It’s time Derry stopped playing the blame game

In the seven weeks since their last competitive game (a six points defeat against Armagh), have Derry come up with something that will put Tyrone on the back foot?
It’s time Derry stopped playing the blame game

“I have seen enough talent in terms of club football I have been watching to think if we can get the Derry lads pulling together then we can start heading in the right direction”

- Brian McIver, Derry manager, 2014.

“This is not about any one player. It is about Derry. I need them all to understand that.”

- John Brennan, Derry manager 2011.

“That’s one of the problems people must face up to, if they want their county team to be successful then they’re going to have to release their grip on the players. It’s county football that brings in the revenue that streams down into the clubs.”

- John McCloskey, Derry trainer 2008.

Everybody is to blame in Derry. The county board, the last manager, the next manager, the Bradleys, the clubs and the media.

Successive Derry outfits, going back to the team which delivered their first and only All-Ireland title in 1993 have always found a way to squander potential.

When Damian Barton sat down with his management team during the week to select the team that will take on Tyrone in Celtic Park tomorrow, he too will have seen names who have underachieved for some years now.

Even the golden years of Derry football in the early to mid 90’s are tinged with regret at what might have been. The ousting of Eamonn Coleman divided the county and when push came to shove any time since, Derry teams have followed great strides with a stumble and a great fall.

Those of us who lament the rebalancing of our games to suit the county teams can’t have our bread buttered on both sides either. While we look down our noses at the Derry teams that lost qualifier games to Longford (twice), Cavan and Galway, we can only admire the conviction of the Ballinderry and Slaughtneil teams who, with a bit of luck, could have gone on to win All-Ireland Club titles in recent years.

Maybe the players in Derry, who are known to be as committed and ambitious as any bunch in the country, have their priorities right. Maybe the balance between loyalty to club and to county is absolutely spot-on in Derry.

Maybe, too, the Derry public are happy to have it that way. Who knows?

Either way Derry will set out their stall for the Ulster Championship tomorrow as something of a puzzle. The same way they’ve done almost every year since the Sperrin men were last crowned champions in the province 18 years ago.

On the one hand you have players of the calibre of Chrissy McKaigue, Mark Lynch, Sean Leo McGoldrick, Gerard O’Kane and Danny Heavron mad for road and on the other, players who were part of the set-up all spring, Ryan Bell, Benny Herron, Barry and Colm McGoldrick and goalkeeper Eoin McNicholl opting out or about to opt out.

Of more concern for Barton and for the game in general (given Kevin Walsh’s and Denis Connerton’s accounts of their efforts in Galway and Longford in recent weeks) would be the fact that some U21 players have turned down invitations to hook up with the senior panel for the summer.

From the outside, you would imagine any young Derry footballer would relish the opportunity. But, maybe when one looks at what might be in store for these young lads- no foreign travel and practically no summer football with your club - the option of staying out of the intercounty bubble is more attractive for some.

There is very little in Derry’s form to date to entice them either. They conceded 4-52 in their last three league matches, neither of which was won. They haven’t won a championship game on the road in five seasons and there is a general air of resignation as they enter the championship arena this year.

And yet, because of the nature of their rivalry with Tyrone, Derry are not without hope tomorrow.

Crucially, it is a home match for Derry. In all his utterances ahead of the game, Damian Barton has been asking followers of the game in the county to come out and support his team. Whether or not they have the stomach for that after a series of disappointing showings in Celtic Park and in Owenbeg remains to be seen. Like all local rivalries, games can take on a life of their own but bringing some of the old siege atmosphere back to Celtic Park and getting Tyrone sucked into a dogfight will be vital if Barton’s team are to surprise their neighbours.

There is a suspicion Tyrone may have vulnerabilities under the type of high diagonal deliveries Armagh’s Tony Kernan delivered to Niall Grimley’s waiting fist in the league mud bath in late March. Grimley’s late goal certainly surprised Tyrone and it might be forgotten that Derry, for all their shortcomings, were the country’s top goalscorers in the league. Whatever else is said of them, Derry can score goals. With Colm Cavanagh patrolling around the ‘D’ and two of the better man markers in the game, Cathal McCarron and Ronan McNamee behind him, Derry might not get many clear-cut chances. When they arrive, they must be taken.

Derry haven’t shown in any of the league matches up to now that they are capable of moving away from the type of game plan that stalled so dramatically at the end of last year’s championship. With players on form inside, Derry’s ball carriers never recognised in last year’s games that the space was often there to be exploited. They frequently had good forwards with acres of ground in front of them but because the running game is embedded in them, they stuck rigidly to their default setting. The hope is that Damian Barton will have coached their inhibitions out of them.

Up to now, however, Derry have shown none of the wit and invention that has characterised Tyrone’s play since February. They’ve had seven weeks since their last competitive game (a six points defeat against Armagh) to come up with something that will put Tyrone on the back foot.

So where are the potential areas for Derry to exploit?

Rory Brennan is a loss to Tyrone as he is one of their best counter attackers. The other absentee, Niall Morgan, might not be missed in the free taking department but his confidence and gumption will be much needed tomorrow.

In light of what happened in the McKenna Cup, Tiernan McCann can expect some close attention every time he tries to make one of his runs from deep and Derry will know all about Peter Harte’s ability in possession as well. Expect both to be stopped early and often.

The key for Derry will be in their attempts to secure Thomas Mallon’s kick-outs further upfield than they have been doing. It’s all very well for Mallon, and Eoin McNicholl before him, chipping the ball out to the spare defender during the league but in order to get Colm Cavanagh to come out of his shell, Mallon might have to gamble on longer kick-outs and hope that his teammates can salvage something from the scraps. If the weather forecast (wind and rain) and over 130 years of history between the counties holds, we can expect nothing else but a scrap. Desire, discipline and workrate are everything on a day like tomorrow.

These qualities are virtually guaranteed with this group of Tyrone players. The same can’t always be said about Derry.

When he was carping from the margins last year, Paddy Bradley, the man who best embodies the puzzle of the modern day Oak Leaf footballer, accused then manager Brian McIver of going “for a lot of boys that are good at doing the bleep test, that have good stamina, that have good endurance.” There was probably merit in Bradley’s observations but it must have been dispiriting nonetheless for Derry football people to have it spelt out so bluntly for them by a former player. Like I said, there’s always somebody to blame and never a shortage of fall guys in Derry. They had better show up tomorrow, though, or they will soon be looking for another scapegoat.

I expect they will, but Tyrone simply have too much pace.

Don't forget to pick up your GAA Championship preview in Saturday's Irish Examiner.

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