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Derry's bid to turn corner at last gets massive boost

 

Welcome back: Kevin Johnston’s return is a major boost for Derry manager Damian McErlain as he attempts to improve the county’s fortunes
Welcome back: Kevin Johnston’s return is a major boost for Derry manager Damian McErlain as he attempts to improve the county’s fortunes
John Campbell

By John Campbell

It has become almost traditional that Derry should embark on a new season weighed down by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune before a ball is kicked.

Injuries to key players, the unavailability of others, an infusion of apathy and, more latterly, Slaughtneil's ongoing alliance with the more aristocratic clubs have tended to see the Oak Leaf side shuffle rather than stride into a fresh campaign.

Such has been Derry's acquaintance with misfortune it is now deemed almost too good to be true that once-familiar faces are back on board - seven Slaughtneil players are primed for duty, a battery of Under-20 starlets are beginning to set their sights on inter-county recognition and a whiff of optimism is in the air.

For once, the minus factors - the absence of Brendan Rogers through injury, the decision of Ruairi Mooney and Liam McGoldrick to go travelling and the retirement of Mark Lynch - are downplayed by a welcome handful of positives.

Little wonder, then, that manager Damian McErlain has considerable enthusiasm for anticipating his team's opening match in the Dr McKenna Cup next Thursday against Tyrone at Celtic Park (8pm).

"It's encouraging to have a good squad together for the start of the year. This should help us to maybe get a bit of early impetus. I have always maintained that there are good players in Derry," states McErlain.

With Thomas Mallon and Kevin Johnston back in the fold, Terence O'Brien expected to return after his stint with UUJ, the re-emergence of combative Ballinderry defender Gareth McKinless and Emmett Bradley poised to replicate the majestic form he showed this term, McErlain finds himself already confronted by selection options - something he has not experienced too often since taking charge.

But for all that, the Magherafelt man is still burdened by pressure. Derry's league campaign floundered on a reef of disappointment earlier this year and their championship involvement was what has become par for the course - short and not so sweet.

Yet McErlain can take confidence from heartening noises emanating from within the county. When people as diverse as long-term injury victim Rogers, 1993 All-Ireland winning captain Henry Downey and county secretary Danny Scullion - who just recently received a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to the GAA from the Ulster Council - offer upbeat views on Derry's potential progress, it is a sign of changing times.

Rogers, who represents Derry in both hurling and football, suggests that the Oak Leaf county will be in a position to put its best foot forward starting next Thursday.

"I think Derry can now start as a complete squad and the McKenna Cup will present us with a competitive environment," states Rogers. "The best way we could start the year is with a win over Tyrone and this would provide the spur to make a real impact in January."

Henry Downey, meanwhile, does not want to remain as the only Derry player ever to have taken delivery of the Sam Maguire Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

"Just last month we celebrated the silver anniversary of our 1993 All-Ireland triumph and, as I looked around the attendance, I formed the belief that there is plenty to be excited about over the next 25 years," insists Downey.

"There is a lot of talent in Derry and I hope that it comes to the fore in the most meaningful way possible in 2019."

And it's certain that no one would share in success with more enthusiasm than secretary Scullion, who has spent his adult life in the service of his native county.

If Derry are not exactly over the moon about their imminent campaign in Division Four, Scullion makes a pertinent point in this connection.

"I believe that playing in Division Four will allow the manager to blood some new players who hopefully will not be out of their depth and might indeed be able to get a toe-hold in the side. I think there are positives going forward," states Scullion.

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