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Croker glory is McErlain's main aim for young guns

By Declan Bogue

Just 13 days out from the biggest game of his life, Derry minor manager Damian McErlain has hailed this edition as the best of his three years in charge.

Last week, the Magherafelt man was announced as the successor to Damian Barton as the Derry senior manager, but speaking at the Press evening, he kept the conversation strictly focused on the progress of his minor team as they get themselves ready for the All-Ireland final against Kerry.

Questions about the senior job would be heard, but answered tersely and without encouragement for a follow-up.

Clearly, nothing will detract him in his focus with this group.

In his first year in charge, he led the Oak Leaf lads to their first title at that level in 13 years, but their progress was halted at the semi-finals stage to Kerry. The Kingdom have not lost a game at this level of football since 2013, but McErlain believes that he and his players are an advanced stage of their development.

"It has been a bit of a process in the sense that we started out with good intentions of turning around the fortunes of the minors. We had a great first season," he said.

"The fact we got back to the All-Ireland stages last year against all odds, we experienced Croke Park for a second time, it is great to be back here now having won a match. And to be in an All-Ireland final is just magic."

After claiming Ulster in their first year with a final win over Cavan, they were edged out in the final last year by Donegal but tasted Croke Park again in another defeat to Kerry.

Nonetheless, he can point to the obvious progress.

"The only thing is, this is a different group," he points out.

"It probably has been the strongest group and people have been trying to tell me that all year, but I would have fobbed them off until they got further than the others, and proved that.

"But their application has been superb. The quality, the physique we have among the lads, it's probably the best we have had."

In being paid a compliment about the environment he and his coaches - which include former county goalkeeper Barry Gillis, Killian Conlon and Gavin McGeehan - have created, he explained and granted credit to the role the state of the art facilities the players enjoy at their Owenbeg training facility.

"To be fair, as it stands Owenbeg is some environment to bring young lads. When I was playing underage for Derry, I think by under-21 they had a hut out in the middle of the two fields out there and it wasn't exactly attractive to a young fella coming out of Belfast with the rain beating off the bus coming up the motorway," he recalls.

"That's still the case when you are coming up from Belfast, but when you arrive here you realise you are arriving into an elite environment.

"We like to make sure things are right and organised. Thankfully they have all bought in and they seem to enjoy the atmosphere that we have provided all three years."

Pressed further on the reasons as to why this is the best Derry team of the last three minors editions, he elaborated.

"There is more depth. There was some serious quality in the other teams as well. You take Conor Glass, Niall Keenan, guys like that coming into the senior team, Shane McGuigan, some of our best players last year are still here. It is more the strength in depth. The athleticism. We have physique. Last year I felt we had probably the smallest side, no matter where you went to we were the smallest team.

"The first few nights these boys walked into the gym past us, you thought; 'Now we are talking.'"

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