Allianz Football League Division One: Derry 1-12 Tyrone 0-9
Cahair O’Kane at Celtic Park
HOW the dynamic of this rivalry has changed.
Derry didn’t beat Tyrone in anything for 11 years. League, McKenna Cup, championship. From their opening round win in Division Two in 2011 to their summary, summery dismissal of the then-All-Ireland champions in Omagh in 2022, they couldn’t buy a victory in 13 games.
For most of that time, the iron grip belonged to Mickey Harte, a notoriously and self-admitted bad loser.
He never wanted to offer Derry an inch.
The crest on his coat might have changed, but he hasn’t.
The Oak Leafers have won their last four meetings, unbeaten in three years and showing signs of taking complete command of the Sperrins derby.
The matter was only tucked in by Conor Glass’s late dipping shot that the wind ripped down beneath Niall Morgan’s crossbar, but Tyrone had shown little sign of ripping it off them.
We’ll get to Derry in a minute, but what of their visitors.
Any rash pronouncements might be held in reserve. At the door of their changing room stood no fewer than five Allstar winners in Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Conor Meyler, Cathal McShane and Kieran McGeary, not to mention Frank Burns and Conn Kilpatrick, whose DRA venture proved a complete waste of time.
They looked doomed with one win from four in last year’s league before they got the bit between their teeth.
Their first half would have pleased Brian Dooher, who manned the sideline alone in the absence of the ill Feargal Logan. But within that dogged resistance lay clues. It came a lot from the younger hands, the Ben Cullens and Aodhan Donaghys and the Aidan Clarkes.
Against a gale they’d kept it very winnable. Padraig McGrogan’s reaction to the half-time whistle, to boot the ball away in frustration, told a lot of how Derry were feeling about a 0-8 to 0-5 lead having won the toss and gone with the gale.
It was there for Tyrone to win, but their second half was so poor. They didn’t score for 23 minutes, by which stage Derry were still within touching distance on the scoreboard but with all of the visitors’ momentum dissipated.
They had chances to exert some real pressure but, in a wind that at one stage carried a Darren McCurry effort from five yards with of the left-hand post to five yards wide of the right, the radar just wouldn’t settle. Darragh Canavan dragged two identically off the left, Brian Kennedy’s effort fell short, Niall Devlin sliced a good chance from a mark, McCurry pulled another wide of the near post, Joe Oguz – the litany grew and grew.
Their wastefulness watered Derry’s confidence.
The baton change from Ciaran Meenagh was always going to be imperfect, because for so long they played to a system that almost demanded complete perfection.
Their last few years have been so in-sync, the angles and timing of the runs, the handpass in behind, the decision-making all felt so orchestrated. Naturally, they were never going to be dropped on the treadmill at 20km by new management and not at least wobble.
In the bank are four points from four. Perfection, in that sense. But they left goals behind them in the first half, made poor decisions that left Tyrone in the game long enough for Brian Kennedy’s physicality to give them an out-ball and a platform.
But other things, Harte’s Derry have already improved on. Cormac Murphy earned his start with a decisive late cameo in Tralee and took his chance. It’s such a rare sight to see a forward take on his man the way Murphy has done in his brief time at inter-county football.
He contributed three points from play and looked to have set up Conor Glass for an earlier goal than the one he did get, only for the umpires to adjudge the Magherafelt man had taken the ball over the endline before squaring it.
Murphy also flashed a left-footed shot just across the face of goal off his left foot.
Niall Loughlin is back playing like he has belief in himself. Few forwards work harder, that’s been a given with him, but his contribution on the ball in the last two games has been significantly improved.
Ethan Doherty carried at the Tyrone defence like an angry man, at one stage running out over the top of Michael McKernan without breaking stride. Conor Doherty and Padraig McGrogan’s solidity has become a key factor.
A lot of it is functioning, but it is different.
The standards to which Derry are held are so vastly different now. Back-to-back Ulster champions, home to the All-Ireland club champions, they’ve grown so accustomed to success.
That was evident in the size of the crowd, with 11,629 souls pouring through the turnstiles. A couple of thousand of them arrived together shortly before 3pm, having walked in from Free Derry Corner after meeting in a show of support for the families of Patsy Kelly and Sean Brown.
Trillick and Bellaghy, Tyrone and Derry, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, solemnly in parts, jovially in others.
Peter Canavan spoke to the assembly before joining the march that at one stage covered half the Westland Road, bursting into spontaneous applause at the top of the road as they turned the corner towards an already packed-looking Celtic Park.
A venue so long derided crackled with the anticipation after a week where the two counties’ links were amplified at large.
Peter Harte’s absence broke one of them, missing out on a clash with his uncle, who said he “knew nothing about it anyway!”
The 70 minutes of football didn’t live up to the billing. The wind dictated that there was nothing to be gained for the side playing against it by pressing out, so they both sat fairly deep. It was all very passive. For Tyrone, far too much so. Their top flight existence will be tested over the next six weeks but recent history warns us off judgement.
That Derry are beating Tyrone and Kerry while still showing their flaws shows you just how far they’ve come.