Football fever hits Derry
Their team may have missed out on an appearance in Saturday's Power NI Dr McKenna Cup final but Derry County Board officials can still contemplate a double bonus as the action steps up a gear.
The possibility of success in Division One of the Allianz League coupled with the promise that Ballinderry will launch a bold bid for the All-Ireland club title has whetted appetites to such an extent within Oak Leaf territory that a mild outbreak of football fever is discernible.
With Tyrone due to visit Celtic Park on Saturday week in a hugely attractive league opener and Ballinderry having warmly embraced Pairc Esler, Newry as the venue for their semi-final against Dublin aristocrats St Vincent's two weeks from then, Derry fans are contemplating a fantastic February.
Derry manager Brian McIver and his Ballinderry counterpart Martin McKinless share at least one important plus factor as they ponder their respective missions – neither has any major injury worries.
Indeed, McIver was provided with a welcome boost when cruciate ligament injury victim PJ McCloskey, out of action since sustaining his setback in the All-Ireland qualifier against Down last July, took a full part in the warm-up before Sunday's McKenna Cup semi-final against victorious Tyrone.
McCloskey, the fulcrum of the Derry side when John Brennan was in charge, may well see action before the end of the league, perhaps resuming his partnership with Patsy Bradley.
McCloskey's protracted recovery period as much as anything else persuaded McIver that midfield options were essential if progress is to be achieved and that's why right now Fergal Doherty, Emmet Bradley, Niall Holly, Mark Lynch and relative newcomer Peter Cassidy, son of former Oak Leaf boss Damian, are all equipped to man the engine-room.
And indeed it's Ballinderry who could provide McIver – he managed the club to All-Ireland glory in 2002 – with another strong candidate for the central area when their involvement in the All-Ireland club series ends.
Ryan Bell has matured into one of the most complete players in the province having underlined his versatility by imposing himself in the middle third as well as proving an adept target man when shunted into the attack.
Three of his Ballinderry colleagues – Gareth McKinless, Aaron Devlin and Ryan Scott – are also expected to link up with the county squad when their club commitments are fulfilled while others may also merit recognition.
Ballinderry boss McKinless will require his side to be at full strength to cope with a St Vincent's team that includes current Dublin All-Ireland winners Ger Brennan, Eamon Fennell, and Diarmuid Connolly as well as former county hero Tomas 'Mossie' Quinn.
Indeed, Quinn could represent the biggest threat to Ballinderry's hopes of reaching the final because of his consistently accurate free-taking, particularly from long distance.
While McKinless harbours considerable respect for the Dublin and Leinster champions, he believes that he has the playing resources capable of securing a passage into the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick's Day.
"It's a case of so far, so good. We have no real worries but it's very important that the players are kept in the best possible mental and physical shape," he says.
"This is a massive match for us but it's where we want to be and I have no doubt that the fans will get behind us in Newry," insists McKinless.
Derry chairman John Keenan, delighted that the new Owenbeg complex has already hosted inter-county games over the past month with considerable success, believes that the county is on the up – but he is taking nothing for granted in terms of short-term trophy success.
"I think we have to keep our feet on the ground," states Keenan.
"Derry fans have had to look on as teams like Tyrone, Armagh and Donegal have attained success.
"Now we would like to taste some of this for ourselves but we know that both at club and county level this will not be easily achieved.
"And it would be a wonderful boost for our county, too, if Ballinderry could win the All-Ireland club title. They have made great progress but the biggest challenges lie ahead."