Admit it, you were caught on the hop when you realised that the Glensmen wouldn’t be travelling south for their annual spanking.
Join the queue. Derry, at least, bring some new different mood music with them to Thurles today.
It’s four years now since Antrim stemmed Wexford’s rising tide with an unexpected two-point win at this grade, at the same stage and in the same venue but they followed it up with three successive maulings.
Consecutive losses to Clare, Wexford and Waterford have come at the cost of ten goals and 73 points and the mind goes back to the days before the second of those defeats when then manager Kevin Ryan predicted a “hiding” for his side such was the widespread apathy. The former Carlow manager revealed how no more than a dozen players were truly committed and how training sessions had been cancelled. He took aim at a county where the U21 hurling team was viewed by most as a mere “nuisance”.
This year’s campaign was compromised from the off with the side still searching for someone to serve as manager as summer kicked in. Different year, same chaos. Not so in Derry.
Collie McGurk has masterminded the county’s senior and U21 bids and a successful Nicky Rackard campaign that returned the main side to Christy Ring status for 2018 has been followed up with a first Ulster U21 title since 2008.
He has done it with what he calls a “98%” buy in from players in the county.
“There is a lot of dual players in Derry so not everyone wants to go to hurling training on a Monday night and then football training on a Tuesday,” captain Ciarán Steele explains. “Guys like Brendan Rogers and Chrissy McKaigue have had to do that some times this year.
“That’s very high demand and that’s only two teams. They have their clubs to play for as well and that’s just GAA. They have their own lives, work and things, as well.”
Derry will take to Semple Stadium this afternoon with a good chunk of men who have cut their teeth at senior level this year - and with a number of players who have tasted county and provincial success with Slaughtneil.
Belief has been quarried from other quarters besides.
Steele has faced and beaten many an Antrim side while playing schools hurling for St Pat’s of Maghera and stints with Queen’s University, where he studies mechanical engineering, have exposed him to many of the Glens players overcome by Derry in the Ulster U21 semi-final. McGurk’s side don’t deploy a sweeper as such but they do draft plenty of players back into defensive roles when the occasion demands and one would imagine such duties will be considerable as they face Kilkenny.
An intimidating assignment? “I’m not so much intimidated as excited,” says Steele whose limited experience against a Kilkenny side was a club challenge match with James Stephens last year. “Playing against Kilkenny, the kingpins of hurling more less, it’s not something I thought I would do at this age. Maybe if Derry ever got up to that division, I don’t know would that ever happen. To play against them is pretty surreal and to play in Semple stadium is another point. It will be great to test ourselves against them.”