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McErlain hopes Bell can ring out a trophy bonus for Derry

Derry v Leitrim, NFL Division Four final: Croke Park, Saturday, 3pm

On song: Ryan Bell is fit once again and will be a major positive for Derry at Croke Park
On song: Ryan Bell is fit once again and will be a major positive for Derry at Croke Park
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Derry manager Damian McErlain had good reason to curse his luck when university calls and injuries robbed him of a rich seam of talent while the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup was being played out in January.

Indeed, McErlain's plight was such that he was forced to blood a number of U20 players earlier than had been anticipated.

Slowly but surely, however, familiar faces returned, a level of consistency was achieved and the upshot is that when McErlain sits down tonight to finalise his line-up for Saturday's Allianz Football League Division Four final against Leitrim at Croke Park (3pm) he will have a generous hand from which to deal.

He may have rung the changes for last Saturday's seventh straight league win against Wexford but experimentation will take a back seat for what is now the second meeting with Leitrim in a fortnight.

When the sides locked horns a fortnight ago Derry won by 2-16 to 1-12 and now McErlain is hoping for a repeat performance at Headquarters which would yield a rare piece of silverware.

Indeed, the Oak Leafs have had no cause to trouble the trophy engravers in recent years and while McErlain is far from getting carried away with his team's progress, nonetheless he has grounds for believing that there are better days ahead.

In this context, he sees Saturday's game as another important stepping stone in the build-up to the all-important Ulster Championship preliminary round tie against Tyrone on May 12.

The return of Ryan Bell and Benny Herron to the attack could hardly be more opportune, while Shane McGuigan and Enda Lynn are also set to add firepower up front.

Emmett Bradley and Chrissy McKaigue are on standby to drive the team on from midfield, while Thomas Mallon could get the goalkeeping role with Brendan Rogers expected to return to the defence.

It was after sustaining ligament damage in early January that Bell was forced out of action but the manner in which he struck nine points against Wexford should see him handed a pivotal role on Saturday.

The Ballinderry clubman has strode the inter-county scene in style in the past but has been conspicuous by his absence from the Oak Leaf side of late.

He looked to be moving into top gear in the McKenna Cup before incurring the ligament injury that has kept him sidelined of late but his return to action will undoubtedly bolster Derry's firepower.

Herron, too, is a noted finisher, a player who on even limited possession can still manage to tot up an impressive individual total of points - in short, the kind of player every manager likes to have at his disposal, particularly when the heat is on.

Leitrim, thriving under the baton of former Cavan boss Terry Hyland, are making no secret of their desire to deliver a big performance in what will be their first visit to Croke Park in 13 years - a fact of which McErlain is only too well aware.

And he is acutely conscious that his defence cannot afford to err on the side of generosity.

"While it's very encouraging to be going into this final with seven league wins under our belts, this guarantees us nothing in Croke Park," insisted McErlain.

"We have shown that we are capable of scoring freely but it's important that we keep scores out at the other end of the field. You have to do this if you hope to have any chance of winning against the better sides.

"Now that we have got this far we have to try and sustain our momentum because after this weekend the focus will switch to the Ulster Championship."

Leitrim boss Hyland believes that his team will not feel out of place in Division Three.

"I think the players are quite capable of stepping up and playing in Division Three," he insisted. "I think there'll be a bit of an upping of the pace and they might have to make their thought processes become faster.

"If we can develop that side of the game then I think that we'll have no problem in Division Three."

Skipper Michael McWeeney concedes that promotion and a return to Croke Park have been a long time in coming.

"It still hasn't sunk in but there are players here like Emlyn Mulligan and Gary Plunkett along with myself who have been round the block a long time and we thought we'd never see this day. But now thankfully it has come and we'll get a run out on the big stage against Derry which is what we really want," maintained McWeeney.

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