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Brian McIver tips Fergal Doherty to play starring role

By John Campbell

Fergal Doherty has more reason than most to see Derry conquer Dublin in tomorrow's Allianz Football League final at Croke Park.

Since his sending-off in the semi-final win over Mayo, Doherty has been profuse in his apologies to the management and his team-mates.

And now he sees tomorrow's game as the perfect opportunity to underline his value to the team after a decade of lion-hearted service, even though manager Brian McIver feels he was, if anything, hard done by when he was shown the red card a fortnight ago.

Having earlier incurred the first of his two yellow cards, Doherty skated on thin ice when he collided with Mayo's Aidan O'Shea, thus prompting the ultimate sanction.

But a stirring performance underpinned by character and courage subsequently took Derry to what at one stage had been deemed an unlikely victory and now 33-year-old Doherty is ready to deploy his vast experience in striving to bring another league crown to his county.

It was the single-minded McIver who resurrected Doherty's career when he invited him back into his panel towards the end of last year and since then the rejuvenated midfield ace has more than repaid his manager's faith in him – something that McIver himself is quick to acknowledge.

"Fergal has been an important player for Derry in the past, a player renowned not just for his playing ability, but also for the leadership which he undoubtedly brings to any squad with which he is involved," maintains McIver.

Modest and unassuming almost to a fault, Doherty is known for his reticence but his playing colleagues are certainly not slow to endorse the sentiments expressed by their manager.

Full-back Chrissy McKaigue goes so far as to suggest that the lion-hearted Doherty, a Portglenone publican, "defines our team."

McKaigue, himself in outstanding form just now, adds: "Fergal is the kind of man you need at your side in the heat of battle and it's terrific that he will be in there tomorrow."

There was widespread shock when Doherty slipped into the shadows three years ago following the arrival of John Brennan in the hot seat.

His last game for his county prior to his involvement in the O'Fiaich Cup in December past was a substitute appearance against Carlow in the first round of the 2010 All-Ireland qualifiers.

But even though he was absent from the inter-county arena, Doherty is still recognised as one of the finest midfielders in Ulster and during his inter-county exile was still producing the goods for his club, Bellaghy Wolfe Tones.

His return to the Derry colours has coincided with their most successful stint in the league since they last won the competition by defeating Kerry in the 2008 final – and on that occasion Doherty was man of the match.

It was Doherty's well-taken goal that triggered Derry's push to the crown and current skipper Mark Lynch has warm memories of that triumph.

"Fergal certainly stepped up to the plate that day as he has done so often for Derry. His presence will be invaluable tomorrow because we all know that Dublin are very strong in the middle third of the field.

"Fergal's physical strength and ball-winning ability will be key factors here," insists Lynch.

Over the course of the league, Doherty has been one of Derry's most consistent players having lifted the GAA.ie Player of the Match award in the away win over Kerry – a result that spawned the belief that Derry could go onto better things.

Like the vast majority of Derry regulars, he was rested for the drawn game against Mayo and during the win over Kildare, he picked up a head injury after just five minutes. In all other games to date, he proved an inspirational figure.

This time last year Derry were involved in a low-key Division Two final against Westmeath but they have certainly progressed. If Doherty was sent for an early bath in the semi-final against Mayo, then he aims to highlight his resilience tomorrow.

"Fergal brings experience and power to our side. He has played a big part in the league to date and we would hope that he will have a major role to play tomorrow. He can certainly rise to the occasion," states manager McIver.

And the Derry boss will hope that Doherty takes his last sentiment literally.

Derry certainly face a big battle to win midfield possession against a Dublin side in which Michael Darragh Macauley has been powerful.

The latter's ability to snap up first-phase possession, ply his attack with quality ball and still manage to snaffle scores himself marks him down as one of the outstanding competitors in the modern game.

It's hardly surprising then that McIver will look to Doherty and his midfield partner Patsy Bradley to stamp their imprint on a game which will not only determine who is crowned league champions, but just who can be regarded as genuine contenders for the Sam Maguire Cup.

And it's just as well that Doherty is a graduate of the school of hard knocks.

There will be a marked physical dimension to tomorrow's contest with Dublin unlikely to concede either ground or possession easily – indeed, chances are that they will seek to take over where they left off against Cork.

Never more comfortable than when performing in front of their adoring hordes, the boys in blue are capable of proving an irresistible force.

For their part, Derry appear to have mastered the art of closing out games.

Mark Lynch may lead from the front but along with veteran war-horse Doherty, Gerard O'Kane, Dermot McBride, Chrissy McKaigue and Enda Lynn can provide leadership in spades when it is most needed.

Derry will face a forensic examination of their talents when Dublin bid to exert their power in key areas as a prelude to translating their authority onto the scoreboard.

Never more comfortable than when performing in front of their adoring hordes, the boys in blue are capable of proving an irresistible force should they get the breaks.

Derry, in contrast, often find themselves expending their energies in front of rather muted, sparsely populated grounds – and that's when they are at home!

Tomorrow, they can expect rather more vociferous exhortations in what is a great sporting cathedral calculated to bring out the very best in even the most modest sides.

Derry are richly talented, generously endowed with self-belief and aware that the opportunity to make a formidable declaration of intent now presents itself.

The fiercely committed Doherty, a man on a mission tomorrow on this occasion, looks certain to personify their raging thirst for a rare helping of meaningful silverware.

Belfast Telegraph

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