Derry will need best display of the year to topple Tribe
IT’S jeopardy Saturday for the second time this season as Ulster champions Derry run out without any of the back door safety blankets in sight.
A packed season of comfortable wins echoed the latest Oakleaf minor crop’s promise, but it hinged on an Ulster semi-final with a Donegal team who chinned them in the dying embers of the league final.
The action has thickened up since. Their end-to-end final blockbuster with Monaghan was like watching an epic game of tennis in the heat of Wimbledon’s centre court.
Three times Derry looked to have their hands on the Murray Cup. Then they hadn’t. In the end, it came down to nerve.
Goalkeeper Jack McCloy displayed his inner Odhrán Lynch and Emiliano Martínez. Big shootout saves. Big moments before Conall Higgins kicked the winner.
Derry’s mammoth season came down to eight days and with a fourth Ulster title in the nine years since Damian McErlain masterminded the 2015.
Now they step into the big time this afternoon. A step more than a leap. Ten players – five from each side – were on board when Galway were 2-9 to 1-11 winners in last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final.
It was an afternoon of regret for Derry. Falling 1-3 to 0-1 behind, the young Oaks threw the kitchen sink at Galway, but it wasn’t enough.
Fionn McEldowney, Conall Higgins, Cahir Spiers and Johnny McGuckian all played. John Boyle was in the squad.
From Galway’s defence that day, Vinny Gill and Ross Coen are back. The towering Shay McGlinchey – who began his football journey in his native Bellaghy – is now McEldowney’s opposite number as captain.
Olan Kelly, a used sub last summer, joins him at midfield. Charlie Cox is now a regular in attack and Derry skipper McEldowney could well be handed the marking duties.
Galway are not without their injury doubts. Jack Heneghan, who hit 2-6 in the championship, hasn’t played since the group stages.
Word coming from the West suggests another key man, Sean Walsh, won’t feature due to injury. If Walsh is close, with his sheer size and fielding ability, it’s hard to see manager Alan Glynn going to war without him.
It may see a callup for Fionán Ó Conghaile in attack. His roofed goal within a minute of coming on in the Connacht final defeat to Mayo will be fresh in the selectors’ heads.
Derry should be picking from a full deck. Cahal McKaigue’s ankle injury recovered enough for a 40-minute impact against Monaghan.
He replaced Tommy Rogers who turned an ankle in the game, but manager McErlain indicated the Kilrea man would be back in full training.
It would give him options alongside another mountain at midfield, James Sargent, who has had an impressive campaign. And they’ll need it against a physically impressive Galway.
Today’s game is a case of perform or you’re out. The safety net is gone. A plus from the Derry camp is their discontent at their Ulster final performance. They won, but conceding their first three goals of the season doesn’t sit well.
They’ll need a performance not seen this year. The maroon opponent in the opposite corner is their greatest to date. A titanic battle awaits.