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Barton's facing up to county challenge

By John Campbell

An All-Ireland winner as a cultured centre-half-forward with Derry in 1993, Damien Barton has sampled success at the highest level.

Now the Newbridge native is embarking on what he believes is the biggest challenge of his sporting career to date as he bids to reinvent his native county as a football force.

The modest surroundings of Oliver Plunkett Park, Crossmaglen, may be somewhat removed from the majestic environment of Croke Park but it's at the south Armagh venue that Barton will take his first step in inter-county management tomorrow when his side face Tyrone in the second semi-final of the O'Fiaich Cup.

Not since 1998 have Derry tasted Ulster Championship success and it is a measure of the unsettled nature of the side that in the past four years no fewer than 58 players have been used.

But having already confirmed a squad that is a mixture of youth and experience and fashioned what looks like a very capable backroom team, Barton has already rolled up his sleeves to tackle the task in hand.

"I said at the outset that it is a both a privilege and challenge for me to take charge of Derry but the hard work starts in earnest tomorrow," says Barton, a Dungannon-based schoolteacher,

"There is great rivalry between Derry and Tyrone, of course."

Just how hard Barton's mission in the short-term at least will be can be gauged from the fact that players such as Caolan O'Boyle, Brendan Rogers, Kevin Johnston, Niall Holly and Gerard O'Kane will be unavailable for the early-season fare while Slaughtneil's corps of county representatives is being afforded an extended break following an arduous season meaning that players such as Patsy Bradley, Chrissy McKaigue and Christopher Bradley are currently ruled out.

Caolan O'Boyle is vice-captain of the UUJ side for the forthcoming Dr McKenna Cup while Brendan Rogers, who is also an accomplished hurler, will be playing for Queen's in this competition.

And while this duo are expected to reappear for Derry in the Allianz League, Barton will have to exercise rather more patience as he awaits the return to action of defender Kevin Johnston who incurred serious ligament damage in an innocuous challenge with Donegal's Neil Gallagher in this year's Ulster semi-final.

Barton, acutely aware that his side will have a least four confrontations with Tyrone between now and next summer, may lean heavily on younger talent for his baptism tomorrow.

Eoin and Shane McGahon helped Claudy to gain promotion to senior football and could get the chance to sample inter-county action for the first time while 20-year-old Peter Hagan from Banagher may get game-time in defence and lively Dungiven forward Conor Murphy is also thought to be in line for action.

And Niall Loughlin, who played in the McKenna Cup this year and has since helped Greenlough win the Derry Intermediate Championship crown, looks destined to make a comeback to the inter-county arena.

The return of Ballinderry quartet Ryan Bell, Darren Lawn, Daniel McKinless and Gareth McKinless will afford Barton interesting selection options both in defence and attack.

Tyrone boss Mickey Harte, meanwhile, will look to a number of the players who took the county to All-Ireland glory to make an early pitch for regular places in his senior line-up.

Harte has made it abundantly clear that winning both the O'Fiaich and McKenna Cups is very high on his agenda.

"You enter competitions like these to win them and winning automatically means that you get more games," he said.

"That's what we want right now so that players get the chance to show us what they can do. "Obviously we are going to get to know Derry even better this year because tomorrow's game is the first of four scheduled between the teams in various competitions so it's going to be very interesting."

When Derry last won the O'Fiaich Cup in 2013, Chrissy McKaigue was their skipper.

Damien Barton would certainly have no objection if a different skipper were to take delivery of the trophy in the final next Saturday thus robbing Tyrone of the chance of making it five triumphs on the trot.

Belfast Telegraph


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