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Ulster Championship: Derry’s Friel and Diver back for seconds against Armagh

By John Campbell

A midfield partnership that will become operational for just the second time in a major match is set to be entrusted with responsibility for ending Derry’s dismal Ulster championship record on Sunday.

Michael Friel, who made his debut in the win over Fermanagh in May, and Joe Diver, who played his first game of 2011 on that occasion following a protracted absence because of injury, are expected to form the Oak Leaf engine room against Armagh at Clones.

Derry boss John Brennan watched the duo plot the downfall of a very poor Fermanagh outfit and is expected to rubber-stamp the fledgling partnership for duty against an Armagh side that will look to Kieran Toner and Charlie Vernon to claim vital first-phase possession in the middle third of the park.

Friel’s consistency during the National League, for which he was partnered for the most part by P J McCloskey, and Diver’s energetic work rate have persuaded Brennan that they can flourish once again, although on this occasion they will encounter much more formidable opposition.

Patsy Bradley’s long-term back injury, the absence of Fergal Doherty and the possible deployment of Enda Muldoon in the half-forward line means that Brennan is not exactly spoiled for choice in the central area.

But with Muldoon likely to act as a third midfielder in much the same way that Malachy Mackin will be expected to support the Toner-Vernon alliance, Derry believe they can mount a significant challenge in this sector.

Should this prove the case, then their experienced inside forwards Conleith Gilligan and Eoin Bradley could enjoy bountiful possession.

Friel’s emergence as a midfield workhorse was one of the benefits to emanate from the National League and the player himself is clearly relishing the prospect of pitting his skills against Ulster’s best.

“While we were very happy with the win over Fermanagh and the manner in which we got some good scores, we realise that we won’t have things as straightforward against Armagh,” reflects Friel.

“We knew coming off against Fermanagh that we had room for improvement and we have been working hard on the training ground since then.”

Brennan certainly did not spare his players at the finish, castigating their second-half performance and apologising to Derry followers for what he referred to as a “shabby show”.

“We were very well prepared for the Fermanagh game but we now need to take things to the next level against Armagh,” says the modest and unassuming Friel.

“When Armagh were meeting Down, they were regarded as two of the favourites to win the Ulster crown and the manner in which Armagh won that game showed the quality they have in their side. We know what we will be up against on Sunday.”

The strong possibility that experienced defender and former captain Gerard O’Kane could miss the game because of a leg injury has cast a shadow over the build-up from Derry’s perspective.

O’Kane has been perhaps Derry’s most consistent player over the past year and his ability to link defence and attack has been a key component in the team’s strategy.

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