GAA Football

A better normal than Derry or Offaly are used to

Shane McGuigan could hold the key for Derry but is up against an in-form defender in the shape of Eoin Rigney. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.

Allianz Football League Division Three final: Derry v Offaly (today, 5pm, Croke Park, live on TG4)

THE new normal takes a step back towards the old normal in Croke Park this evening, in more ways than one.

There will be 2,400 echoey voices spread through a stadium that's felt unbearably lonely for 483 days. To look at the Danish fans crammed properly in on top of each other in Copenhagan this week doesn't help with the frustration that numbers are so small, but baby steps are better than no steps at all.

Derry and Offaly were once used to a very different normal than this.

When they met 23 years ago in the Division One final, Offaly were Leinster champions on their way to a first ever top-tier league title.

They'd been massive victors over Meath in the provincial final and although they lost to Mayo, the strong spring of '98 had them labelled as All-Ireland contenders. Instead, Meath gave them their comeuppance and that was that.

Derry had failed to back up 1993 but were still among the primary contenders each year and would prove that by recovering from a surprise defeat to win the summer's Ulster title.

Since then, they've played in a combined total of three provincial finals. No championship silverware has been won. They've both known what it is to fall into the sludge of Division Four football.

The 23 years from that day to this have been testing for two rich reputations. And yet because of that background, it makes it easier to believe that the current revolutions might be more than just temporary.

Under John Maughan, Offaly footballers have a bit of belief and structure about themselves for the first time in years.

Maughan and Pat Teehan, the Leinster county chairman, didn't miss their chance to impress on new GAA president Larry McCarthy the need for this game to be played, and how it had to be in Croke Park.

The Tullamore Tribune reported this week how the pair made their presence known to McCarthy when they headed for Baltinglass to see the county's hurlers collect silverware, and implored him to make this a Croke Park game.

Regardless of who emerges victorious tonight, Derry may prove to be the ultimate benefactors.

Filling four weeks from their semi-final win over Limerick until they get out in championship action against Donegal or Down would have been a significant test, the kind we thought was eliminated by the shortened season.

Instead they've got just two empty weekends to deal with now, making their momentum easier to carry.

That's all well if they win today.

There's absolutely no guarantee of that.

Offaly are heading to Division Two on every bit the same merit Derry are.

Victories over Wicklow (1-14 to 1-10), Limerick (0-16 to 1-11) and Tipperary (1-17 to 1-12) set up a semi-final victory over Fermanagh that they made hard work of, but thoroughly deserved.

It was the exception to their season in that they were outgunned in the final 20 minutes. Their performance bore all the hallmarks of easing up though, having led by 0-14 to 0-7 against a 14-man opponent that had carried little threat.

That a stoppage-time goal allowed them to loosen their belts and breathe was very little indication of the first 50 minutes in which they were comfortably the better side.

Against Tipperary, they were level at the second water break. Niall McNamee came off the bench and manufactured seven shots, won a free and set up a goal chance. Offaly won by five.

They were also level against Limerick with 57 minutes gone, and won the game by two. They also finished the stronger against Wicklow.

Their return from substitutes has been impressive. Their bench has hit 1-14 in the four games. Niall McNamee heads the field, his veteran brain using the space well late in games.

They play largely off Cian Farrell at full-forward. Brendan Rogers' hamstring may keep him out of the Derry side again but even if he's fit, Chrissy McKaigue is arguably more suited to marking Farrell anyway.

Offaly's attack is playing well. Bernard Allen is a dangerous, jinking, two-footed goal-hunter. Ruairi McNamee hasn't sparked but has it in him.

Anton Sullivan has been arguably their best player from left-half forward. Shane Horan's left foot does a lot of their playmaking.

It will be a test of a Derry team that wants to play on the front foot. The fact that the Oak Leafers are doing well around the middle of the field and that Offaly are struggling in that sector will be a huge focus for Rory Gallagher.

If Derry can hem them in, it won't matter how good Offaly's forwards are.

Eoin Rigney at full-back has had a good season. Marking Conor Sweeney, Seanie Furlong, Sean Quigley and Limerick's Hugh Bourke, he's conceded just 1-3 in total, and there was nothing he could have done about Bourke's goal.

The afternoon spent tailing Sweeney, whom he kept to 0-1 from play, could prove useful tomorrow given the similarities between the Tipperary captain and Derry's own rangy left-footed talisman, Shane McGuigan.

Offaly tend to protect Rigney well but the worry for John Maughan is that if they drop very deep to protect their goal, as they tend to do, the big Croke Park pitch will swallow up their counter-attack.

It feels as though a smart Derry performance the game.

Going after the Offaly kickout is tough work in Croke Park but the dividends would almost certainly be rich. Offaly are decent in the air at midfield but they aren't showing it, and Maughan has referenced his side's struggle to win primary possession.

Offaly will drop off but Derry need to be mindful of Cian Farrell, whose shooting can be erratic one minute and absolutely brilliant the next.

Rory Gallagher's own alertness to Offaly's use of their bench will also be important. Derry don't have the same experience of attacking reserves but in Conor McCluskey and Michael McEvoy particularly, they have defensive options that can counter any Faithful freshness.

This is no cakewalk for Derry. Offaly are dangerous.

It's a long way off where they were just shy of a quarter of a century ago, but winning at any level is an infinitely better normal than they've both been used to recently.

To stick the neck out, an Ethan Doherty goal and a four-point win for the Oak Leafers.

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