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Comment: A rollercoaster weekend for Derry

By Declan Bogue

The oddest of weekends for those involved and devoted to GAA affairs in Derry.

It started on Saturday in Clones, when Slaughtneil's camogie team became the first club from Ulster to win two All-Ireland titles with their 2-11 to 1-9 win over Sarsfields of Galway, who they beat for the second successive year.

It's easy to be blase about the success of the club by this stage, and many lines written about them have the danger of sliding into the comfortable world of cliche.

However, a statistic about their camogs tweeted from the official Derry twitter account caught the eye; for 19 seasons, their camogs could not win a game in their own county Championship.

Two decades and countless generations of Slaughtneil players passed through their playing careers without once feeling the sweet sensation of a Championship win.

And for them, the bonus is that they are only going to get better.

Never mind the psychological boost of being defending champions, which sometimes can be enough to win a tight match when it's in the melting pot, but they will have Mary Kelly - the winning goalscorer from the 2017 final - coming back from her travels, Shannon Graham is now fully integrated into the panel after travelling and they have benefited enormously from the arrival of Tina Hannon (above) from Offaly, enshrined by her player of the match award on Saturday.

In some ways, the two cancellations of the All-Ireland final worked in their favour for the onlooker.

Naturally in the camp it wouldn't have been appreciated. Any serious athlete would be peaking to perform at a given date and the delays were a hindrance.

Not to mention the hassle that the club committee would have endured. Hotel rooms and buses would have been booked and then cancelled.

Challenge matches to keep the girls sharp would have had to be hastily arranged and a dozen or so extra training sessions were staged at venues across Ulster, leading to more expense to hire facilities and keep the lights and showers on at their own club rooms for their gym sessions.

But for the onlooker, with the club hurlers and footballers going out of their All-Ireland races at the semi-final stage, they got an uninterrupted session under the spotlight, not as a precursor to see if the men in the club could match them. It is, considering where they have come from, quite possibly the finest achievement of any club team since the turn of the century.

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Derry's Mark Lynch (left)

That feel-good factor took a dramatic nosedive just over 24 hours later when the county senior football team were condemned to Division Four in 2019, for the first time in living memory.

For many in Derry, they will see this as their lowest point but, as ever with league football, we have to be careful when we consider what this all actually means.

And facts are hard to argue against.

The highest scorers across all four divisions after the league group games were Dublin (131 points), Roscommon (126) and Derry came third with 121.

So far, so good. The attack is functioning. Ridiculously well as it happens.

The rub comes in score concession across all four divisions. Louth and Kerry shared the dubious honour of having the leakiest defence with 128 points, followed by Donegal on 126, and then Derry with 125. Crunch the figures a bit more and you discover that, had Derry conceded one less goal across their games, they would be sitting on eight league points - nice and safe.

It's not a stretch to look at Derry's current standing and see that they are a victim of the GAA's maddening fixtures scheduling.

The absolute folly of playing club county Championships and provincial Championships in Autumn and winter, before grinding to a complete halt with the All-Ireland final pencilled in for St Patrick's Day, has become a glaring issue.

For the clubs themselves, it represents four months of training and challenge matches, the hotel stays and all the rest, while other clubs have closed up for the winter and are saving a few pound.

The effects are even more acute for the county teams involved.

Derry have been relegated for the second successive season. In 2017 they dropped out of Division Two. Only London - who were forced to play all their games away from home with the development work carried out on McGovern Park - with -53pts and Roscommon with -46 had more porous defences than Derry on -34.

Now, consider who Derry have missed for the bulk of those league campaigns.

In their defence, Karl McKaigue, Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers and Paul McNeill will probably make up four of the defensive slots for the Championship.

Add in Michael Bateson, Kevin Johnston and Liam McGoldrick and you have a proper defence, especially when you consider Karl McKaigue keeping Ronan O'Neill, Sean Johnston and Jerome Johnston scoreless from play through the Ulster club campaign.

Still, it might be easier for some to accept the language of catastrophe.

Big day ahead for Donnelly

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Huge game: Derry U-20 manager Mickey Donnelly
 

The management of St Ronan's of Lurgan is listed in every match programme as Donnelly, along with joint-managers Colm McAree and Davy Wilson, the man who should be the footnote of the Armagh success story of the '90s and '00s given his crucial intervention in an early round of the 1999 Ulster Championship.

But Donnelly is the most experienced of these managers, having won county Championships with Mayobridge, reaching county finals with Ardboe and All-Ireland finals with the Tyrone minor team.

Right now, he is a busy man. As well as overseeing a huge amount of the underage development work in his own club Aghaloo O'Neill's, he is in his first season as manager of the Derry Under-20 side and has picked up league titles in his current role as Ballybay manager in Monaghan.

But it is in harnessing the potential of St Ronan's, an amalgamation school with 1,400 pupils, that has represented his most high-profile achievement to date.

He leads his team into battle at 2pm today in Abbotstown against Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne of Dingle.

Along with Fitzmaurice on the line is former Kerry midfielder Tommy Griffin.

They won the Hogan Cup title in 2014 and 2015, and since then St Brendan's of Killarney have taken ownership.

The last time the Hogan Cup spent any time outside of Kerry was with the great St Patrick's Maghera side of 2013, with Conor Glass and others.

And all that, despite the Dingle school boasting no more male pupils than just over 200.

How can that be? One theory suggested to me this week is because Kerry are reputedly doing more development squad work than any other county in Ireland - with twice-weekly sessions.

This all follows, of course, the famous line offered by one prominent pundit that the Kerry production line had ground to a halt, a proclamation reached after a few, early, iffy league performances by the county senior team.

If so, then it certainly is one in the eye for those that are openly stating development squads is somehow at the root of Derry's problems right now.

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