Sleeping beauty?

IT must be the tenth anniversary celebrations Mickey Moran likes. After leading Donegal footballers to their best summer since lifting Sam Maguire a decade before, Moran has returned to his native sod.

The aim is the same. Ten fairly fallow years have followed Derry's ground-breaking All-Ireland. It is about time the good years came rolling back.

Like Donegal, Derry have flattered to deceive in the 10 years since sitting atop the perch. Of course, spring didn't seem right in the 1990s without Derry claiming a league title. But, the summer is what counts in Gaelic football. And it's been in the summer when Derry have failed to re-capture past glories.

They captured the Ulster championship in 1998, and there was that gutsy All-Ireland semi-final performance in 2001 that almost de-railed John O'Mahony's Galway. And that has been it. Sporadic club success has strengthened the impression that the Oak Leaf county is a snoozing giant.

It looks like the snooze has turned into a heavy sleep in the past couple of seasons. Eamon Coleman ended his fragmented association with the county he led to the promised land in Casement Park last summer.

Derry didn't have to look too far for a replacement. Just over their shoulder was Moran, Coleman's assistant a decade earlier, was waiting in the wings. After watching all the promise he harnessed in Donegal disintegrate in the days that followed the draw with Dublin, Moran ached to be back home.

"Home is home after all," says Moran. "I enjoyed my time in Donegal, but I always wanted to come back and manage Derry. I recognised there was potential here. But seeing the potential and getting it all together on the pitch are two different matters. We have only four months work done so far, so there is a long road ahead."

Moran has travelled a long road already, all the way from Sligo six years ago. His path as inter-county manager has followed a natural geographical progression, up the north-western seaboard. Sligo, whom he brought to within a goal of ending their Connacht famine. Then Donegal, who should have beaten Dublin in the quarter-final last year and now Derry. There are question marks dangling over the team. It wasn't just the defeat to Longford which condemned Derry to another season of Division Two football, but the manner of it which has Derry people fretting over the Championship opener against League kingpins, Tyrone.

Statistics from the game show that their forwards lost possession 24 times against Longford, despite their midfielders winning 93% of breaking ball. Gavin Doherty and Enda Muldoon won all but four of the kick-outs from either keeper. Like the Tyrone game last year, Derry lost a match they dominated in midfield. Moran, as is the wont of new managers, puts a positive spin on the game.

"It was one of those freak games. We had six chances just outside the small square, their keeper made five point-blank saves, their full-back made another one on the line. We also missed a penalty. You have days like that."

Derry, however, thought they had "their day like that" against Tipperary at the start of the league. Last year's Munster finalists held them to a draw, the only return in their league campaign. Derry recuperated from that shock. Moran will be hoping for a similar response against Tyrone, but realises the task ahead of his team.

"I would ask the Derry public not to expect miracles. Tyrone are the form team in the country at the moment, they're flying under Mickey Harte. We have been working since January, but there is nobody who can build a top-level team in four months. On our day, we are capable of giving anyone a game. But you can't build an All-Ireland winning panel in four months. Some of our more experienced players have gone and there is a lot of new faces. If we get over Tyrone, it will be a massive result. But we know how difficult it is going to be."

Especially without the likes of Anthony Tohill. The Swatragh giant has been so integral to Derry dreams for the past decade, that Doherty and Muldoon have some huge boots to fill. However, Moran says he has enjoyed working with a team open to new ideas.

It was only two years ago that Derry came closest to de-railing Galway on their way to a second All-Ireland. Since then, things have gone backwards.

Or so it seems. Paddy Bradley challenges that perception. Bradley was only a slip of a lad stuck in the corner of the attack when Coleman almost led Derry to their second All-Ireland final. In the intervening years, he has matured into a more complete forward. And this year, there are even more eyes turned towards Bradley as Muldoon makes a permanent home further out the field.

Bradley is unbothered. "I don't feel under any extra pressure because Enda has moved to midfield. He looks more comfortable there and offers the team more there. He is a better player and better for the team out there. But, I have never been the type of person to feel pressure. And anyway, as a forward, your job is to score points. That never changes no matter who you are playing alongside. Just because Enda is not there, doesn't mean I have to score any more points than I have been the last couple of years. Gavin (Doherty) and Dermot (Dougan) are in the same boat, and just as capable of doing a job.

"It might look like we didn't build on 2001, but our preparation was really disrupted last year, going into the championship. Ballinderry had won the All-Ireland and then, their match with Bellaghy, things like that. This year, we have had a free run at it and we are much better prepared. We are expecting big things from this summer."

Bradley has a busy few weeks ahead of him. Not only are the impressive full-back line of Tyrone awaiting in Clones, the Thursday before he starts his Sport Science finals. Indeed, he has to head straight into the books from the championship as his final exam is the day after his attacking credentials are examined in the furnace-like atmosphere of Clones.

Tyrone and Derry has become a perennial championship fixture. Two years ago, in a bruising encounter, Derry upended the then Ulster champions. Last summer, Tyrone swept their old rivals aside. There will be a lot of recent history between the teams.

"We know we didn't perform against Tyrone last year," Bradley concedes. "You will have days like that, you can spend so much time preparing for the championship but just have one of those days when you have to work that much harder for your scores and things just don't fall for you.

"I know there is going to be a serious amount of hype around this game, because it is Derry and Tyrone, because it is Clones, because of last year and the local rivalry and because Tyrone are league champions, but as far as we are concerned, this is just the first game of the championship. That's it.

"We have to switch off from the papers. We are not thinking about revenge for last year or anything like that."

FITTING that it should be Tyrone. Mickey Harte's men seem to have replaced Derry as the masters of the Allianz League, after retaining their title last Sunday. There is also smart money on Peter Canavan and Eoin Mulligan still impressing wags with their understanding come the early days of Autumn.

Derry are unfazed by the attention Tyrone are getting. In fact, Bradley believes it suits Derry down to the ground. He has only been kicking ball with the Sperrin side for the past few years, but every summer began with the bugle cries of 'watch Derry'. There is none of that this year. The sleeping giant is happy lying in the long grass.

"Things haven't gone badly recently for us. Okay, we didn't perform against Longford, we know that, played with a sort of lethargy. Longford were going for promotion into Division One, which was a big deal for them. I don't know what went wrong.

"All the same, we played Mayo in a challenge game last week and we beat them by a couple of points. It looks like we are peaking at the right time. We did want to get out of that division, but the championship was always our main aim."

Although evidence might point to the contrary, Bradley firmly believes that Derry have responded positively to the presence of Moran and John Morrison. After kicking heavy ball all winter with Jordanstown, Bradley was given a restful few weeks to ensure his weary bones recovered.

"Everybody has responded well to Mickey and John. He always said he wanted to come back and have his last stint in inter-county management with Derry and he seems to be enjoying it. A lot is made of John's unconventional training methods, but he ensures that you never feel bored in training. It is different, but it is something I am used to from training with college teams and even in club teams now, there is more emphasis on short, sharp training sessions and stamina work.

"One of the most positive things about Mickey and John is that they make sure everyone gets some time off, gets the rest they need. For players like myself who were involved in Sigerson all winter, that is important. It means your appetite for the game is never dulled. If you get a week off here or there to rest, you are a lot more vibrant when you approach the championship."

Surely, vibrancy in approach won't be an issue for Mickey Moran's men when they travel to Clones next week. It has been 10 years since they were King of the Hill. The natives are itching. And there is always the chance to knock their neighbours off their perch.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Sport Push Notifications

By clicking on 'Sign Up' you will be the first to know about our latest and best sporting content on this browser.

Sign Up

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd