'Honoured' Heron looks to future with Derry after rumours of player unrest
Down v Derry, McKenna Cup: Pairc Esler, Sunday, 2.00 pm
Derry veteran Benny Heron has vowed that the panel are looking ahead rather than behind, after a winter of rumour about player discontent.
As far back as early October there was speculation that up to 11 players on the 2016 panel would not return, but that figure has been significantly revised downwards as Damian Barton's men look to make it two from two in this year's Dr McKenna Cup when they visit Newry to face Down tomorrow.
Conor McAtamney, one of the names cited as having left the panel, will begin on the bench while another and possibly their most impressive performer over the last 12 months, Daniel Heavron, has returned to training in recent weeks and is rehabbing an injury.
Ballinascreen clubman Heron, a maths and science teacher in St Colm's, Draperstown, stated: "I see it as a fantastic honour to represent my county. Whenever I was a young boy growing up, all I ever wanted to do was to play for Derry.
"So looking now, everybody on the panel now has the same aspirations. Play for Derry and be successful for Derry, not just there to make up numbers."
He refused to dwell on the bad news stories over the winter.
"With the panel now, we tend to be focused on who is at Owenbeg and who is training away," he said.
"Everyone is in the same boat and they are pushing themselves on and pushing each other on. Everybody says, 'ah, Derry will do nothing this year without all those players'. But we don't see it like that. We are going to go out and represent Derry as best we can and hope for success.
"It is going well so far and everybody is buying into the training. There is good camaraderie in the camp at the minute. I can't complain at all."
Down are desperate for a win in front of their home fans. You have to go all the way back to April 5, 2015 for the last time Down had the Pairc Esler faithful cheering at the final whistle, when they beat Laois in a Division Two National League tie.
Their preparations for this season began a lot earlier and they are putting out teams that have little resemblance to the strength of Derry's developmental sides, further weakened by the absence of Slaughtneil players.
"Down last year had a disappointing year," said Heron.
"They will be looking to rectify it this year and they will be like any other county team, they will be training hard at the minute, and especially at home. They will want to win in front of their own fans and it will be another tough game after a great start for us.
"They had a win over Queen's, but I suppose the county teams are expected to beat the students.
"It's going to be another challenge for us. We probably see the McKenna Cup as a chance to see some performances, giving our younger players a chance experience county football before the league kicks in.
"We expect to win our games and Sunday will be no different. I definitely think it will be a tough game."
One man who has returned to bolster the Derry effort is Heron's Ballinascreen clubmate Carlus McWilliams, who is intent on fulfilling his early promise as a footballer having been called into Cassidy's squad as a teenager.
Heron revealed: "Last year he wasn't with the county and he played brilliantly for Ballinascreen all year.
"He was our captain and probably our star player. It's good to see him back in the Derry fold, it's like having a new player and it's good to have another clubman in too."