someone that hadn’t either played the spring in Division One or spent it winning promotion to the top flight.
It’s a remarkably cruel run of draws that hasn’t let up in 2021, and leaves an early sense that the league is everything for Rory Gallagher this year.
Pearse Park has tested and beaten Derry great teams of the past. If this side can go and win, it could go a long way.