Allianz League semi-final
Derry v Mayo
Croke Park, 2.0, Live TG4
Although both Kildare and Tyrone made it to this stage last year in their first season back in Division One, they were relatively seasoned teams compared to Derry. Brian McIver, who has had notable successes in inter-county management since leading Ballinderry to the 2002 club All-Ireland, has taken on the task of overhauling the team and so far so good, with a Division Two title last year and now a shot at the Division One final.
McIver’s effective blending of experienced players and up-and-coming under-21s has proved more than equal to the demands of the top division and until last weekend’s meeting between the two teams, by which stage Derry were already qualified and fielded a shadow team, they had lost just once – to a Cork side that finished top of the league.
"There's a big push on at the minute," said Ciarán McFaul, one of the under-21s and a starter, "it's all running, and you're coming up against Dublin, Mayo, Cork and them teams, it's going to be running all day.
"And you have to have the stamina to match those boys. Hopefully so far we've shown we do have the fitness. We'll be pushing on come championship time but we also have players who play good football and it's showing at the minute, hopefully we'll bring it into the championship."
The return of Fergal Doherty to centrefield has been a major boost to their fortunes, as has the consistency of Mark Lynch's performances now that he has been adjusted from a free-man role in the half backs to roaming instead around the middle and on the 40.
As further evidence of the evolution, the team’s most influential player in last year’s league, James Kielt, has been struggling to get his place on the team although he is injured at the moment and wasn’t available for tomorrow.
Given the selection for last week, Mayo’s win in Castlebar hasn’t much relevance but James Horan’s team have picked up pace since losing their opening two matches and are finishing strongly in keeping with their manager’s ambition to win the competition.
There have been other pluses, such as a high scoring total – no county has scored more goals, 14, during the campaign - and the re-emergence of players, such as Tom Parsons and Jason Gibbons albeit that further options at centrefield weren't the most pressing item on the agenda.
It’s testimony to the number of chances created that the team has still managed to be wasteful enough in front of goal but of more concern is the rickety nature of the defence, which has looked at times unusually loose and unstructured.
Cillian O’Connor made the point this week that for all of the talk of Mayo heartbreak at Croke Park, it is also the venue where they have given some of their best performances in recent years. That experience can prove vital tomorrow.