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Dean Rock: Derry face a test of character to save their season

Mickey Harte’s side must put recent downturn in form behind them to beat Mayo

Derry's Conor Glass battles for the ball with Westmeath's Ronan Wallace. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

At the final whistle in Newry last Saturday evening, some Derry players reacted by roaring in the faces of their defeated Westmeath opponents.

There had been a bit of jostling between players after a late Westmeath 45 was kicked wide, but still there was an air of desperation around that celebration at full-time.

It was a very brief reaction involving only a couple of players, and almost immediately the sting went out of the moment. But I still couldn’t help but feel that a genuinely high performing team with aspirations of winning an All-Ireland wouldn’t have entertained it after scraping a win over a team that had played Division Three football this season.

It served to illustrate the pressure the Derry players obviously feel they are under right now. The indications are they are sleepwalking their way towards exiting the championship against Mayo in Castlebar on Saturday.


Still, it doesn’t have to be the end of the road for Derry, if they can move on from their struggles of the last few months. They can’t change the past, but they can at least do something about the present.

Like many others, in the days after Derry’s defeat to Armagh my phone was lighting up with messages of rumours and stories of apparent discontent around the camp.

I was imagining what it must be like for the players to be dealing with that added distraction on top of their low confidence after losing three games.

We were probably fortunate enough during my time with Dublin that such outside noises never grew too loud – it’s fair to say there weren’t many people calling for Jim Gavin’s head!

But I do remember the period in 2017 when Diarmuid Connolly received a 12-week suspension for an incident with a linesman during our Leinster SFC win over Carlow.

It may be too easy to blame manager Mickey Harte for Derry's problems. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Everybody you met in the weeks after was asking if Diarmuid would be coming back to the panel after his suspension. That was a difficult time for Dermo and really all you could do was be supportive of your team-mate, look out for him and make sure he was okay. We kind of rallied together as a group.

The problem with Derry is the same common cause doesn’t appear to be there. Rather, there is a get-out-of-jail card dangling for the players in terms of being able to blame their downturn in form on the management.

But the players must take a certain level of accountability too, and Saturday provides them with an opportunity to make a statement in terms of where they want their season to go and their future under Mickey Harte.

The question is whether the characters are in that dressingroom to turn it around or will they be content to play the blame game?

The most obvious fix required is also arguably the hardest – scoring.

Derry are not playing with any continuity up front, they are very easy to read in terms of their attacking game. They had been great at turning over teams and punishing them on the scoreboard through strong counterattacks, but they’ve lost that dynamism recently.

They are not turning over teams enough now and when they do their transition is laboured and predictable.

Opponents get everybody behind the ball and challenge Derry to find a way to break them down.

Invariably, what we see is a repetitive pattern of ponderous Derry attacking play that goes something like this – Conor Glass plays it across to Odhrán Lynch, Lynch moves the ball over to Ethan Doherty. Doherty runs down the left wing, gives it to Paul Cassidy. Cassidy checks if there is a shot on, but it won’t be on for his right foot so he’ll play it back to Doherty and the ball travels across the pitch again. There is just no real energy, no real probe.

We did see glimpses of the old Derry trying to re-emerge against Westmeath, particularly in Conor McCluskey’s goal, while Diarmuid Baker added purpose driving forward with pace. But overall, the Derry attack has become too predictable.

Derry's Shane McGuigan under pressure from Westmeath's Kevin Maguire. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

One of the other problems with the malfunctioning attack has been the lack of help from the supporting cast for Shane McGuigan. Some of Derry’s shooting has been wild.

McGuigan was off form against Westmeath but it is difficult for a marquee forward when they are being followed by a man marker. And because McGuigan is clearly Derry’s main scoring threat, opponents also have another player doubling up on him when he’s in possession, which means he is nearly always kicking under pressure.

I also think referees have bought this idea that he tries to win frees easily by dropping the shoulder in, which I feel is somewhat unfair on McGuigan.

The reality is that Derry need McGuigan to be putting up a decent tally against Mayo to win – he did score 1-6 in the league meeting between the sides in March.

The great thing for a forward is that all it takes for your confidence and mindset to change is one ball, one score, and just like that everything melts away. I believe there could be a big display coming from McGuigan.

There are contrasting narratives around Derry and Mayo after last weekend. Mayo didn’t get the result they wanted against Dublin and yet they probably didn’t mind talking about that game this week as the performance was good.

They might even have got some claps on the back for it in Mayo, which is a dangerous position to be in.

Whereas the last thing Derry would have wanted to talk about this week was the Westmeath game because it was such a poor performance. They’ll be determined to deliver a better display this weekend.

The safety nets have been removed now from beneath the championship high wire – for this Derry team, a test of character awaits.