Wily bosses both try to play the underdog

 

When two counties meet in an All-Ireland semi-final, with both having already lost in the championship and then returned to beat their provincial conquerors, who should go in as favourites?

John O'Mahony and Eamonn Coleman both had the answer when they met yesterday in the Bank of Ireland headquarters in Dublin. O'Mahony reckoned Derry must be an "exceptional team" to come this far after the tighter schedule in the qualifying rounds. So they must be favourites.

Coleman countered that Galway were far more experienced, and furthermore, his young team had not come up against such a quality side on their road to the semi-final. So began the exchange of compliments, as both managers attempted to pass on the favourites's mantle going into Sunday's meeting at Croke Park.

"I am surprised that we have come this far with such a young Derry team," said Coleman. "But then we always expected to get to Croke Park because that is what we set out to do at the start of the season.

"It took us a few games to get it together, and we were devastated after the Tyrone defeat. It took a while to regroup after that, and we brought in those couple of new players we had been looking for all year. There are four Bellaghy players in the squad now and that's one thing that made a big difference."

O'Mahony also found himself trying to lift a team after their more surprising loss to Roscommon at the start of the summer: "Well, the immediate feeling afterwards was we didn't want to know about any back door. I said it before that the new system was going to take some getting used to and it has repercussions for everyone.

"Usually when a county loses a game like that there is devastation for the players and the management and everyone in the county. We were lucky in that we had a month before our first qualifier game against Wicklow. The way that game went helped us build up again gradually from there, but Derry had only six days to get back after losing, so they must be an exceptional team to be here at this stage."

Coleman quickly struck back. It may have been an easier draw but sure he fixed it that way. "Well that was arranged, you know. We got Antrim in Casement Park and then we got Laois, but of course you don't know if Laois is ever an easy game. And we were delighted we weren't drawn against Galway, because we were waiting until we got them at Croke Park."

Derry may have taken the quieter route, but O'Mahony feels his side have yet to hit full volume: "From our point of view we feel we have come quietly as well. We may have more attention for the last few years but you look at Dublin and Kerry in recent times and they got a lot of focus.

"I think we have got a lot of criticism for some of our performances, and we feel we have our feet on the ground. It is a chastening experience to lose in the championship and I don't think we are running away with any ideas. But no matter how much myself or Eamonn try to push the favourite's tag on each other, I think both teams are going in with an even chance of winning."

Both teams do find their results often hinging on key players, in Derry's case it's Anthony Tohill: "That may be true but this year we have a few more players who are fit to take the mantle up from Anthony Tohill," said Coleman. "He had a quiet enough game the last day and we still managed to dominate around the middle of the field so I don't think there is as much pressure on him as a couple of years ago.

"And you can't yet compare this team to that of 1993 because they haven't won anything yet. They are a good young team but they'll find out just how good they are when they come up against Galway, a more experienced team by far. It's their third semi-final in four years so they know what they are about. We have a lot of players on our team that have never played in Croke Park before."

Galway also have the reputation of turning a game on the basis of individuals but O'Mahony felt that some of those opinions may be somewhat off the mark. "The perception might be that we are the same team that played in 1998 or even last year. But if you examine the team that went out against Roscommon the last day you'll find there is only around nine of the team who played against Kerry last year.

"But it's the team aspect of every team that's important. That takes a bit of changing about because on different days different guys will do it. If you take everything that has been said about this Galway team, you'll find that we've been called lots of things. That we gave away All-Irelands and that we're not consistent, but they're saying we're in with another chance and that Derry are underdogs. So which opinion do you take?

"We do still have a lot to prove as a team and I didn't say on the June 3rd there was any positives in losing to Roscommon, but I certainly do now. We won against Armagh by playing for maybe 40 minutes and against Cork by playing for maybe 30 but you won't win against Derry playing like that."

That leaves the final point with Derry. Have they yet played to their full potential, or will Sunday reveal more about the younger side that Coleman has brought to the All-Ireland stage? "Well it's hard to know. We did play poorly at the start but from the Cavan game we did start improving. We haven't come up against a top-class, experienced team like Galway yet and whether this team is too young or not, well we will have to wait and see on Sunday.

"There is new excitement because we have come this far without the Henry Downeys and without the Enda Gormleys. People in Derry are excited now that this is a new team, and something different from what they saw in the past."