KEEPING their main men on the field is key to Derry maintaining their momentum – and the Oak Leafs have received a major boost with confirmation that Niall Loughlin will be fit for their Ulster final clash with Donegal.
A hamstring problem forced Loughlin from the field 41 minutes into last weekend’s semi-final victory over Monaghan, leaving him a doubt heading towards Derry’s date with their north-west neighbours on May 29.
However, boss Rory Gallagher insists the Greenlough man will be fit for that game as the Oak Leafs eye up a first provincial crown since 1998.
“Niall will be fine,” said Gallagher.
“He went for a scan, he felt a tightening in his hamstring, but it was clear he didn’t pull up. Thankfully there’s nothing in it – it’s coming from a minor back issue that he had before, just a wee bit of tightening, a bit of work on his back and we’d be hoping he’ll return to training this weekend.
“We don’t carry a big squad, we have an awful lot of young players in it, a lot of them are doing rehab, so every player we have is crucial to us. Having Niall available to us, and he’s been in a really good run of form over the last eight to 10 weeks, is really important.”
And while the Ulster final sees a repeat pairing from Derry’s last title 24 years ago, several of the current Donegal players are men Gallagher knows well.
Having been Jim McGuinness’s assistant as they swept to All-Ireland glory 10 years ago, Gallagher then led the Tir Chonaill to Ulster finals in 2015 and 2016 – losing to Monaghan and Tyrone on those occasions – before they parted ways in 2017.
The following summer his Fermanagh side lost out to Donegal in the provincial decider, while Gallagher’s Oak Leafs were edged out at the death by a late Paddy McBrearty score in last year’s Championship clash in Ballybofey.
Yet, despite his familiarity with many of the Donegal players, Gallagher doesn’t believe there’s any danger of over-thinking the challenge ahead.
“You give each opponent the same respect, regardless of who they are. That’s the way I’ll be treating Donegal.
“It’s not about what I know of these players in Donegal – I think, to be fair, all the Derry players know a lot about them because we’ve watched them so often, all our management team as well. I don’t see it as an advantage to either side.
“We know the level Donegal can play off, at the end of the day they’ve won two Ulster Championship matches against quality opposition very comfortably. I believe there’s a lot of levels in Donegal, we’re probably the new kids on the block and people are talking about us and maybe seeing things through different eyes.
“I just think it’s two teams with not a lot between them, and it’s whoever can produce it on the day.”
Derry have undoubtedly improved since suffering heartbreak at Pairc MacCumhaill 10 months ago, backed up by those Championship victories over All-Ireland champion Tyrone and Monaghan.
And the manner in which the Farneymen were put to the sword put a swift end to any doubts over whether Derry could repeat the performance levels that had seen them past the Red Hands a fortnight earlier.
“I felt that was very lazy, short-sighted analysis to say we were only focused on Tyrone,” said Gallagher.
“We’ve been so focused on ourselves, clearly Tyrone was the first hurdle and one you had to get over to earn the right to play again, but the opposition will change. It’s your focus on yourself, to be a team that can perform against all the top counties, that’s what we’ve been focusing on.
“We move on now, we very much appreciate the opportunity to play an Ulster final, we’re very much enjoying having beaten Tyrone and Monaghan, but we know we have to get our heads down and focus again.”