Young skipper O'Doherty used to forging ahead
Allianz Hurling League Division 2B: Mayo v Derry (tomorrow, 3pm, Castlebar)
CORMAC O'Doherty has never been a stranger to jumping the queue.
A Hogan Cup winner a year early, he was still just 17 when he got in around the back of Omagh's defence to net a goal after 50 seconds in Slaughtneil's first Ulster Club football final.
By then he'd featured in an Ulster Club hurling final and the medals amassed in both codes since have been well publicised.
He'd hurl for Derry up through the grades way before his time and now, at the age of 25, he has been named as captain, following on from being given the honour at club level last year.
To put that in context, there are only three current inter-county captains in hurling or football who 25 or under.
Taking last year's captain where none has yet been announced for 2021, Adrian Mullen, named as Kilkenny's new skipper last week, will be the youngest at 21.
Waterford skipper Conor Prunty led his county out in last year's All-Ireland final at the age of 23 and retains his post, while his Déise football compatriot Conor Murray will be 25 this year.
Since O'Doherty first joined the senior Derry setup under Collie McGurk during the 2017 Nicky Rackard Cup winning year, much has changed.
The big personalities, the Hinpheys, Ruairi Convery, Oisin and Ruairi McCloskey, Daryl McDermott, the names that carried a team for a generation have disappeared.
O'Doherty, along with the likes of Mark Craig, Alan Grant, Paul Cleary, Brian Óg McGilligan and his clubmate Gerald Bradley, are being looked to now for experience.
“At 25, you're getting to the older half of the group,” he says.
“It's quite a young age profile of a panel at the minute. There's not that many boys older than me there.
“It's something you look towards but you don't focus or think about it. You're putting yourself in as good a position as you can to perform for the team, and whatever responsibilities or expectations come with that, it's something else to take on and use as another challenge.”
On the other end of the scale tomorrow will be Mayo's Keith Higgins, who will lead his county out in Castlebar having thrown his lot back in with the hurlers following retirement from football duty.
Higgins was there in 2018 to help them win promotion to Division 2A, although they were relegated from the Christy Ring Cup despite his presence.
O'Doherty is an established dual player, someone whose presence in the Slaughtneil attack has been invaluable to their progress in club competitions over recent seasons.
He is one of ten men from the club now at the county hurling panel, while there are six on the county football panel who would be significant additions if they were to switch codes at inter-county level.
To have 16 men away on county duty is a massive chunk out of the club's resources but for O'Doherty, the new split in the seasons is something he sees as potentially significant for weaker hurling counties that struggle to compete with club football in particular.
“With the split season, it allows the players to go and fully focus on county and try to perform as best for them as you can, where you're not worried about [club] league games or championship coming quickly, you have that set calendar in place.
“Hopefully that will be a good thing going forward. We have a big group of players with the club and under the hurling and football management, they're working away.
“They're getting plenty of training and when we go back to join them, we should be feeling the benefits of playing at inter-county level.”
He spent the summer in New York three years ago but could only play football while he was there. And despite huge success in the big ball code, he's in no doubt as to which he prefers.
“I'd have to say hurling. Definitely. It's a lot more enjoyable to play, personally speaking.
“You get to express yourself a lot more, there's a lot more room for individuals whereas football's very much system based, very heavily weighted towards tactics and things like that.
“Hurling, there's that wee bit more freedom, it's just that wee bit more enjoyable to play and watch.”
Mayo were comfortable for a season but out of their depth in 2020. In a five-team group with Roscommon, Donegal and Kildare, tomorrow's game is likely to have significant bearing on who moves up a division for next year.
Derry have lost the last two Division 2B finals, beaten last year by Down, and O'Doherty admits they can't argue a case for being good enough until they prove it.
“You'd like to say aye we're ready, but until we earn the right to play in 2A, we can't say too much,” says O'Doherty.
“It's up to us to show we're good enough to win 2A. That starts with Mayo on Sunday.”