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Barton has high hopes for Derry's new boys in for 2017

By John Campbell

When a raft of players distanced themselves from the Derry squad as winter began to encircle us, the challenge facing manager Damian Barton of attempting to chart further progress in 2017 appeared to assume much more intimidating proportions.

A turbulent 2016 McKenna Cup final defeat at the hands of Tyrone was followed by a tame Ulster Championship quarter-final exit at the hands of the same side before Tipperary despatched the Oak Leaf men from the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Barton, though, is nothing if not resilient. As his team prepare to take on Monaghan in the McKenna Cup semi-final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh tomorrow, the 1993 All-Ireland winner is taking comfort from the fact that a posse of 'new' players can potentially point the way to better things.

Conor Nevin, Neil Forrester and Aidan McLaughlin may be generally viewed as fresh faces in the familiar red and white jersey yet Nevin has accrued a wealth of experience with Ballinderry and has spurned the opportunity to parade his skills at the higher level until now, while Forrester has been round the block a few times and McLaughlin was a capable performer during Damien Cassidy's reign as manager.

The McKenna Cup is not particularly noted for releasing competitive juices in full flow, yet last year's Tyrone v Derry final was feisty to say the least with Oak Leaf midfielder Brendan Rogers felled at the throw-in, Enda Lynn suffering a broken leg, 18 cards dished out and Barton himself unwittingly finding himself in the wars.

Thus the prospect of a renewal of rivalry with Mickey Harte's side could be said to be an incentive for Derry to raise their game tomorrow but in truth Barton and his management team are rather more focused on securing maximum points from their first two league games against Clare and Meath early next month.

Be that as it may, it will certainly not mean that there will be a lack of endeavour on the wide open spaces of the inviting Athletic Grounds.

Ben McKinless, Conor McGrogan, Oisin Duffin and Michael Warnock have already shown that they are far from being out of their depth at this level while Peter Hagan and Niall Loughlin are stepping up their respective bids to become regulars in the team.

Conor McAtamney and McLaughlin form an imposing midfield and if they can provide seasoned trio James Kielt, Enda Lynn and Mark Lynch with a generous amount of possession, then the Derry attack could well move into overdrive - something that would undoubtedly please their discerning boss Barton.

His side will face a Monaghan outfit that has remained undefeated to date this month and has unveiled a fistful of players who aspire to become regulars.

Yet manager Malachy O'Rourke will look to more seasoned competitors such as Neil McAdam, Ryan Wylie, Colin Walshe, Francis Kelly and the fit-again Conor McManus to drive his side into the decider.

McManus made his long-awaited comeback in midweek and he will certainly add an extra dimension to a Monaghan attack in which the wily Dermot Malone has been a consistent performer.

Like Derry, Monaghan did not perform to optimum levels last year, Donegal ruining their Ulster title prospects and lowly Longford heaping more misery on them in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

O'Rourke's men will be keen to fire out a warning of sorts tomorrow that they are capable of compiling a much better track record this term.

Derry: B McKinless; C McGrogan, C Nevin, R Murphy; N Forester, O Duffin, M Warnock; C McAtamney, A McLaughlin; E Lynn, J Kielt, P Hagan; M Lynch, R Bell, N Loughlin.

Belfast Telegraph

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