Derry starlets have underwhelmed, admits Fergal McCusker
Derry Under-21 manager Fergal McCusker believes they are going into tonight's Ulster Championship preliminary round clash against Antrim virtually blind, having been refused entry to the Shamrock Cup.
The Cremartin-based competition is used by a number of Ulster counties as a key part of their preparations, but the Oak Leafers' efforts to be a part of it came to nothing.
As a result, 1993 All-Ireland winner McCusker feels nervous about their opening tie (tonight, Celtic Park, 8pm).
"It's a shot in the dark, it's into the unknown. We know practically nothing about Antrim," said McCusker.
It was senior manager Damian Barton who prompted his 1993 colleague to take on this job, and he wasted no time in recruiting former Derry and Ballinderry greats Enda Muldoon and Declan Bateson as his backroom team.
They are well stocked with talent, with seniors Niall Toner and Niall Loughlin in the full-forward line, and can point to Terence O'Brien, who has also seen senior inter-county duty, as well as the promising Danny Tallon in the half-forward line.
Without the Shamrock Cup, McCusker had to be creative in seeking fixtures.
"We had challenge matches. We played Armagh twice, we played Down, Cavan, Tyrone, Derry minors and Crossmaglen. We had a fairly decent run with challenge matches and in-house games as well. But it is hard to beat the real thing," he admitted.
Without a provincial title at this level since 1997, McCusker agrees that successive Derry sides have underachieved.
"You look at Derry, we have seven Ulster Championships in our history at senior level. Because we were a successful team in the 90s and had a real good crop of players at that stage, maybe there is a residual expectation that is still there among supporters," he said.
"People outside Derry think 'oh, why aren't Derry doing better?'
"But we have an unbelievably strong club structure and unbelievably strong under-age football. I would challenge anyone to take on the best in Derry from Under-12 up to Under-18 level."
DERRY: C McCloy; N Keenan, T McCrossan, O Hegarty; J Rocks, M McEvoy, P Hagan; J Bradley, M McGrath; D Tallon, T O'Brien, J Donaghy; N Toner, N Loughlin, A Keenan.