Belfast Telegraph

Derry have regained fear factor

By Declan Bogue

Some 14 months ago, Derry travelled to Pearse Stadium, Galway, for their opening league match in Division Two.

The year before, they had narrowly avoided relegation. They went into their Championship first round meeting with Donegal – a replay of the previous years' Ulster final – and were blown away by the eventual All-Ireland champions.

It's tempting to think that even the more optimistic Derry fans journeying back from Galway after that defeat, would have felt a season of finding their bearings in the second tier was as much as they could hope for.

Taking stock of their performance that day, they might have felt underwhelmed. Their team were down 0-6 to 0-1 after 20 minutes. Derry rallied but could not bridge the gap. The two had met on the opening day of the league the year before in Celtic Park and Galway came away with the points then, too.

Yet look at the gap now. Galway only clung to their Division Two status by virtue of a home win in their head-to-head against Armagh, while Derry have streaked into a Division One semi-final. In the 14 league games since that day in Salthill, Derry have won 10, drawn two and lost two.

In a feature interview for Seó Spóirt on TG4 last Friday night, manager Brian McIver kept repeating the message that there is no secret to all of this; it is simply rooted in hard work and collective effort.

He has also shown his tough side when needed. Against Dublin, he put on Ryan Bell, recently-returned from Ballinderry duty. When Bell struggled, he brought him back off without a thought. The team is the thing.

The ongoing scenario with Eoin Bradley has been a frustration, but then those who say Derry will struggle for scores in the Championship without Bradley have not been paying attention to their performances.

Derry are not blowing sides away, but they have the second-meanest defence in the astonishingly-high scoring Division One this season. In a year which defences have struggled without the safety net of the third-man tackle, that says a lot about the level of defensive coaching by Paddy Tally and others in Owenbeg.

Before their league opener against Tyrone, all the talk was of the new generation of Tyrone players.

Mattie Donnelly confessed he was set for an extended run at full-forward while playmakers Shay McGuigan and Peter Hughes had parachuted in to supply the bullets that the already bedded-in Conor McAliskey and Darren McCurry would fire.

That evening, Derry clawed back a seven point lead from Tyrone and were disgusted that they did not get a win. Tyrone were excused the slip for their inexperience but a forensic comparison of their ages would reveal Derry to the younger team.

At the time, Derry's disappointment was privately patronised as bravado. Now, we know that wasn't the case.

Tyrone didn't have a bad league campaign and are probably unlucky not to be joining Derry in the league semis this weekend, but when you sit down to consider what their starting team might be in the preliminary round against Down, we are at a loss.

Niall Morgan will be in goal, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly will be in the half-back line and the Cavanagh brothers will probably man midfield. Mark Donnelly will be at half-forward and Darren McCurry will be in his customary 13 jersey.

After that, nobody's position is assured or safe.

That's not the case with Derry, who could probably name their Championship team right now. They have been deprived of James Kielt for the last few weeks with a leg injury, but there is a sense that Kielt is too similar a player to Cailean O'Boyle in the full-forward line to accommodate both.

Last weekend, McIver made wholesale changes to his side to face Mayo in Castlebar. The thinker in him would have calculated it was a three in one chance they would face the All-Ireland finalists of the last two years in the league semis and so it was a useful exercise in hiding your hand.

However, they were far from embarrassed and gave a credible account of themselves. Niall Holly put up his hand as a viable midfield or even wing-forward candidate come Championship time.

To add to the feel-good factor, that venerable footballing seat of learning St Pat's Maghera head down to Croke Park the day before to defend their Hogan Cup title. The supply lines are functioning perfectly for the future.

Wins against Kerry on the road and at home to Dublin were serious signals of intent, the kind that tend to make others stop in their tracks.

McIver will know nothing is accomplished yet, but Derry have regained their box-office appeal. All on the back of hard work.

Belfast Telegraph

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