Signs of a footbaling resurgence in the Derry air
Visit of All-Ireland champions Dublin a timely test for Brian McIver’s young side
Mark Lynch has been impressing at centre half back for Derry in the National League. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Last summer’s Ulster championship meeting between Derry and Down brought together the two teams who led the provincial renaissance of the early 1990s but one of the stars of that era was guarded about the Oak Leaf prospects for the season ahead. “Ask me next year after we have played Division One football,” advised Tony Scullion, Derry’s former All-Star defender.
“I have never seen a gap like it between Division One and Two.”
Scullion was part of the group that celebrated the 20th anniversary of Derry’s lone All-Ireland success last autumn, an event which was both a tribute to a splendid team and an acute reminder of just how long has passed since Derry were champions.
The provincial championship of 1998 has been the only summer silverware for Derry since their breakthrough season. But Derry’s consistency and quality in Division One has been one of the minor surprises of the early season.
For years, Derry teams occasionally flattered but consistency has proven elusive. They will anticipate the arrival of All-Ireland champions Dublin to Celtic Park this weekend in giddy mood, having posted a significant victory in Kerry and responded in terrific fashion after falling into a ten -point hole against Cork last week. They lost the match but only by a single point: they didn’t disappear.
Few will question Brian McIver’s influence on the mindset of the current squad.
When he walks into a dressing room, good things tend to happen. He guided Donegal to their only league title in 2007, he was on James McCartan’s backroom staff when Down kept winning all the way to the All-Ireland final of 2010 and he managed a dashing Ballinderry team to the All-Ireland club title back in 2002.
When he was appointed to the position of Derry manager he acknowledged that there was a lot to do.
“I have seen enough talent in terms of club football I have been watching to think that if we can get the Derry lads pulling together then we can start heading in the right direction,” he said at the time.
“There is no quick fix. Age will be no criteria. I don’t care what club they are from . . .If they can play football and will commit there is a good chance we will be looking at them. The first thing is to head in the right direction and we have to have players buying into that. “
The first season was encouraging: promotion to Division One as champions, an exit from the Ulster championship after a classic shoot-out against Down.
Then an impressive response in the qualifiers, which included an avenging win against Down before they exited in the third round after losing an extra-time thriller to Cavan. But they were not all that far away from the last eight.
In recent years Derry have received scant mention in the speculation about potential Ulster champions. Becoming realistic contenders again is a primary ambition. But with every game, they are learning.
Derry’s opening day victory over Westmeath was a measure of progression since the teams met in the Division Two final last year. An away win against Kerry raised eyebrows and last week’s one-point loss against Cork offered further reassurances that they can compete in Division One.
“This is a very young side...coming down here and Cork on fire... every time we gave possession away we were punished and that is what good sides will do,” McIver said of Sunday’s match.
“Maybe there was a wee bit of trepidation in terms of could we match Cork. But once we turned the tide before half-time we felt the game was there for us if we could grab it by the scruff of the neck.”
As it was, Fergal Doherty’s attempted point drifted just wide, denying Derry a draw that their comeback probably merited. But securing the services of Doherty, a high-calibre and solid midfielder who had opted out of county football for the last few seasons, has been key for Derry.
Mark Lynch has been operating at centre half back so far in the league and with Eoin Bradley electing to play soccer this year, the Derry attack has looks completely transformed, with Emmet McGuckin and Enda Lynn the star turns. McIver has yet to reintroduce the members of Ballinderry’s Ulster title-winning side, including Ryan Bell who made a big impact in last year’s championship.
The big picture for Derry involves their Ulster championship first round tie against Donegal on May 25th, little over two months away.
Crucially, it is a home match for Derry. Bringing some of the old siege atmosphere back to Celtic Park will be of huge significance if they are to reawaken their rivalry with their neighbours. But for now, the arrival of Dublin, just when there is a bit of a buzz about Derry football, falls at a perfect time.