Derry in tip top shape with Croker showpiece in sight
When Tyrone led Derry by 3-8 to 0-6 at half-time in their Ulster Championship encounter at Celtic Park in May, the notion that both teams might rub shoulders in the All-Ireland quarter-finals bordered on the ridiculous.
Yet while the Red Hands have, as expected, secured their place in the last eight, victory over Tipperary on Saturday would see Derry join them there following a qualifier path of redemption that has had considerable reverberations in the GAA world.
Damian Barton's side are now confronted with the alluring prospect of facing Kerry or Galway at Croke Park - but hopefully that will be a story for another day.
Right now wins over Louth, Meath and Cavan have suddenly propelled the Oak Leaf side to within touching distance of the elite and no one relishes this more than skipper Chrissy McKaigue.
As Derry's hitherto latent support prepares to descend en masse on Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan on Saturday, McKaigue believes his side's yearning for credibility will be sated to a considerable extent should they make it victory number four in the qualifiers.
"While we were very happy to have home advantage against Louth and Meath, we knew we would have a difficult task against Cavan last weekend away from home but the manner in which we came back at them after we had been in arrears gives us encouragement for this game against Tipperary," says McKaigue.
This will be Derry's third game at the Cavan town stadium this year. They beat the home side there in Division Two of the league before recording last weekend's win and now they have Tipperary in their sights there as they target a spectacular championship finish.
Tipperary, though, are anything but happy with the choice of venue. Manager Liam Kearns believes that it will facilitate Derry much more than his own side.
"I don't know what the rationale was for choosing the venue. It's a lovely pitch but it's not a neutral venue and there are disparate travelling times for both teams. Some of our guys would need four hours to get from Tipperary to Cavan, while some of the Derry lads could make it in an hour and a half," blasts Kearns.
Derry, though, will continue to count their blessings.
"Obviously we are familiar with the ground now but we are taking nothing for granted," points out McKaigue. "Tipperary reached the Munster final in which they gave a decent account of themselves against Kerry and they will feel they can make headway in the qualifiers."
McKaigue's influence within the Derry side has been pronounced, never more so than in last Saturday's game when he was switched into the middle third of the pitch to combat the huge threat posed by Gearoid McKiernan.
With former skipper Mark Lynch fulfilling a roving commission and grabbing seven points in all (four frees), it meant that Derry's experience manifested itself strongly.
McKaigue, who was red-carded in the defeat to Tyrone, missed the subsequent victory over Louth but returned for the win over Meath and having turned in an impressive performance against Cavan, he is now determined to see his side hurdle Tipperary.
Yet while the flame of ambition has been rekindled in Derry, McKaigue is helping to ensure that the players' feet remain firmly on the ground.
"Dublin, at this stage, are probably the best team in the gaelic football world," maintains the Slaughtneil clubman.
"When it comes to the qualifiers all you can really ask for or want is a home draw. We've had two home draws now on the trot so we can't do too much complaining. We just wanted initially to put a run together in the qualifiers to prove that our display against Tyrone was not a true representation of who we really are."
While the debate about teams having to engage again in championship action six days after fulfilling a fixture continues to rage, McKaigue concedes that his team is happy to be in their present situation but acknowledges too that there are serious anomalies in the current championship fixtures programme. "It's more of a reflection of the madness that exists with the whole structuring of the GAA county season, the way it's planned out," he added.
"You see counties like Down, Louth, Monaghan and Longford whose provincial and All-Ireland championship dreams have been ruined within the space of a matter of days and you have to feel sorry for them. We have enjoyed a little more good fortune and the boys are intent on trying to carry on our run."
Derry have benefitted enormously from the impact made by their substitutes recently and as a consequence manager Barton faces some interesting selection posers as he prepares to name his team tonight.
Niall Loughlin, Niall Toner, Enda Lynn and Emmet Bradley are now among those pushing for starting places against Tipperary.