Derry are men on a mission
The Anglo-Celt Cup may have all but taken up residence in Armagh for the best part of the past decade yet it remains an almost mythical sporting trophy in Derry.
While Orchard County fans have dined out on a rich diet of provincial success since Jarlath Burns led their team to the first of their seven provincial triumphs since 1999, in contrast the Oak Leaf faithful have been denied the very crumbs that occasionally fell from the Championship table. This too despite the fact that they boast an enviable track record at Celtic Park where they are unbeaten in Championship fare since 1994 and boast some of the most consistent players in the country.
Disappointment, frustration and even controversy have merged to portray an unflattering Championship image that continues to haunt a county which last landed the Ulster crown in 1998 and also claimed three National League titles and the All Ireland crown in that same decade.
Little wonder then that Damian Cassidy’s side are approaching Sunday’s showdown against Armagh imbued with a raging desire to rewrite what has become a rather predictable Ulster script.
And if their ongoing tendency to implode in Championship warfare has been disturbing for some players, it has been particularly gut-wrenching for competitors like Paddy Bradley, Fergal Doherty, Gerard O’Kane, Kevin
McGuckin, Kevin McCloy and Barry Gillis who have shed blood, sweat and tears down through the years in their bid to wrest the Ulster prize from the grasp of the perceived ‘big two’.
Only last year Derry offered the latest in their false Championship dawns, slithering to an eight-point defeat against Tyrone in a dreary semi-final at Casement Park.
Maybe the absence of some marquee players constituted mitigating circumstances but it is still not sufficient reason to explain away the mistakes that littered their play.
The Red Hands eventually relieved Armagh of their booty by overcoming Antrim in the final having earlier ended the Orchard County’s own interest in the destination of the prize and it’s this particular defeat that more than anything will lend an added edge to Armagh’s already high intensity levels for Sunday.
Steven McDonnell is flourishing in his dual role as skipper and scorer-in-chief, Ciaran McKeever is marshalling a defence that has matured further and Kieran Toner will now get the chance to underpin his reputation as the best midfielder to have emerged in the province for some time although Tyrone’s Aidan Cassidy, now sadly injured, has delivered handsomely in recent months.
Derry’s demotion from Division One has been downplayed by manager Cassidy yet it certainly did not help to massage morale for an Ulster series that contains a level of intrigue that has not been in evidence for several years.
Nonetheless the barren years endured by Derry could prove a motivational tool for Sunday. Manager Cassidy was a winner at club and county level during a distinguished playing career and now puts his reputation on the line in what is one of the GAA’s flagship competitions.