Rivalry always matters as Tyrone and Derry face-off in Dr McKenna Cup final

Derry's Gareth McKinless has words with Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher during the McKenna Cup match at Owenbeg. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Derry's Gareth McKinless has words with Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher during the McKenna Cup match at Owenbeg. Picture Margaret McLaughlin. Derry's Gareth McKinless has words with Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher during the McKenna Cup match at Owenbeg. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final: Derry v Tyrone (tonight, the Athletic Grounds, 6pm, live on TG4 YouTube)

HOW much does this matter? A McKenna Cup title in January will be forgotten when the ball is thrown-in for the League and it’ll be history by the time Championship comes around.

But still, as Tyrone’s Niall Morgan said: “There’s no point in entering the competition if you don’t want to win it”.

Derry want to win it too. As their manager Rory Gallagher said after that feisty drawn group game at a packed Owenbeg: “They (Derry people) want a team that can compete with Tyrone that they can be proud of and have the fun and the rivalry.”

So it matters alright. Every competition has to be taken on an individual basis and as the stakes go up, the intensity goes up. Success in one doesn’t guarantee more in the next but – certainly for today’s finalists - they are all building blocks towards the ultimate Championship goal.

As usual, Ulster leads the way in competitive spirit. The O’Byrne Cup in Leinster may have died a death but up here getting one over on them ’uns, no matter the time of year, is always worth the effort and long may that continue.

“The problem with the other competitions is the lack of competition in their provincial Championship,” added Tyrone goalkeeper Morgan.

“Dublin can afford to run as many men as they want and they know they’re still probably going to win Leinster. In Ulster it’s so competitive all year round – you always want to get one-up on your neighbours.

“We take the McKenna Cup seriously because we want to get a good start to the League.”

Tyrone have dominated this competition for more than a decade. Since 2013 they’ve won it seven times and managers Dooher and Logan will field a strong side in the Cathedral City tonight and, in the best interests of the McKenna Cup, give promising newbies another taste of the big stuff.

In last weekend’s semi-final Morgan, McShane, Kilpatrick, McKernan, the Donnelly brothers, Meyler, Sludden, Darragh Canavan and McGeary all saw action and Nathan McCarron (sure to pick up Shane McGuigan again), Dalaigh and Ryan Jones, Rory Donnelly, Cormac Quinn, Peter Og McCartan, Liam Nugent and Niall Devlin all acquitted themselves well.

Meanwhile, Derry’s last McKenna Cup title was in 2011 and Gallagher, a warming furnace of enthusiasm on the touchline throughout this cold month, would like to end that drought and provide more proof that the Tyrone-Derry rivalry is steadily building again.

The draw in Owenbeg was a full-blooded encounter and this evening’s rematch will whet the appetite for the Ulster Championship semi-final that could come (depending on how Derry do against Fermanagh and Tyrone fare against Monaghan) in May.

“Tyrone have had a phenomenal period and they’re a county that do so much right,” said Gallagher after the 10-all draw 10 days’ ago.

“They’re a credit and I certainly looked on in envy against them, as I’m sure a lot of Derry people, players and past players and supporters have.

“I never thought I’d see the crowd that was here tonight, on a dirty night for a McKenna Cup game it shows the appetite for football in Tyrone and Derry.

“Neither us nor Tyrone has put down a target to win a McKenna Cup, we’d put down a target to win a couple of games and have a go at other. That’s what it was, I feel, two teams that can be at the heavyweight end of inter-county football this year and the next couple of years. We hope we’ve many battles with them, we’ll win some, we’ll lose some but we’ll keep going.”

Gallagher operates with a compact squad which is minus his Glen players. In that drawn game it was Lachlan Murray who equalised six minutes into injury-time and he will feature again in the final alongside a strong presence from last year’s Ulster Championship-winning team.

Derry will be without Chrissy McKaigue this evening. The Oak Leaf skipper, who didn’t feature in the group game against Tyrone, was red-carded in the semi-final against Down.

Derry came through a thorough examination from the Mournemen on penalties the day after Tyrone had dealt relatively comfortably with Cavan. McShane (0-3), Canavan (0-4) and Michael McKernan (0-2) led the way at Kingspan Breffni.

Derry’s defensive organisation and movement in attack will cause Tyrone problems but the Red Hands have impressive strength-in-depth and are determined to settle the scores of last year’s dip in form.

They get the nod to win but they’ll have work to do before they settle the matter.