Derry quality should shine through against determined Limerick in Division Three semi-final
Allianz National Football League Division Three semi-final: Derry v Limerick (today, Carrick-on-Shannon, 4pm, live on GAAGO)
IN-FORM Derry can seal the deal and return to Division Two for the first time since 2017 with victory over Limerick in county Leitrim this evening.
The Oak Leafers are one of only five counties with a 100 per cent winning record this year and won Division Three North by hammering Longford (0-21 to 0-5), Fermanagh (5-13 to 0-9) and digging in to beat Ulster champions Cavan (1-16 to 2-11) to secure the top spot they deserved in the group.
Meanwhile, the Treatymen, Division Four winners last season, are also on an upward trajectory. Billy Lee's side lost to top dogs Offaly (by two points) but beat Tipperary and Wicklow to secure second spot in the southern section and force their way into the promotion mix.
Derry were Division Four winners in 2019 of course so promotion to the second tier would amount to three seasons' of good rebuilding work in the county and their free-scoring form (6-50 in three games) this year has led to some revisionist thinking over manager Rory Gallagher's style. Gallagher's Derry team still puts numbers behind the ball but the quality of forwards available to the Belleek native means the Oak Leafers have adopted a one-in all-in counterattacking strategy that has produced scintillating periods and scores from 14 players over the three group games.
Shane McGuigan has been outstanding and his haul of 2-20 has included scores from all angles while fellow free-taker Niall Loughlin has weighed in with 1-10. The only other player to score in all three games is midfielder Conor Glass who is steadily finding his feet in front of a defence marshalled by the experienced Slaughtneil pair Brendan Rodgers and Chrissy McKaigue.
Limerick's form has not been quite as eye-catching but, after promotion and decent Munster Championship form last year, Lee's side should put up determined resistance in Carrick-on-Shannon.
“I think Derry will go in as favourites and that's not just putting them in there, I think their form has been electric,” he said.
“They hit the ground running with a massive score against Longford and they've put up some big scores in each game. So they're in a good place.”
The last meeting of these counties was a Division Four wrangle at Limerick's Gaelic Grounds in 2019 which finished 0-13 to 1-5 in Derry's favour. That victory enabled Damian McErlain's side to clinch promotion with two games to spare.
“They were a bit more comfortable than the scoreline suggests,” Limerick manager Lee conceded.
“We have a bit to find I feel although Derry have made a lot of changes from that team and we haven't too many. We will take it on and look forward to the challenge, we're delighted we're in this position because it's never easy jumping from one division to another.
“Derry were unlucky not to get promoted last year so they have proved they have progressed and our objection is to emulate teams like that and continue to build and move forward. We'll find out one way or the other where we are compared to other Division Three teams so there'll be learnings in it for us one way or the other.”
McGuigan and Loughlin have excelled for Derry this year but Limerick have talented forwards of their own in Danny Neville and Hugh Bourke. Both thrived on early ball in the wins over Tipperary and Wicklow.
“We have been building something for the last number of years,” said Lee.
“The initial years of this team's journey were difficult for everyone but the lads have stuck hard at it and worked very hard on and off the field to bring a bit of respectability to the Limerick football jersey because it wasn't in a great place around 2017 and '18. We've worked hard as a group and we look forward to the game from the point of view that we're taking on a recognised football county. “We want to challenge ourselves and we'll go to Carrick with hope and give it our best shot.”
Taking on this emerging Limerick team at a neutral venue will be a good test for Derry but with the spread of scorers, the quality and the experience they have, it's certainly one they should pass.