Don't concede goals — that is the message which managers John Brennan and John O’Neill have flashed to their sides on the eve of the Derry v Fermanagh Ulster senior football championship showdown.
It has become increasingly clear over recent years that the concession of even one goal can jettison a team’s victory hopes, particularly in the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the provincial flagship competition.
Derry boss Brennan and his Erne counterpart O’Neill have already seen their teams gift goals to opponents this term and they are united in their bid to ensure that the shutters are erected at Celtic Park tomorrow (3.30pm).
Last Sunday a late Mark McHugh strike served to copper-fasten Donegal’s win over a by-then tiring Antrim, but Brennan and O’Neill firmly believe that their teams’ stamina will stand up to close scrutiny tomorrow.
Nevertheless, Brennan makes no bones about the fact that he will not take too kindly to any defensive lapses.
“We had a couple of bad blips in our league campaign and in one of those matches against Donegal we gave away two bad goals and suffered as a consequence. I believe that this actually cost us a promotion place at the end of the day,” insists Brennan.
“While I am happy enough about our defence I am certainly not impressed with the way in which we have been leaking goals. We cannot hope to achieve championship success if we continue to do this. It’s not good enough.”
Brennan refutes the suggestion that Derry’s perceived rearguard deficiencies stem from the central spine of their defence.
“Our shortcomings are not necessarily in this area. They arise because of a lack of knowledge in relation to defending. In our last three games we scored an average of 1-18 but that’s no good if you are conceding goals at the other end,” points out Brennan.
The Oak Leaf boss believes that most of his players are naturally attack-minded and may not be as strongly focused on defensive thinking as they should be.
“If it takes us to use our fully 20 players to win this match tomorrow by one point I will be happy with that. What I would not be happy with would be if we were to concede a goal or two — that could make life very difficult for us.
“It is very important that there is a good understanding between players. I encourage them to talk to each other away from the pitch and away from training. That’s when they can deal with specifics, become better players and in consequence help make us better.”
While Brennan’s defensive concerns have fashioned part of his team’s build-up, O’Neill will look to Barry Owens, Hugh Brady and Barry Mulrone to lead the resistance against the Oak Leaf men.
Skipper Owens has rediscovered his best form at full-back while the tigerish Mulrone and the hard-working Brady bring an element of steel to the rearguard.
And even though the free-scoring Paddy Bradley is an absentee from the Derry attack O’Neill knows that his defence will need to be at their very best to contain the home team’s front line.
“Derry undoubtedly have quality forwards but we have faith in our defence. We were unfortunate in that we conceded a couple of bad goals in the National League but our hope would be to keep things tight tomorrow and not to allow Derry to steal a march on us. They are overwhelming favourites and we must live with that but this does not guarantee them victory,” states O’Neill.
He is of course urging maximum concentration, particularly at the back, for a game that he sees as central to the development of his newly-constructed side.
“It is well known that we are re-building so it’s very important that we are well-organised defen
sively. Maybe some experienced players are out but the boys that are in there know what is expected from them,” says O’Neill.
O’Neill has named six championship debutants in his line-up. James McGrath will start in goal ahead of Chris Breen while John Woods, Terry O’Flanagan, Brian Og Maguire, Tomás Corrigan and Sean Quigley will all make their first starts.
The team will be led by two time All-star Barry Owens, who will take up his customary number three jersey while a new paring of Kevin Cosgrove and the Fermanagh League’s top scorer Ryan Jones have been named in the middle of the field.
Lisnaskea duo Brian Og Maguire and Daniel Kille will aim to transfer their All-Ireland Intermediate Club success to the county side and they will be ably supported by the experienced Paul Ward at wing half forward and a very young and exciting duo of Tomás Corrigan and Sean Quigley.
Fermanagh: J McGrath; J Woods, B Owens, M Jones; M O’Brien, H Brady, B Mulrone; K Cosgrove, R Jones; T O’Flanagan, B Og Maguire, P Ward; T Corrigan, D Kille, S Quigley.