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Derry out to stun fierce foes Tyrone in effort to spark revival

 

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Fiery: Derry’s Ramon McGill and Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy in last month’s McKenna Cup showdown

Fiery: Derry’s Ramon McGill and Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy in last month’s McKenna Cup showdown

Tempers fray as the teams clash in Ulster Championship quarter-final in 2016

Tempers fray as the teams clash in Ulster Championship quarter-final in 2016

Fiery: Derry’s Ramon McGill and Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy in last month’s McKenna Cup showdown

A few weeks before Christmas, it seemed Santa Claus was coming early to the Ballinderry Shamrocks club.

Their Shamrock Park was to host a senior inter-county game, perhaps its first one ever, with Tyrone having to merely hop over Ballinderry bridge for the engagement in the Dr McKenna Cup prior to leaving for their team holiday in Thailand.

Tyrone refused to play the game in Ballinderry. Instead, it went to Celtic Park.

Last Wednesday night, with Tyrone's win over Fermanagh helping them top the group and Derry's margin of victory over Ulster University securing them the best runners-up spot, they were drawn to face each other again in tomorrow's semi-final.

An agreement was reached that they would toss for home advantage. Then Tyrone stated that if Derry should win the toss, they would have to play the game in Celtic Park, and not Owenbeg.

Derry refused those terms, pointing out that Tyrone had no right to dictate the opposition's nominated ground. And so the game had to be fixed for the Athletic Grounds in Armagh.

That's the way it's always been between Tyrone and Derry. There's always a little bit of spikiness, needless needling going on.

At the start of the 2016 season, they played a heated McKenna Cup group game in Owenbeg that was full of skirmish. They met a few weeks later in the final and it was mental.

Eighteen yellow cards. Three red cards. And over 7,000 present to watch over 100 minutes of pure spite, crowned by a row on the field that had then Derry manager Damian Barton running 50 metres to get involved and ending up on the turf after clashing with Tyrone defender Cathal McCarron.

After the game, reporters approached Barton. He was furious and said some things that he immediately clarified were off the record.

You want to get the Tyrone thoughts on it?

We refer to McCarron's autobiography, 'Out of Control'.

"I put my left hand out as a loose cordon to prevent other players, including our own, igniting a potential melee. That peace-making approach lasted about a second. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the Derry manager Damian Barton coming across, plumes of smoke billowing from his ears," he wrote.

"I made a go for him. I don't know how I connected with Barton but I did… I nailed him. As soon as Barton hit the deck, a full-scale brawl kicked off.

"I did some clipping in the scrap, but it was more wrestling than anything else. I don't know if it was for boxing Derry fellas or for nailing Barton but the referee showed me a straight red card.

"I found out afterwards that the suspension only kicked in for the following year's McKenna Cup. If I'd known that at the time, I'd have hit Barton a lot harder."

So there you are.

Barton was also furious with a collision a couple of seconds into the game. Referee Noel Mooney threw the ball up, Derry's Brendan Rogers hung around waiting for a tap-down and Tyrone defender Tiernan McCann collided hard off the ball. Rogers had to be taken off with a facial injury.

Despite their reduced circumstances, Derry will bring something to Armagh this weekend. For the first time ever, Rogers has been able to do a pre-season, such were his previous commitments from his time in Queen's as a student.

With him come his Slaughtneil team-mates Paul McNeill, Karl and Chrissy McKaigue, Padraig 'Tad' Cassidy, Shane McGuigan, Meehaul McGrath and Christopher 'Sammy' Bradley.

When you can count on four of your expected six Championship defenders to do pre-season and be there for the start of the league and not just the very end, it makes some difference.

Rogers is looking at Derry's current position, Division Four, and an opening day of the season away to Antrim and coming to terms with the new reality.

"It's one of those things where the reality of where we are at sets in on you. There was an element of 'we shouldn't be in Division Four. We have played in Division One finals no length ago, five years ago'," he begins. "That's where the perception comes from. And then you realise that we are down there and it's not good enough. Now we have to prepare to get better than that.

"We have got to National League finals before my time.

"We have won National Leagues and within a matter of eight weeks you don't have competitive games because you are away with the club and the whole thing is moved about."

Derry football people can't decide which is more off the mark; the sniggering from some including those within their own county about their demise, or the theories that there is something seriously wrong with the county.

MacRory Cups regularly take up residence in south Derry. They have been in the last four Ulster Minor Championship finals, winning two of them.

They are the current Ulster Under-20 champions and have a thriving and organised coaching structure, along with top facilities.

As the year goes on, they will rise again. Promotion is never guaranteed, but should be delivered. And after that? An Ulster Championship game against the old enemy in Omagh.

But before any of that, this weekend in Armagh and the McKenna Cup semi-final against Tyrone.

The more things change…

Derry vs Tyrone

Dr McKenna Cup semi-final:

Athletic Grounds, Tomorrow, 2.00pm

Belfast Telegraph