Derry captain Gerard O’Kane believes his team have been presented with the perfect opportunity to fire out an early message of defiance in the National Football League by overcoming neighbours and fierce rivals Tyrone tomorrow night at Celtic Park.
Now that manager Damian Cassidy has availed of the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup to assess his fresh reserves of talent, O’Kane suggests that the Oak Leaf management “is coming close” to assembling their best team given their current circumstances.
When the sides met in the Ulster Championship semi-final last year, Tyrone enjoyed a handsome eight-point victory (0-15 to 0-7) without quite engaging top gear and O’Kane insists his players now relish the opportunity to overturn that outcome.
“Obviously we still have people like Enda Muldoon, Paddy Bradley and Niall McCusker out injured but there are a few new boys in there who will get their chance in the league.
“It would be a big boost for us if we could manage to beat Tyrone who we know will be without some of their best forwards. Even so, they represent a huge challenge for us,” says 25-year-old O’Kane.
Even though the season is less than a month old, he himself has already played in three different positions for Derry — full-back, left-full-back and wing-back. Indeed, manager Cassidy has considerable cause to be grateful for O’Kane’s versatility since Kevin McGuckin, Kevin McCloy, Barry McGoldrick and Sean Leo McGoldrick are still absent from his rearguard for a variety of reasons.
“I don’t really mind where I play. You always know against a confident attacking team like Tyrone who racked up a lot of big scores in the McKenna Cup that it is going to be hard anyway,” says O’Kane.
With Steelstown club goalkeeper Marty Dunne poised for his league debut, Patsy Bradley set to return to midfield after injury and James Kielt returning to the Oak Leaf squad following a five-star performance for Queen’s against UUJ in the Sigerson Cup on Wednesday, Derry are not without interesting options.
Dunne played superbly against Down in Derry’s last outing in the McKenna Cup although the more experienced Barry Gillis has been included in the National League squad while Patsy Bradley will add an element steel to the midfield sector.
With Tyrone boss Mickey Harte retaining Martin Penrose, Tommy McGuigan and Kyle Coney in his attack among others, skipper O’Kane needs no reminding that his team’s priority will be to put the brakes on the Red Hands attack.
“They have lethal finishers in there and others sitting on the bench ready for action as well. We are very keen to hit top gear quickly as we have done very well in the league over the past couple of years,” points out O’Kane.
Derry certainly boast a rich pedigree in the National League. They won the competition in 2008 having previously claimed the trophy in 1992, ’95,’96 and 2000 and reached the All Ireland semi-finals in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
But while league success would be welcome, O’Kane insists that championship glory is Derry’s main aim.
“We want to beat Tyrone tomorrow night not just to get off to a good league start but so that people might just begin to take us rather more seriously as a possible championship force,” says O’Kane.
DERRY SQUAD TO FACE TYRONE: B Gillis, B Og McAlary, G O'Kane, D Mc Bride, C Kielt, M Lynch, L Hinphey, F Doherty, P Bradley, C O' Boyle, J Kielt, A McCartney, S Bradley, E Bradley, R Wilkinson, M Dunne, M McGoldrick, M Craig, B Mc Guigan, J Diver, B Mullan, D Mullan, E Lynn, A Mc Laughlin.