GAA Football

Cool heads and ready limbs will guide Derry through

Derry Brendan Rogers contains Ryan McHugh of Donegal during the Ulster Senior Football Championship Final at Clones on Sunday 29th May 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Derry v Clare (today, 3.45pm, Croke Park, live on Sky Sports Arena)

THERE is one overwhelming piece of evidence which says that no matter what Clare do today, Derry will win this game.

It is contained within the contrast between how Derry won their Ulster title and how Clare saw off Roscommon.

Look at exactly how and when the two games were won.

In a baking cauldron in St Tiernach’s Park, Donegal were playing in their tenth provincial final in 12 years.

Rory Gallagher had exhausted what he felt was usable from his bench, throwing Benny Heron and Niall Toner back on having earlier taken them off.

Up against a team conditioned over a decade, Derry ought to have had nothing left. After 80 minutes, they stood level at 1-13 apiece.

Derry took four shots in the second period of extra-time. They scored three points and saw a Benny Heron goal chance brilliantly saved by Shaun Patton.

Shane McGuigan pointed the 13-metre free that came as an advantage on that attack.

Brendan Rogers’ score to kick Derry in front right on 90 minutes was kicked from 13 metres, dead straight in front of goal. To create it, the Oak Leafers kept the ball for two minutes and 50 seconds.

Conor Glass’ point to push them two clear came from almost exactly the same spot.

Tired brains and exhausted limbs were inconsequential. That nobody had a wild, tired lash at a hero effort was a display of incredible patience and discipline.

Clare displayed exactly the same kind of gutsiness but the 1-3 they scored in the dying minutes were of the more spectacular variety.

In particular Keelan Sexton’s free from almost 50 metres is not the kind of free you’d want to be relying on every day.

The goal came off a long ball into the square that breaks to a spare defender nine times out of ten nowadays. Jamie Malone’s winner was equally superb, well-worked and brilliantly finished, but it wasn’t the gimme that Derry created for themselves.

Back in Clones, other than Michael Murphy’s desperate late attempt at goal from a 13-metre free, Donegal also had three meaningful shots in that second period of extra-time.

Hugh McFadden tried to shoot off his left foot from almost 30 yards. Ciaran Thompson landed a monster point from almost 40 yards. Patrick McBrearty dropped an effort short from 44 yards out.

That was the whole game in a snapshot. Derry took 28 shots against Donegal. 27 of them were from within 30 metres of goal. Emmett Bradley kicked a point from the sole exception.

They have been incredibly efficient this summer. Their 61 per cent shot-to-score return against Donegal was the lowest it’s been, having been 64 per cent v Tyrone and 70 per cent against Monaghan.

Clare will defend with big numbers just as Derry will.

It would be lazy to say the Munster side – who also beat Meath on their way here - won’t be as good at it as Tyrone, Monaghan or Donegal would be. Tyrone’s defensive shape was non-existent all year. Monaghan played with no cover at all and got ripped apart on the break.

But Donegal know how to defend. They haven’t been doing it as much under Declan Bonner but it’s ingrained in them. Club football in the county is defend first, score if you have to.

“We have to play well and if we play well, we'll win,” said Derry manager Rory Gallagher earlier this week.

Words that tread the fine line between confidence and arrogance, but that’s the language he’s used for the last three years to help publically build his players up.

Clare were the better side against Roscommon for periods of their round two qualifier.

They dropped back with Ciarán Russell as their sweeper and they forced Anthony Cunningham’s team into bad decisions. Roscommon largely avoided the contact and shot from positions they wouldn’t have wanted to be shooting from.

Roscommon’s return of 1-17 was harsh on Clare’s defence too. They were kicking plenty from outside the range as well, plenty that the yellow shirts stood off and thought ‘well if he wants to shoot from there, work on’, only to see them drop between the posts.

This evening’s quarter-final is Clare’s first since 2016 and Derry’s first since 2007. There is a chance that the whole buzz of excitement in both counties gets to one or other of them. There may not be the polish on the performances they would like, because this represents an enormous chance.

Perhaps even moreso for Clare than it does for Derry, because you feel that while Derry’s age profile and their run of strong minor teams suggests this is the first sojourn of what they hope will be many in the next decade, Clare have been working for this opportunity for all of Colm Collins’ nine years in charge.

They would have snapped your hand off to be playing Derry. If ever there was a day for a team to leave nothing inside, to empty their guts in Croke Park and see what falls out at the end of it, then this is that day for Clare. And that emotional charge could propel them.

But if Derry really wish to exist in this top end of football, the numbers must tell the story when it’s finished.

Derry’s raison d'être is taking the emotion and the spark out of the opposition. They’ll bore Clare out of it for 20 minutes, playing the ball over and back, making sure the Banner get no rope to grab and pull themselves into an All-Ireland semi-final with.

It’s one thing to have the legs for tight games and quite another to have the heads.

In beating Roscommon, Clare worked shots.

In beating Donegal, Derry worked nailed-on scores.

That will be the difference in Croke Park today again.

Derry by five.

For Derry, there are two big question marks as they embark for the All-Ireland series for the first time in 15 years. The first is how their gameplan translates to Croke Park. Rory Gallagher admitted himself that the pitch “plays different” from any other venue but insists that on the basis of their Division Three league final win over Offaly last year, he thinks they’ll be comfortable. Much of that is down to the fact the main pitch at their training base in Owenbeg was laid to match the dimensions of Croke Park. They’re well used to the size of it, but the occasion can make it feel very different. Derry kicked very little ball in Ulster and if there’s space for Shane McGuigan, you might see a bit more of it thrown in early. The second issue is their own kickouts. They’ve had trouble retaining them and it remains a major surprise that Donegal stepped off them. But Clare’s own setup against Roscommon, with Ciarán Russell back sweeping, relied on conceding the kick out too. If they do that again they’re handing Derry a get-out-of-jail-free card. Clare played two weeks ago with a style not dissimilar to the Ulster champions, relying on punchy runners from deep. They had joy getting in behind Roscommon’s half-back line out wide, but some of their shot selection was questionable. Colm Collins’ side will play plenty of keep ball themselves, but their issue will be penetrating Derry often enough in the right areas.

KEY BATTLE: Chrissy McKaigue v Keelan Sexton
TURNING 33 next month, it was inevitable that Chrissy McKaigue would be asked the retirement question last week. That’s just what happens when the first number is a three. The biggest compliment you could pay him is that nobody really believes he should even be thinking about it at this stage. Darren McCurry 0-2, Jack McCarron 0-1 (from a mark), Patrick McBrearty scoreless – that’s a fair summer by any standards and realistically leaves the Slaughtneil man one good Croke Park display away from an Allstar. He’ll find himself up against Keelan Sexton today, the Clare hero and scorer of 1-6 against Roscommon (their first goal was definitely an own-goal). Sexton was described by his own team-mate Ciarán Russell this week as “a confidence player”, which McKaigue will have noted. He’ll be on his team-mates not to be handing over easy frees that will allow Sexton to build into the game. If McKaigue continues his form, it will go a long way for Derry.

THE REF: Martin McNally (Monaghan)
A THIRD outing of the summer for the Corduff clubman. Took charge of Leitrim’s extra-time win against London over in Ruislip before earning a second provincial final, easing through Kerry’s win over Limerick as he had Dublin’s victory over Kildare last year. You could argue that an All-Ireland quarter-final is above either of those two provincial deciders, making this possibly the biggest appointment of the 34-year-old’s career so far.

WHERE TO WATCH: Sky Sports Arena, coverage from 3.15pm

                             O Lynch

               C McKaigue     B Rogers
                 K Sexton        A Graffin

                           C Doherty

C McCluskey  P McGrogan   S Downey
P Collins           E Cleary     E McMahon

             G McKinless     C Glass
                D O’Neill     C O’Connor

Paul Cassidy     B Heron      E Doherty
A Sweeney          P Lillis        J Malone

                         C Russell

N Loughlin    S McGuigan      N Toner
C O’Dea          M Doherty     C Rouine

                     T O’Callaghan

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