Derry and Tyrone draw few big positives
Derry 1-15 Tyrone 2-12: A point shared never felt more like a point lost for both managers after this gripping league opener, played under cascading blankets of rain at a nonetheless resplendent and atmospheric Celtic Park.
From the moment Conan Grugan drilled a left-footed shot past Thomas Mallon in the fourth minute, the contest was dictated by flurries of scores.
Achieving field position became of utmost importance as each team would string together runs of four or five points before drawing their opponents onto themselves again. In a frantic finale, both sides spurning chances, frustrated by their own fatigue.
"When we were good we were very, very good and when we were poor, we were horrid," was the assessment of Tyrone manager Mickey Harte.
"That's the bottom line of it all. We need to get more consistency into our play. You wouldn't be satisfied when you let a six or seven-point lead slip."
In the other corner, Brian McIver was smarting at not grabbing both points on offer, but enthused: "Tyrone were able to bring that wee bit of craft, whereas our boys are only learning. But I will give them one thing – they are learning fast and we showed some character there."
When Derry needed it, McIver produced clever substitutions, both Declan Mullan and the goal-scoring Cailean O'Boyle. The demeanour of their players, most especially the hunger of Fergal Doherty, leaves one to wonder that if they had Doherty, would they have been languishing in division two for three seasons?
The area of concern is that they might be understaffed in inventive finishers. The presence of Paddy and Eoin Bradley, on duty in the press box, was a pity for those inclined to think 'what if?'.
However, McIver has long shown himself to be a clever tactician. As expected Ger O'Kane moved to wing-back here, but what was less expected was the pacey Aidan McAlynn moving to centre-back to pick up and break even with Shay McGuigan for possession. Mark Lynch advanced to centre-forward, keeping Peter Harte honest, and chipping in with four impressive points.
Derry hit back from Grugan's early goal to hit five consecutive points, Enda Lynn's trickery exposing Ciaran McGinley's marking before the Errigal man was switched onto Benny Heron.
Mattie Donnelly was starved of ball in full-forward and subsequently dropped out to wing-forward to dictate terms and their cause was further aided by Niall Morgan's three dead-ball strikes, two of those from the 45 metres line to give them a two-point advantage at the break, while Morgan tipped an Enda Lynn effort over the crossbar.
After another streak at the start of the second half they found themselves seven points up, another goal arriving when Darren McCurry blocked down a Thomas Mallon clearance to recover and scramble the ball to the net.
From that point, Derry collected several consecutive kick-outs, Fergal Doherty helping himself to a gallery of clean fielding and when he burst through on one occasion, a combination of Peter Harte's despairing dive and the bottom of the post kept the ball out of the net, Emmet McGuckin making a mess of the rebound.
A goal duly arrived when substitute Cailean O'Boyle powered down the middle, exchanged a one-two with Sean Leo McGoldrick and palmed home.
Some of the bright sparks of Tyrone's McKenna Cup campaign were to find out that the league is a different world altogether, but they will soon be bolstered by some experienced heads coming back into the reckoning.
Harte admitted captain Sean Cavanagh will probably take his place on the bench for the visit of Mayo next Sunday. It was his brother Colm, another returning from injury, who got more action that he might have anticipated when he was sent on for Danny McBride – the first player to receive a black card in the National League when he obstructed James Kielt – in the 11th minute.
Cavanagh managed to do some spoiling around the middle of the park but visibly tired in the second half as Derry used the wind blowing down the Foyle to carry over shots from Ger O'Kane, Doherty and Lynch to level matters with eight minutes remaining.
The last few plays were ragged and incoherent, with Enda Lynn and Grugan both missing chances to write themselves into folklore.
DERRY: T Mallon; D Brown, C McKaigue, D McBride; G O'Kane 0-1, A McAlynn 0-1, SL McGoldrick; F Doherty 0-1, P Bradley; J Kielt 0-2, 1f, M Lynch 0-4, 2f, E Lynn 0-3; C McFaul 0-1, E McGuckin 0-1, B Heron 0-1. Subs: D Mullan for Heron (H-time), C O'Boyle 1-0, for McFaul (48m), C McGoldrick for McGuckin (63m)
Black cards: 0
Yellow cards: Kielt (22m), McBride (72m)
TYRONE: N Morgan 0-3, 2x'45', 1f; A McCrory, C Clarke, B Tierney; C McGinley, P Harte, R McNabb; D McBride, C Grugan 1-1; N McKenna, S McGuigan 0-1, PJ Lavery; D McCurry 1-4, 1f, M Donnelly 0-1, P McNeice. Subs: R O'Neill 0-2, for McNiece, R McKenna for McKenna (H-time), C McAliskey for Lavery (55m), R McNamee for McGuigan (67m)
Black card: McBride (11m) replaced by C Cavanagh. Yellow card: McAliskey (72m)
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)
Brian McIver highlights his reliance on limited resources
Funny how these cross-Sperrins matches brings out a spiky side to Derry manager Brian McIver.
In the wake of the McKenna Cup semi-final defeat, he made mention that Derry had been one of the few counties to comply with the wishes of the Ulster Council over college players.
When it was suggested to him here that he may be sobered by a realisation that Derry were almost at Championship-strength while Tyrone were hampered by injuries, he responded: "Well, everybody talks about the players that Tyrone are missing.
"Don't forget that we are without four lads out with cruciates.
"We are without the Ballinderry contingent; the best club side in Derry and in Ulster and hopefully by the 17th of March the best club side in Ireland.
"So let's balance thing up here."
As for the flow of the game, he admits that it was a close-run thing, yet still had a gnaw at referee Joe McQuillan.
"I thought we played some real good football into that breeze in the first half, worked some great scores and possibly should have had more," added McIver.
"The difference at the end of the day is they took advantage of their free-kicks, stuck them over the bar.
"Whatever few frees we did get – and I emphasise that point whatever few frees we did get – we missed those chances."
Seven points up with 28 minutes to go, the stickler for detail that Mickey Harte is, would have been privately appalled with how they frittered away that lead.
He kept his side in the dressing room for a long time after the match after saying: "It's bad to throw away that kind of lead but that's what this division is all about.
"You have to play right to the end."
Referring to an incident at the end when Connor McAliskey and Dermot McBride were booked for wrestling on the ground, Harte commented: "I would be disappointed with the last few attacks we had there.
"Maybe television will show that up.
"I would wonder why would a forward be wanting to hold onto a defender when your team is attacking.
"It really doesn't wear with me."
Mayo will be looking to avenge their opening day defeat in Healy Park this coming Sunday and Harte is well aware of their threat.
There is a lack of in-game consistency in Tyrone right now, but there are other encouraging signs to look for, according to their coach.
Harte said: "When we were playing well it was a pleasure to look at us and when we were playing badly it was not nice to see.
"The players know that they took the foot off the pedal when they were in a good position and they could have paid a dear price – at least we got out of it without a defeat and you have to be content with small mercies at this stage."