Derry likely to find too many scores in too many places for depleted Down challenge

Brian McIver’s first Ulster SFC game with his own county should go the way of the home side

Derry’s Eoin Bradley in action against  Kevin Maguire of Westmeath. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Derry’s Eoin Bradley in action against Kevin Maguire of Westmeath. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 


The more of these games that come along in the Ulster Championship, the wider the gulf appears between Donegal’s world and everybody else’s.

Set aside matters of tactics and ability for a minute – look instead at the simple husbandry of the respective squads. Various combinations of injuries, defections and emigrations mean that neither Derry or nor Down can lay their hands on anything like their best team for the beginning of their Ulster campaign. At a conservative estimate, both sides are at least four men short of their optimum. Yet the Donegal machine rolls on, impervious.

A meeting with Jim McGuinness’s side is the reward for whoever comes through this. At first glance, Derry would appear to be the side best equipped. Though they’ve lost a couple of players for the year since the league final with Daniel Heavron and Raymond Wilkinson both having wrenched their knee in club matches, they retain the core of the side that battled to the Division Two title in Croke Park five weeks ago.

Take a line through Chrissy McKaigue, Mark Lynch, Patsy Bradley (albeit probably carrying a leg), James Kielt and Eoin Bradley and it’s clear that Derry have a formidable stake for the rest of Brian McIver’s saplings to cling to. Lynch’s transformation has been especially interesting to watch – formerly a talented but frustrating forward, now his siting at centre-back has saddled him with responsibility as well as giving him a certain libero licence.

Down’s missing persons list is longer – James McCartan reckons he could fill a whole team with players who are unavailable. Crucially, it’s deeper as well. Dan Gordon could well miss the whole summer, Conor Garvey has been out for close to a year already. Three players recently headed to the States, including the always dangerous forward Paul McComiskey. Danny Hughes missed the league and only makes the bench, while Ambrose Rogers will line out for his first match all year.

That said, there remains quality in the Down attack, with Conor Laverty and Benny Coulter the obvious sprinkles of gilt. With both sides intent on setting up pretty defensively though, Laverty and Coulter may struggle a little to get into the game. The lofty Kalum King at full-forward may well be a clearer declaration of McCartan’s intentions.

If there is a glaring difference between the sides, it is in where they source their scores. Down tend to rely an awful lot on Donal O’Hare, whereas Derry had 11 different scorers in that Division Two final against Westmeath (with 1-2 coming off the bench and winning the game in injury time). In a game that could see a fair amount of bunching, it won’t always be up to the recognised scorers to do the needful.

As well as that, the fact that McIver and team trainer Paddy Tally were part of the Down set-up until a couple of years ago can’t hurt. The nomadic McIver has waited a long time to get a shot with his own county. The tides have turned his way in time to make his first day out a successful one.