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Derry are fighting with Brian McIver spirit

By Declan Bogue

Call it the Brian McIver effect. Through his time with Donegal and Down, he left both roles with the praise of players ringing in his ears.

His earthy style inspires a devotion from players that has steadily guided Derry from one point off relegation to Division Three in 2012, to their current placing of third in Division One.

The retired schoolteacher is not from Derry, but the ties were strong. His son Michael played for years as a wing-back for the Oak Leafers, famously even against his father's Donegal team in the Ulster Championship.

Before any of that of course, he was Ballinderry Shamrocks manager when they won an All-Ireland club title in 2002.

When he took on the role, his judgement may have been questioned. Derry had limped out of the 2012 All-Ireland series, crushed in Ballybofey by Donegal in Ulster, before a dramatic late finish by Longford in the first round of qualifiers cleared the summer schedule for club football.

But the rise of Derry since has been unerring. They meet Dublin in a second against third fixture this weekend in a much better place than they were that day the bus pulled out of Pearse Park.

It's tempting to think that the absence of Paddy and Eoin Bradley might be their undoing when it comes to the Championship. Hard evidence suggests otherwise.

Last season, they were the second highest-scoring team in the country after Dublin during the league. With Paddy Bradley not part of the panel, Eoin made only three starts in the entire league. That he is a top-class player is not in question, but a strong case cannot be made that they are overly missing him.

That trend has continued this season as they lie only one point behind Mayo in what they have put on the scoreboard.

The improvement, says Enda Gormley, corner-forward on the All-Ireland winning Derry team of 1993, is down to sheer hard work. "This is the first time I have heard about a bunch representing Derry for the guts of 10 years that are treating it the way the top counties are treating it; living it, the lifestyle, putting in extra work and organised gym programmes," he says.

"Genuinely, I think most of them would hold their hands up and say they didn't kill themselves the way the top teams have."

In season two, McIver has really been able to put his stamp on the team. The revival of the O'Fiaich Cup in November gave him five games to assess his fringe players and re-integrate the returning Fergal Doherty.

"Fergal is not a man to say a lot of words but on the field he is a massive leader for us," comments former Derry full-back and 2007 All-Star Kevin McCloy. "Missing those couple of years through injury and a little bit of time out, he was a massive loss to Derry. He would have made a big difference in the 2011 Ulster final."

Doherty brings sheer bravery, a trait in abundance in Derry's league campaign so far.

They were seven points down against Tyrone yet came back to grab a draw that underwhelmed them. Last weekend against Cork they were down by 11 before ultimately losing by a point.

"It's great for Derry fans to see that they have the battle, the 'middle' in them," says another former defender, Kevin McGuckin.

"If you look at previous Derry teams it might have been that the talent was always there, but nobody really knew what was missing."

A couple of areas require attention between now and the end of the league. Certainly, there is a corner-back slot up for grabs alongside Dermot McBride and Chrissy McKaigue in the full-back line.

Looking ahead to Donegal in the Championship and recalling Gareth McKinless' tenacious approach to marking Michael Murphy in the Ulster club final, the Ballinderry man could nail down that slot.

The inside full-forward line of Emmet McGuckin and Cailean O'Boyle has been effective but it will also be spurred on by the return of Ryan Bell.

However, McIver will be careful to tamper too much with a system that is based on running off the shoulder and breaking lines. One man in particular that has grown into one of the league's most impressive performers has been their captain, Mark Lynch, and this style emphasises his lung and leg power.

McGuckin is a fan of Lynch's abilities.

"It's noticeable how he has worked really hard to get himself into serious condition. He can play anywhere, he's playing in the middle of the park and you have to be in some shape to play there.

"Now that he's got to that level, he is controlling games. He is taking pressure kicks and it's great to see him going so well."

The visit of Dublin to the Lone Moor Road means they will have a sharper scrutiny on them than anytime before.

As All-Ireland champions, Dublin occupy a plateau all to themselves and have refined the processes of converting underage players into seniors, states Gormley, a keen student of coaching who has played an enormous role in revolutionising the underage culture at his home club of Glen, Maghera.

"Dublin have a professionalism and a structure at underage that would surpass many a senior set-up so it means that they are already three-quarters of the way up the hill when they come to play senior football.

"I know for a fact what they are doing with strength and conditioning in the squads means that they have a lot of groundwork done when players join the senior set-up."

Derry now have a full-time strength and conditioning coach in Anthony Begley working with their underage teams. They operate out of the state-of-the-art training facilities at Owenbeg.

They have all their ducks in a row, but their steepest learning curve will occur in Celtic Park tomorrow.

With McIver on the line, they will be fine. Just fine.

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