Comer provides the guile to help Galway solve Derry puzzle

Ulster champions’ system unravels under the white-hot heat of All-Ireland semi-final spotlight

Galway 2-8 Derry 1-6

Indisputable. The Tribesmen are back in an All-Ireland senior football final, just as the manager vowed they would be.

In Galway, the term ‘Joycean’ can only refer to their silver-haired cult hero from Killererin.

Pádraic Joyce’s team faced down a ferociously well-trained Derry system of menace and will here and have emerged stronger.

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The huge Western support witnessed what will become one of the most famous Galway football scores; Damien Comer’s floated 30-metre shot into an empty net, a score of audacity and intent which seemed to contain the brightest virtues of the maroon football tradition. In the stands, an eruption of maroon.

There will be many who argue the final score proves that ultimately the Derry system, dreamed up by Rory Gallagher, is a zero-sums return. For those watching at home on television, the early stages were filled with long periods of nothingness.

But watching Derry on television is like trying to watch a lunar eclipse through a keyhole. You don’t get the full picture.

They had the Connacht men worried here for a while but ultimately, Galway broke the muggy skies open with a play that was born from Derry’s playbook of turnovers.

In the 40th minute, Gareth McKinless, Derry’s experienced centre-back, won a loose ball and was instantly and legally mugged by Dylan McHugh and Patrick Kelly, who forced him into holding the ball. The Galway men celebrated with a delight that was, well, Ulster-ish.

Shane Walsh kicked a pressure free to give Galway a bit of daylight 0-6 to 0-4. He soon after converted two other big dead-ball scores as Galway ratcheted the pressure on Odhan Lynch’s kick out.

Then, in the 47th minute, Damien Comer powered onto a ball, rounded Brendan Rogers and fired home a brilliant goal that left Derry’s summer long game plan – to get out in front early –in tatters. It was 1-7 to 0-4 and Galway were redolent of their teams of yesteryear; magisterial and in control.

The old Mayo fear – that every so often, their regal neighbours can just cobble together an All-Ireland calibre side – is just 70 minutes away now.

They will be outsiders, a situation which will delight the absolute sense of conviction in the Galway mythology which Joyce embodies. They are getting stronger all the time, with Sean Kelly, Kieran Molloy, McHugh, Conroy and Comer thinking and plotting and ploughing through the fading Derry resistance in the second half

But the final scores distorts the full story of the game. Within 10 minutes, Galway found themselves in the same place as all other teams who have faced Derry this summer.

One minute you are skating across ice and then you feel it turning to slush beneath your feet. You stumble and fall. You lose balance, co-ordinates and you make mistakes. This is what Derry do.

High up in the stands, the gathered tribes watch the Derry men work their spider’s web around the field. Sticky on defence, they then flooded the Galway half with bodies when in possession, with six players spread across Conor Gleeson’s goal.

Thus, six Galway defenders are hemmed in their own 21 to mark them. Derry’s chosen ball carriers then snipe and thrust around the fringes and pick off scores that carry the daring aspect of a midnight raid.

They raced into a 0-3 to 0-0 lead after 12 minutes and had a chance to blow the game open when Niall Loughlin, intent on the early goal that Derry crave in much the same way as a certain fang-toothed creature of the night craves blood, had his path blocked by Kieran Molloy.

But the poise and at-homeness Derry displayed here was startling, The wonderful tactical coup executed by Rory Gallagher in Ulster fields transferred to Croke Park and Derry’s growing, vocal support were in perfect synchronicity.

They understood the significance of the early Galway wides and the speculative nature of the shots. Fifteen minutes in and the Galway men were hitting roadblocks. The Derry crowd cheered a series of prize turnovers like scores. They noted that Shane Walsh was limited to just two possessions in the first 20 minutes. The system was working.

Galway started sluggishly against Armagh also. But Derry are a unique problem: part football team, part algorithm. You can draw plans on the white board and mirror what you will face on the training field but no simulation can match the real thing.

Sooner or later, you find yourself bamboozled. Your fleet-footed attackers are mired in sludge. The centre might hold! But Derry don’t care about the centre. They go after you in oblique ways.

At times, playing against them is hectic and stressful. And at other stages, when Derry work the ball around the midfield area, waiting and not probing, it can be boring. There is nothing to do but wait.

If you are the opposition manager it is hard to know whether to change your match ups or just take a paracetamol: either way, you are going to get a headache.

Derry make a lie out of the theory that collectivism is dead. But for all that, their system revolves around the outsize influence of key players. Chrissy McKaigue directs the show and doesn’t care if he handles the ball or not.

Conor Glass is a towering influence at midfield, And Brendan Rogers, marking Shane Comer and scoring two first half points, has the cut of mythological warrior about him; he really should be permitted to take the field carrying some kind of ceremonial shield.

But it was Comer’s force of will that helped bully Galway back into the game. He had the gumption to take on the sticky Derry defence to fire two badly-needed points.

A Shane Walsh 50 was called wide by Hawkeye but was so clearly inside the posts that a visit to the optician is needed for that annoying gadget. Derry left the field 0-4 to 0-3 ahead. It was later corrected. In comparison, the loathed Ulster final looked like a promiscuous show of wanton attacking.

Maybe Rory Gallagher knew that Derry had left their best chance behind after that blistering opening 20 minutes. What transpired was a rough second half after a wonderful adventure that has breathed new life into the Oak Leaf County.

They scored just one point – a free – between the 12th and 49th minute and by then the Galwaymen had wrested decoded the system and were beginning to have fun.

The danger was that the increasingly Walkabout ways of Odhrán Lynch, the Derry goalkeeper, would come with a price. Ironically, it came after the totemic Conor Glass was turned over. Galway had the ball and Derry’s keeper was in the wrong half of the field!

You could see the lightning flash through Galway minds even as Liam Silke sent a gorgeous pass to Comer, who was plugged into the same mindset as Joyce watching on the sideline and, perhaps, and even the shades of Purcell and Stockwell watching from wherever. It was pure Galway instinct; the flash of magic and instinct and devilment. The announcement that they are back.

Galway: 1 C Gleeson; 2 L Silke, 3 S Kelly, 4 J Glynn; 5 D McHugh, 6 J Daly (0-1), 7 K Molloy; 8 P Conroy, 11 M Tierney; 9 C McDaid, 14 D Comer (2-2), 12 J Heaney (0-1); 10 P Kelly, 13 R Finnerty, 15 S Walsh (0-4, 50, 3 frees). Subs: 23 F O’ Laoi for 12 J Heaney (61 mins), 18 B Mannion for 14 D Comer (68 mins), 25 D Conneely for 13 R Finnerty (68 mins), 21 Paul Kelly for 10 Patrick Kelly (73 mins).

Derry: 1 O Lynch; 2 C McKaigue, 3 B Rogers (0-2), 4 C McCloskey; 5 C Doherty, 6 G McKinless, 7 P McGrogan; 8 C Glass, 12 E Doherty; 10 P Cassidy, 11 S Downey, 22 N toner; 12 B Heron, 13 S McGuigan (0-4, 3 frees, 50), 15 N Loughlin (0-1). Subs: 9 E Bradley for 11 S Downey (45 mins), 21 L Murray (1-0) for 22 N Toner (54 mins), 19 B McCarron for 13 B Heron (61 mina),

Referee: B Cawley (Kildare).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times