Belfast Telegraph

Tradition is the key for Derry and Down

By Peter Canavan

Derry versus Down in the Ulster Championship appears as glamorous as any pairing. On closer examination, however, you can't avoid using the word 'underachievement' while considering both.

When I was starting out in my early years as an inter-county player, they were the sides we at Tyrone aspired to beat.

They were the top teams in Ireland, never mind Ulster. They were hard, they had size, physicality, men who would go through you and were prepared to take you out of it.

As well as that, they possessed no shortage of skilful, intelligent footballers.

Take Derry - what a rivalry we had!

From a personal perspective, I had come off the back of two Under-21 All-Ireland titles. I expected the transition to senior football to be easier. Derry's specialist man-marker Kieran McKeever soon put such ideas out of my head.

I was taken off against them in a Championship game in Omagh in '91 thanks to McKeever. It was a low point in my career, the only time I was ever taken off in a game for playing poorly.

Inspired by Eamonn Coleman, they played a physical brand of football. He would settle for nothing less and you never relished playing them.

As for Down, while you probably got to play more football against them, they were still very imposing as witnessed by their two All-Irelands in this period.

There was a serious presence about them, whereas we barely had a six footer in our team.

When we got to the Ulster final in '94, it felt as if we were playing against a stronger and faster specimen of county player. They just overpowered us and it was an eye-opener.

Presently, the Mournemen are probably the smallest team in Ulster, while the Derry team have never recovered since controversially sacking Coleman back in '94.

Some had it in for Coleman and he was pushed out. Instead of the players saying, 'this is the man who got us an All-Ireland title, we are standing behind him', it went another way.

You had a majority of players who recognised it, but from that moment on, Derry were never the same.

In Cork hurling, when the players had to stand up together, they did so and they went on to win All-Irelands. Their spirit was unbreakable.

After Coleman's dismissal, some Derry players wanted to strike, but they couldn't convince all of the panel. In my opinion, this lack of solidarity led to an uneasiness and conflict within the squad and robbed them of the titles they might have won.

While they togged out together a few years later with Coleman on the line again, they were never able to recapture the same unquenchable spirit of 1993.

As for Down now, some supporters are dismayed that they no longer produce the same stature of footballer. But if the prototype is not there, then there is nothing Jim McCorry can do about that.

Of course, there may be six footers playing club football in Down, but if they can't kick snow off a rope, or they are turning trailers behind them, what's the point in giving them a county jersey when they will struggle with the modern game?

Tomorrow, in all probability, this Down team will face a wall of red and white jerseys, seeking a way through the lines.

That's when cuteness on the ball comes in, changing the angle of attack, using the width and space and having runners coming off the shoulder. If they do that at speed, with purpose, they will break through and create openings. When they do attack, they need to kick it dead, so that they can regroup.

The Donegal template depends on turnovers, so that they can hit you when you are in a distorted shape. They can exploit the spaces left.

I think Derry are more secure in that they know their style. This is their third year under Brian McIver, and they have gone through the year without a number of key players and they haven't been disgraced.

I was surprised at the coverage and criticism they got after the Dublin defeat in the National League for their defensive approach. What jumped out the most for me was not so much Derry's tactics, but Dublin's inability to counteract that style of football, even after the Donegal semi-final and Tyrone in the league.

And now Derry have Eoin Bradley back.

When McIver came in, he came with the brief that total commitment would result in a place on the panel.

A couple of years down the line, he realises that if this side is going to win an Ulster Championship, he needs a top-class player up front. Hence, the lines have been blurred as it stands this year, with the recall of Bradley and Cailean O'Boyle.

A lot of people were prepared to give McIver their support as they had a credible league campaign last year without Bradley.

It's a calculated gamble this time. The only way the gamble pays off is with victory over Down.

Both sides have tradition, though the question will be asked, what does that mean in practical terms to Down, who haven't won a provincial title in 21 years?

The key is to use it in the right way, rather than giving your players a stone to carry onto the field.

In Tyrone this year, we reminded our Under-21s prior to the big games of their predecessors that had worn the Red Hands jersey in Under-21 football before.

I don't think we had to mention the actual word 'tradition', but it was a fact that these players wore the jersey with pride, were successful and could win an All-Ireland with Tyrone. That was a powerful message.

I have no doubt that McCorry will be reminding his players about what happened in 1994 in one of the greatest games that has ever been played on the Ulster Championship stage.

I see nothing wrong with that as long as it is done in the right manner and inspires a winning mentality.

Finally, to referees, and congratulations to Maggie Farrelly who last week became the first female whistler to take charge of a county Championship game, at the Antrim minor win over Fermanagh.

The young lads obviously behaved themselves as she didn't have to issue a single card!

I expect Eddie Kinsella - who I rate highly because of his affability and his refusal to condescend to players - to follow her lead this weekend in Celtic Park.

He will be faced with two teams tomorrow that are very familiar with one another and that in itself can bring its own problems.

Let them both at it, let the game flow as much as possible and let's see the best of Ulster football once again this summer.

Belfast Telegraph


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